In a 1990 letter written by the future Pope Francis and republished on ZENIT, then-Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio recalls fondly the “Catholic culture” that he experienced at age 13 in a Catholic school run by the Salesian Fathers.
Pope Francis writes that the Wilfrid Baron School of the Holy Angels in Ramos Mejia, Buenos Aires, prepared him “for life.” He remembers the night that one of the Fathers discussed the importance of praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary to know his vocation. After that, he never went to bed without praying.
The letter also recalls the night when one of the Fathers spoke to students about the death of his mother. Afterward, Pope Francis thought of death as something “natural” and not to fear.
The Holy Father writes that he grew in a love of purity and willingness to sacrifice, and he learned various hobbies and crafts. He was even instilled with a respect and love for the Pope!
Reflecting on what it was like to attend the school, Pope Francis describes its “Catholic culture”:
School life was a “whole.” I was immersed in a way of life prepared so that there wouldn’t be time to be lazy. The day passed as an arrow without time for one to be bored. I felt myself submerged in a world that, although prepared “artificially” (with pedagogic resources), had nothing artificial about it. The most natural thing was to go to Mass in the morning, as well as having breakfast, studying, going to lessons, playing during recreation, hearing the “Good night” of the Father Director. Each one was made to live different assembled aspects of life, and this created a conscience in me: not only a moral conscience but a sort of human conscience (social, ludic, artistic,etc.). Said differently: the School created, through the awakening of the conscience in the truth of things, a Catholic culture that was not a tall “bigoted” or “disoriented.”
Pope Francis attributes the “Catholic culture” of the school to the “faith” of the Salesians who ran the institution. He said that they “believed in Jesus Christ” and had the “courage to ‘preach’: with the word, with their life, with their work.”
“Everything was done with a meaning,” the Holy Father writes. “I learned there, almost unwittingly, to seek the meaning of things I learned to study in the School. The hours of study, in silence, created a habit of concentration, of a quite strong control of dispersion.”
“Never (in so far as I remember) was a truth negotiated,” he continued. “One could then play the rebel, the atheist… but imprinted deep down was the sense of sin: a truth that could not be thrown out, to make everything easier.”
Later on in life, Pope Francis heard that the Salesian Fathers were leaving some schools in the hands of the laity, partly because of a lack of vocations but also because the young Salesians were not attracted to teaching. Pope Francis asked himself in response: “[W]hen a work languishes and loses its flavor and its capacity to leaven the dough, is it not rather because Jesus Christ has been substituted by other options: psychological, sociological, pastoral?”
Catholic schools today can create a “Catholic culture” similar to what Pope Francis experienced at age 13, he believes. He writes: “[T]he Salesian cultural patrimony of 1949, this pedagogic patrimony, is capable of creating in its pupils a Catholic culture also in 1990, as it was able to create it in 1930.”
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