As the work of Don Bosco spread far and wide, beyond countries and continents, he found himself in need of helpers to continue the kind of works he had started. Some of the first helpers who came along were priests; they dedicated their time to the religious instruction of the boys of the oratory, animated the games and preached recollections and heard confessions. The most renowned of these priests were perhaps Fr. Cafasso and Fr. Borel. Nevertheless, there were many other people (not necessarily priests) who also gave to Don Bosco’s mission their time, talents and resources. One of the first two who helped Don Boscowas Mr. Joseph Galiardi, who owned a little store in Turin, and Count Cays from the Turin aristocracy.
An autonomous group or part of the Salesian Society?
Don Bosco’s idea for this group of helpers was to make of them ‘full-time members of his Society’. They were to live outside the religious community, but still be part of his Society; practicing poverty and obedience although not taking up the vows, doing at home and in society, what Don Bosco did in the Oratory.
It was in 1864 when in the second article of his rule he wrote: ‘they do not make a vow, but try to put into practice that part of the rule which is compatible with their age, state and condition, which would mean that they would teach or promote catechism for the benefit of poor children, promote the distribution of good books; see that they have novenas, retreats, or other works of charity which are directed in particular way to the spiritual welfare of the young and the common people.” (Lappin, P.- ‘Give me Souls’, P. 269).
For Don Bosco, anyone who came along to help with his work on behalf of youth had almost instantly obtained membership to the Society. However, through years of discernment, the Church helped Don Bosco to have rather a different understanding of it altogether. The Association of the Salesian Co-operators, thus, was born; this group was born to be an independent association, though linked to the Salesian Society, in the same way the Third Order of the Franciscans is linked to the Franciscan Order.
Don Bosco intended to have the Association of the Salesian Co-operators divided into two branches: male and female, where the male branch will help Salesians directly; while the female would be working with the Salesian Sisters. In response to this idea, Pope Pius IX said to Don Bosco, “No, no!” interrupted the Holy Father, “don’t make any exceptions. Take them also into your association. Women have always played the most important part in the conversion of people. More than men! Exclude them and you will deprive yourself of your greatest help.” (P. 269) Thus, the Association is made up of both men and women; which in the context of Ethiopia is made up of mainly men -if statistics are to be taken into consideration. Don Bosco thought of men only because his mission was addressed to the education and evangelization of poor and abandoned boys, not girls. Therefore, he saw it more convenient for men to come along in his works in order to safeguard the morality of his institutions.
Neither in Don Bosco’s mind nor in the history of the Association is there any mention of ‘young co-operators’. The nature of the Association is to gather all men and women who desire a life of Christian perfection and apostolic commitment into one single group. Thus, the age situation of any of its members is never the basis for any special sub-group inside the Association.
Nature of their Apostolate
The Salesian Co-operator develops his/her life of commitment in three areas: personal witness to the Gospel, Christian animation of society and collaboration in the pastoral activities of the church imbued with the Salesian spirit.
Don Bosco saw the Salesian Co-operators different from the Third Orders, which normally aimed at Christian perfection by the practice of pious devotions. His co-operators were to engage in the transformation of civil society. They had all the means, time and opportunity to intervene in the public sphere, unlike his religious (priests and brothers) who because of their vows and religious status could not even think of it. But the Co-operators have all the possibilities to intervene in politics, culture, social work, communication, etc. animated by Christian values and the Salesian approach. Thus, the work of the Salesian Co-operators is not confined to the Salesian community.
In order to animate and keep co-operators in constant communication Don Bosco founded the Salesian Bulletin to spread good news but also to let people know of the achievements made in the work on behalf of youth.
Salesian Co-operators in Ethiopia
In the context of Ethiopia, we need to admit that much more has to be done in this regard. We are still at the beginning stages and some signs of hope can be seen here and there. In some of the houses these cooperators are also helped in some way to organize themselves into an association to be able to create job opportunities for the members. In some cases it has proved to be successful whereas in some other cases they have been proved a failure. In some houses, this movement is also known under the title of Friends of Don Bosco and they do contribute a great lot to the running of the various activities of the house.