More than Just Football: Infusing Salesian Youth Spirituality through Youth Group Ministry

Ajoy Fernandes sdb

The Spiritual Tradition of Don Bosco and Salesian Youth Spirituality

Don Bosco has bequeathed to us a simple, but rich spiritual heritage. The spiritual tradition he has passed on has become a way of life for many Salesians and young people who have passed out through the portals of Salesian institutions.

· Through moments of prayer as well as youth ministry, Don Bosco constantly maintained a close union with God.

· By patiently pursuing his apostolic goals amidst trials and obstacles, he showed us how we could ‘carry our daily crosses’ and live life with determination, joy and optimism.

· He insisted that his students do their daily duties in an extraordinary way.

· All his efforts were geared towards making his boys honest citizens and good Christians.

Youth from all over the Salesian world gathered together in Rome in the year 2000. Drawing inspiration from Don Bosco and the spiritual tradition they saw lived out in different Salesian institutions, they crystallized Salesian Youth Spirituality into seven propositions. Three of these elements have a self-reference; three have an ‘other-directed’ orientation; and one is centered on God.


1. Celebrate life in happiness (Joy and Optimism)

2. Fulfill daily duties well

3. Accept the Cross (A ‘death’ that leads to Life)


4. Live out one’s vocation and mission in life

5. Participate in the life of the Church

6. Participate in Social and Political activity


7. Live constantly united with God

Salesian Institutions: School, Home, Church and Playground

Don Bosco wanted every Salesian institution to be a School, Home, Church and Playground. These are symbolic terms that go far beyond the institutions they literally represent. These four aspects facilitate holistic human growth as they represent the development of the Intellect (Intelligence Quotient), Heart and Emotions (Emotional/Relational Quotient), Spirit (Spiritual Quotient – S.Q.) and Body (Physical Quotient – P.Q.). The seven elements of Salesian Youth Spirituality (SYS) either encompass, or permeate these four dimensions.

Living out Salesian Youth Spirituality through Groups

Youth spontaneously team up with their peers. In addition, most institutions accomplish their goals and tasks through group activity. Groups dedicated to liturgical animation, sports, music, intellectual, cultural, or social activity are part and parcel of any Salesian institution. These groups provide an excellent opportunity to live out as well as pass on the Salesian Youth Spirituality. The SYS could sometimes be passed on through explicit instruction. However, SYS is most effectively communicated, when it is lived out in concrete ways through the life of different groups. I have had an opportunity to pass on the SYS to a group of band players. However, I will illustrate how elements of SYS can be passed on through a group as seemingly ‘mundane’ as a football team when we look at youth ministry through the lens of the four dimensions: School, Home, Church and Playground.

Salesian Youth Spirituality: A Football Team Format


Schooling in its broadest sense has to do with orienting, shaping or training the mind. Thus, much schooling can be done even within the context of a sports group. This can happen on the playground where education focuses on learning the rules, skills and sense of the game. All this calls for intelligence and focus, and discipline demanded by steady and regular practice. When all these are pursued with diligence, they help concretely live out one element of SYS—‘doing one’s daily duties well’.

When in a spirit of true sportsmanship players are taught to respect their fellow-players as well as opponents; to maintain their position on the field; and to play by the rules of the game, they are schooled in a vital lesson in life: indulging in fair-play and respecting others’ boundaries. This is a way of evangelizing on the playground. Remotely, it paves the way for making persons respectful and honest citizens.

Persisting through regular exercise and practice schedules makes demands on one’s commitment; and may be physically tiring and painful. However, painful drilling helps develop stamina and skills that enable players to handle a game with ease. Amidst it all, when players concretely experience the progress they have made, they come to realize that their painstaking efforts help them develop into skillful sportspersons. Implicitly, they learn a bigger lesson in life — that carrying one’s daily ‘cross’ inevitably leads to small ‘resurrections’—expressions of a more abundant ‘life’.

Teams do not always win. Amidst losses, when players continue to give of their best while orienting themselves towards victory, they adopt a mental stance that helps develop a healthy optimism.

