New Approaches to Formation

Ashley Miranda sdb

Formation is a topic that always generates a lot of heated debate. The recently held Seminar on the Personalization of Formation is a tangible testimony of this truth. It was wonderful and heartening to see how passionately and enthusiastically different confreres expressed their views about the current state of formation and what needs to be done to set things right.

One viewpoint that comes up repeatedly whenever formation is discussed, be it in a formal setting like that of a seminar or at informal table conversations, is the one that holds that the current crop of young Salesians is just not up to the mark. There seems to be something lacking in them and they don’t simply match up in terms of commitment, hard work, love for the young, spirit of self sacrifice, openness to learning, care for the community, good manners, and spirit of faith. Those who express this view may have good reasons to do so but letting our experience of a few young Salesians colour our attitude to all of them does not help us. This attitude is neither Salesian nor helpful. Surely, we have got to be honest but that doesn’t mean that we must let ourselves become slaves of pessimism. Salesian honesty is an honesty that is backed by a strong faith, not only in God but also in our confreres, especially our young confreres. If we believe in their goodness and help them believe in their own potentialities we can make things happen; we can bring about not only change but revolution.

When it comes to formation, as we can only expect, there are many different approaches. We are all Salesians and share in the same charism but as human beings we have our own temperaments, our sensibilities, our perspectives on life, and our own particular relationship skills. These particularities are bound to show up in the way we approach formation. Yes, there is the Ratio to guide us but all directives need to be interpreted and given flesh in real life situations. In the attempt to do so differences are bound to arise. They are not altogether unhealthy provided, of course, we do not work at cross purposes. Provided we do not seek to dismantle, because of our own pettiness, what has been built up in some previous stage.

One approach to formation is the top-down, ‘Do as you are told’ approach. In this approach the formators have the central place. They know what is good for those in formation. They have the overall vision and they give directions which the one in formation is expected to follow. Here the focus is on conformity, on following directives to the letter, on obedience, on accepting without asking too many questions. In theory, very few see virtue in this approach, but in practice, this approach is quite popular. It is an approach that both formators and those in formation are quite comfortable with. Provided formators are not too whimsical and inconsistent, this approach has the advantage of clarity. Those in formation know clearly what is expected of them. Formators too have clear criteria on which to evaluate those in formation.

Another approach to formation is one that seeks to test ‘gold in fire’. The logic is that in order to get people to grow we need to keep them on their toes and call a spade a spade. Salesian life is not easy after all and if we can toughen up our young Salesians early in life then by the time there are in active ministry hopefully they will have it within them to face the challenges of the aposolate. This approach does strengthen some, but when taken to the extreme, breaks some others. Of those who are broken, some opt out of the Salesian life, while others stay but they tend to be bitter and carry their bitterness into all their relationships and into everything they do.

Yet another approach is one that seeks to create a ‘loving supportive family’ in which the young Salesian feels affirmed and accepted and helped to grow. Understood wrongly, this approach could do a great deal of harm. Excessive mollycoddling and treating young Salesians with kid gloves may only serve to weaken them and insulate them from the real world. Overprotection from the challenges and crosses of life may end up creating big babies who need constant and excessive affirmation to be able to do anything. If not constantly acknowledged these young Salesians could begin to sulk and act like victims. Love and affection must foster freedom and responsibility. Love that smothers and creates narcissists is something we need to be wary about. A fourth approach is that which makes the ‘rule supreme’. Every initiative, every decision, every strategy is guided by the rules. The mantra is “fit in or ship out”. The young Salesian is evaluated on his ability to follow rules, or more precisely on how adept he is at not breaking them. While it is true that rules are for our good and they ensure to a certain extent fidelity to our charism, an approach that deifies rules ends up producing Salesians who are either too rigid or too smart for their own good and the good of the province and its apostolate.

One could speak of other approaches as well, but we could bypass them for now and go right away to consider two approaches which are very much the need of our times. One that stresses ‘personalization’ and the other that seeks to foster ‘integrated immersion.’ Both these approaches go hand in hand. In fact, one calls for the other and vice versa.

