On Friday evening, having managed to escape from school reasonably promptly, I travelled to Westminster Cathedral to visit the relics of Don Bosco. I am not someone with any Salesian connections and, though I have a professional interest in Catholic education, I have not really encountered Don Bosco as someone contributing to discussion about the nature of Catholic education. The visit of the relics has therefore prompted me to find out a bit more about his charism and the charism of the Salesians. These kind of events are very useful in that way! (Aside for those who know who my favourite saint is .... It was Edith Stein's beatification that first introduced me to her, too.)
The photo set for the Saturday at Westminster Cathedral gives a good impression of the arrangements for the pilgrimage. I thought the displays were very well done, and communicated a good sense of Don Bosco's life and charism. They included one giving an account of his "preventative method" for education, though the account linked on the relics tour website seems to downplay the extent to which the "Church" element of this involved encouraging young people to attend Mass and the sacrament of confession. It is also worth looking at the account of the "Dream of Roses", linked at the same webpage under the heading "A Bed of Roses", for what it suggests about Don Bosco's Marian devotion. The hosting was well organised. I visited the displays and prayed at the relic just before the 5.30 pm Mass, at which the celebrating priest (not a Salesian) gave a short but informative account of the relic and of Don Bosco's life and mission. The numbers at Mass were well above the typical. I think this blog post gives a good sense of what it was like to visit on Friday. I was particularly struck by the availability of confession - there were five priests available at the time of my visit, three in an cordoned off area of the main body of the Church and two in the confessionals. As the blog post suggests, this does very much reflect the charism of Don Bosco, who encouraged regular confession and communion for the young people at his "Oratory" in Turin.
From the educational point of view, I have become aware of three aspects of Don Bosco's practice that appear noteworthy. He opposed the use of corporal punishment - in the 19th century, well before such opposition became the norm. He also had a strong sense of accompanying young people at their play, holding the view that, to make young people feel valued, it was important to take an interest in what they themselves valued. And thirdly, though he encouraged regular confession and Mass attendance, he felt that the participation of his young students should be voluntary. These three aspects do offer pointers for an approach to education in a Catholic school today.
The relics tour website now contains a "Liturgical Statement", which I expect is a response to the reports of dance at Mass during the visit of the relics to Liverpool Cathedral (here and elsewhere). The statement is unconvincing in one respect, though it does express in many respects an authentic Salesian charism. The loyalty to the Holy See referred to at the beginning of this statement is enshrined in the Constitutions of the Salesian order, as is the devotion to Our Lady Help of Christians characteristic of Don Bosco. Don Bosco certainly used his imagination in connecting to the young people he encountered (he learnt tricks, for example, to use with them), and I can see that that might well have extended to the way in which he prayed with them, but that does not really offer a justification for inserting into the celebration of Mass a form that does not really belong there. Outside of the celebration of the Liturgy properly so called (and the evening closing liturgy on Friday at Westminster Cathedral would come under this heading) there is a legitimate freedom.
A final thought. The numbers attending the Masses of the pilgrimage of the relics of Don Bosco, and visiting the relics themselves, appear to have been nowhere near those taking part in the visit of the relics of Therese of Lisieux. That being said, I believe the organisers of the pilgrimage will be justified in feeling that the numbers that have visited, and the interest created by the visit, make the whole exercise very worthwhile. I certainly gained a lot from my taking part in the visit.
UPDATE: Another useful reflection on a pilgrimage to visit the relics is here, and sheds some light on my penultimate paragraph: Transfixed by a saint's gaze.