Young players often aspire to become like the football ‘stars’ they admire. Talking about football as a professional choice opens up an avenue for getting young persons to reflect on their place and calling in life.

Thus, schooling on the playground focuses on learning the skills, sense, and rules of the game; developing discipline through consistent and regular practice; imbibing the true spirit of sportsmanship; optimistically pursuing victory while struggling with losses; and discerning one’s calling in life. Implicitly it helps players imbibe vital elements of SYS such as respecting other persons, doing daily duties well, carrying one’s daily cross, and living life optimistically.


‘Home’ is a symbol for the relational or interpersonal dimension of one’s personality. Many interpersonal lessons are learned on the playground.

When students learn to respect the positions of others on the playground, and learn to play as a team, they live out a vital exercise in cooperation. Cooperation and understanding on the playground is then easily transferred to real-life situations.

· When a team follows the directives of their coach, they learn to open themselves to the guidance of more experienced individuals. Implicitly, they are schooled in a healthy respect for authority.

· When the more-talented players help and support the less-talented players, they develop a healthy sense of concern, and hone their nurturing skills.

· Players who learn to care for and maintain their grounds, develop a sense of healthy belonging and responsibility, and implicitly learn to care for their environment.

· While teams aim to win a game, success may not always come their way. Training children to rejoice in success without growing arrogant and to handle failure without breaking down is an important lesson for life. A sense of group responsibility and support can contribute towards this end. Implicitly, children learn to rejoice with each other amidst success, and to support one another in moments of failure and difficulty in real life situations.

· Many outstanding players have been known to reach out to the needy through some form of social activity. In doing so, they extend the bounds of their home beyond the playground. Players of a team can express this in various ways such as playing for a cause, coaching other children in their school or neighborhood, or refereeing at a class or school tournament. These little exercises help them develop a healthy sense of altruism and service. They implicitly learn to be contributing citizens of the world.

Through these little lessons in life, children learn to live meaningful and emotionally healthy lives. Implicitly, they are schooled in the art of participating in Church, humanitarian, social, and political activity—expressions of the spirit of a ‘Home’. This helps concretely pass on another element of SYS.


‘Church’ symbolically stands for the Spiritual Quotient that a person needs to develop. Martial Arts training in the East was often part of a spiritual quest. Trainees were taught to draw energy from a source beyond themselves. Martial Arts training was sometimes used as a means to dissolve the Ego and to attain enlightenment. Beginning a game with a prayer is a way of teaching players to draw strength from a source beyond themselves. Ending a game with a prayer of thanksgiving is a way of acknowledging that all that one learned during the practice session was a gift from God. Offering up one’s play to God as an expression of devotion helps develop continuous union with God. It is now an established fact that prayer helps better the quality of life. Within a prayerful context, the playground becomes a ‘sacred sanctuary’. This is easily noticed when players are engrossed in their game, where the ego is set aside, and the pursuit of victory takes a second place to selfless immersion in the game.


Players at a game develop physical strength and stamina. A well-oxygenated body makes for greater mental and emotional calm and focus in all aspects of life.

The playground is a place of play. When players manage to get beyond learning techniques to indulging in free play and expression, they are able to play creatively and with deep delight.

The attitudes developed through the three dimensions of School, Home and Church get deeply embedded not just in one’s mind, heart, and soul. They also get ‘stored’ in the body, making for calmness and serenity in life.


Lessons learned theoretically run the risk of becoming an ideology. An ideology that is proclaimed may not always be lived. Spirituality on the other hand is a way of life. Life is deeply interrelated; it does not consist of watertight compartments. The spirituality that is implicitly imbibed and learned experientially through a sports group will overflow to other aspects of the person’s life as well. When a group dedicated to sports learns much more than kicking a football, the playground becomes a school of life, a home, and a sacred sanctuary.

Groups can be of varied types: altar servers’ groups, a band, a choir; a recreational, theatre, study or social group. Group experience offers many opportunities for passing on the SYS. This article was intended to provide a starting point and an inspiration towards this end. Once an educator understands and imbibes the principles of SYS, he or she can pass it on through youth group ministry in inspired and creative ways.


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