Fr Anthony Paganoni, Scalabrinian, continues this week with the second of a series of articles on a fascinating story, a long-running successful initiative in youth ministry in the province of Lombardy, Italy.
In the beginning there was St Philip Neri, the historical founder of the Oratorio (1515-1595). Then there came Maddalena Gabriella di Canossa, the foundress of the Canossian Sisters (1774-1835). Finally, John Bosco, the founder of the Salesians, came onto the scene (1815-1888).
In no time, the Oratorio came to be identified with youth ministry, a good way of keeping the dialogue going between the local parish community and its youth.
In spite of recent ups and downs, it remains the cornerstone of the Church’s presence among young people, particularly in the north of Italy.
“Leave him alone, don’t you see that he’s one of my friends?”, remarked the young St John Bosco to an over-zealous sacristan about to rebuke a delinquent adolescent at the back of the church.
It was December 8, 1841 in the church in Turin named after St Francis of Assisi.
The boy did not quit the church and a few of his friends, orphans without family, decided to join him. St John Bosco befriended them, giving them schooling and instruction in the faith. These are still the basic ingredients of the Oratorio’s program. Today the Oratorio caters for both boys and girls without distinction.
Earlier, in the middle of the 16th century, St Philip Neri had founded a religious community, with the two fold objective of studying the Bible and looking after youth.
In the early years of the 19th century, Magdalen of Canossa welcomed some street children into her convent, to the amazement of a good number of people, in the cities of Verona and Venice.
The oratorio which is usually a physical structure, sometimes but not always connected to the Church building, has been and still is the beehive of a local parish community for its youth.
There are about six thousand of them in the whole of Italy, with about 3000 in the region of Lombardy. It is not a question of providing structures or physical space for youth activities. It is far more.
Fr Maximilian Sabbadini, President of the Italian Oratori Forum (FOI), remarks: “Facilities such as a cinema, playing fields, recreation rooms and rooms for religious instruction are important, but young and mature leaders are at the heart of it.”
“And the youth respond. At the moment, there are a million and a half young people participating regularly in the Oratorio activities.”
In Italy there are about 250,000 volunteers continually and actively engaged in the oratori, contributing their time, energy and educational skills. “The mainstay of any oratorio is the daily presence of catechists, sports enthusiasts, people responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of facilities”.
And the youth respond. At the moment, there are a million and a half young people participating regularly in the Oratorio activities.
That reaches three million if we include the many who come and go, with variable degrees of commitment. This census reflects the placement of the FOI under the pastoral leadership of the Italian Bishops’ Conference.
The FOI brings together 40 leaders in the field, representing lay and religious associations running youth ministries. Its main purpose is to monitor developments within the vast number of oratori and facilitate the cross-fertilising of the experiences gained.
To be continued…