The ‘personalization’ approach is one that places first responsibility for formation on the young Salesian himself. No one can form him; at best formators and others can contribute to creating an ambient conducive to personal responsibility and formation. But it is the young Salesian who in the ultimate analysis has to take personal responsibility for his growth and life understood as ‘discipleship’; as a close following of Jesus Christ. The presupposition here is that the one in formation may be young but he is not a child incapable of making decisions or taking responsibility for his growth. The formators do have an important role in this approach but not as people who have the difficult task of taking care of irresponsible and malicious boys. Instead formators are called to see themselves as mentors entrusted with the delicate task of guiding conscientious and motivated young men eager to live the Salesian life to the full and give themselves wholeheartedly to the mission. In the personalization approach the young Salesian is helped to view himself as one who is called personally by the Lord. This call is one that invites a personal ‘yes’ on the part of the young Salesian. No one else can say ‘yes’ to the Lord in his stead. The ‘personalization approach’ focuses on the inner world of the young Salesian. The one in formation is helped to look inside himself, to accept himself honestly, to work on his weaknesses and immaturity, to build up his convictions, to strengthen his conscience, to act with personal convictions and to assume responsibility for his own growth.

The ‘Immersion’ approach is one that requires a close inter-collaboration between formation guides and those in formation. Going beyond concepts of ‘us’ and ‘them’, formation guides introduce those in initial formation to concrete life experiences that expose them to the pains and difficulties of the poor and the young, that challenge, that raise questions, that call for a response on our part as Salesians. This could happen through means of study seminars, symposiums, exposure camps, live-in experiences, etc. during the years of formal studies in the initial years of formation. Village or slum experiences are not something new. They have great formative value, provided however, they are followed by formal moments of reflection and introspection. An experience that is not backed by reflection is not an experience at all. When reflection is absent, formators and those in formation tend to make the mistake of thinking that because they have spent a few days in villages or slums they really know what the poor are going through. Without reflection these experiences become just another ‘feather in our caps’ or a ‘trophy in our cupboards’.

In the ‘immersion’ approach to formation care is taken not to insulate the one in formation [in our case the young Salesian] from the cares and the vagaries of life. Formal formation structures are required and serious study may also require a certain isolation from the hustle and bustle of the street. But immersion would require that the young Salesian is abreast with what is happening around him, in the state and the country. He needs to know not only what is happening to young people but also to all categories of people in general. Sometimes, the extent to which not only our young Salesians but also we who are older are oblivious of what is happening in the world around us is really alarming. In our formation settings especially, we have got to foster good habits of keeping in touch with the news in the papers, television and other contemporary media. We have got the encourage the habit of serious reading, not only on issues of academic interest but also those that have political, social, religious and ethical significance. I am of the view that the ‘immersion approach’ needs that our young Salesians are given the reasonable opportunity to manage finances – both their own and that of the house they belong to. They need to know that money does not come easy and that rising costs usually mean a decreased spending capacity. If they are really given the opportunity to be involved in the budgeting of limited resources in a house and making decisions on how to spend money, I am sure we would have less wastage of food, better care of community belongings and greater conscientiousness when it came to personal expenditure.

In addition to what has been said so far, I think, the ‘immersion approach’ to formation would require that young Salesian be given not only information about but also the actual possibility of participating to the extent possible in the whole gamut of initiatives characteristic of the apostolate of our province. The Salesian apostolate has undergone an evolution over these years in terms of the people we reach out to and also in the kinds of work we are involved in. But many view, practical training for example, as a time of assisting boys in the dormitory, study hall and at games in a boarding setting. Assisting, understood as ‘being qualitatively present’ is something that our charism demands not only from the practical trainee but from all of us. And if our charism has evolved to included settings that go beyond the almost mandatory boarding in each Salesian house of the past days then formation at the stage of practical training but include experiences besides that of keeping the order in formal boarding setups.

By way of conclusion, I would just like to say a few words on the rationale behind the ‘immersion approach’. The ‘immersion approach’ draws its inspiration from the great truth of the incarnation. Out his great love for us, Jesus the son of God, chose to become one like us. Instead of loving us from afar, he immersed himself totally in the drama of human life. This immersion expressed itself in his amazing ability to sense what exactly was happening in people’s hearts, his sensitivity to their anxieties and struggles and his immense compassion for the last and the lost. Formation that combines ‘immersion’ with ‘personalization’ would make a deep impact not only in the lives of our young Salesians but also on the quality of the life and apostolate of the province as a whole.

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