Rev. J. Christian Beretta, OSFS
July 29, 1989
January 27, 1996
May 31, 1997
Faculty, Salesianum School; Principal, Bishop Verot High School, Salesianum School.
Principal – Salesianum School – Diocese of Wilmington
Pope Francis has called for a jubilee Year of Mercy. How do you experience the mercy of God in your life?
I have rarely doubted that I am called to this life, through many ups and downs over the years. But I do marvel that God has called me in spite of my shortcomings, mistakes, and limitations. One of the truths I have come to believe is that there’s nothing I can do that can make God love me any more – or any less – than he already does right now. Sometimes, we need to stop racing around and just let that thought sink in. We need to be still and know that he is God… and that we are loved. I call that mercy, as well as proof God has a sense of humor.
With many experience of violence in the world and in our country, what is one way that you see Salesian gentleness as a healing agent?
Salesian gentleness challenges us to respond to the hatred, violence, and injustice of this world with the same love, mercy, and forgiveness God has shown to each of us. It’s all in the Gospel, of course: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek. As Francis de Sales notes, such gentleness is true strength. It takes a powerful person indeed to absorb evil and injury and continue to look for the good in this world, even in those who have wronged us directly. But that’s the only way healing is ever possible.
What is the most recent book you read? Who was the author, and what did you think of it?
Most recently, I’ve read The Icarus Deception, by Seth Godin. The author re-defined the purpose and importance of “art” beyond traditional definitions to address the vital role of creativity and innovation in leadership and society. It has huge implications for our educational ministry at Salesianum – the importance of creating a culture in the school in which our students will take the necessary risks in order to grow intellectually, spiritually, and morally. Also, a good friend recently gave me a graphic novel for my birthday called God Loves, Man Kills. It’s a Marvel Comic compilation of X-Men stories from the 1980’s by Chris Claremont that’s well known in comic book circles. I loved it. As with many X-Men stories, the plot revolves around the prejudice and injustice faced by those who are different. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief regarding the existence of mutants possessing superpowers, it’s very insightful and entertaining, particularly at a time in our own world when intolerance is on the rise.
What is the most challenging dimension of Salesian Spirituality for you?
Finding the balance between gentleness on the one hand, and our prophetic witness to the Gospel on the other, can be difficult to achieve. The radical tenacity and zeal of our founders and patrons has always been attractive to me, but we do not always highlight these virtues, perhaps because they can be more controversial, and possibly cost us friends, students, and parishioners. Most of us Oblates are comfortable being non-confrontational, but to Live Jesus is to embrace the counter-cultural nature of the Gospel. Our Salesian emphasis on humility, gentleness, and patience, taken out of context, can make it seem that Francis de Sales is advocating a kind of mellow, easygoing passivity. But that’s simply not the case. One of his most challenging quotes is also a spiritual call to arms: “God despises the peace of those he has destined for combat.” He’s not talking about violence, but he is talking about confronting evil and injustice with gentle strength. And the “strength” is just as important as the “gentle.” We are called to stand with the weakest and most vulnerable in our world: the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, the immigrant, the poor, and anyone who lacks power or status. As Pope Francis said, we are called to build bridges, not walls, and that takes a lot of effort, but also a willingness to gently but tenaciously look for the good in a world that so often only wants to take sides.
If you were pope, what would be one decision you would make to impact church in a life-giving way?
Of course, this won’t happen. But for the sake of this exercise, I would continue to work of Pope Francis, who has made a great effort to reorient the institutional church around a servant model. The mission of the church has always had two distinct elements: one, to faithfully preserve the tradition that has been handed on to us, and two, to effectively communicate and translate the Gospel to every new generation. There is always tension between these, since Peter held his keys and Paul went on his journeys, but both those heroes both stand in St. Peter’s Square. In a world weary of endless change, many hope for a time machine church that will take us back to simpler times. But amidst all the reminders of our glorious past at the Vatican, Francis is steadfastly focused on the future, and I respect that. For many young people, whatever they find appealing about the Gospel and other aspects of our faith, they do at times question the usefulness of such a slow evolving institution, and the continued existence of categories that once provided us with an identity. Whether the topic is sexuality and personhood, marriage and divorce, an all-male leadership, scandals and trust in the clergy, or contrast between the complexity of the institution and the simplicity of the Gospel, we have our work cut out for us to reach this generation. But it’s a challenge that keeps me sharp and constantly working to get better.
What gives you joy as an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales?
I truly believe that our spirituality and vision of the church is more vital and relevant to the church and the world today than ever. I feel we make a difference, and we reach people that others in the church may not. As St. Francis de Sales said, “We must believe that we are called to fulfill a special mission in this life that no one else can accomplish.” And we do it simply by being ourselves, and being that well. That simple message gives people hope.
If someone were to write a biography of your life, what title would you give it?
Tenui Nec Dimittam. It’s our Oblate motto, shared by Salesianum. “I have taken hold and will not let go.” I’ve always liked these words and they speak to the tenacity of our patrons and founders as well as their gentleness and humility. Every day we begin again and face our challenges with courage. I make my share of mistakes, and don’t always do or say the right thing. But I’m all in on this mission of ours, and I think people can recognize that about me in spite of my flaws. That fighting spirit, I hope, makes up for my weaknesses as a person and as a leader.
Which person taught you a lesson that is especially valuable to you? What was the lesson?
There are so many wonderful lessons I have learned and that have contributed to my growth. Back in my high school days at Paul VI, Bill Dougherty gave us all an understanding of the world and our place in it that is still the framework through which I understand God and my vocation, and that I try to impart to the students at Salesianum every day. Tom Hagan, who has lived and worked in Haiti for the last 25 years, taught me that we Oblates are called to “shatter categories” that divide our world by letting go of attachments, living outside our comfort zones, and most importantly, trusting more in God. And Jim Dever reminds me to pursue all these wonderful ideals while remaining firmly planted on the ground, and without taking myself too seriously in the process. After all, as Oblates, we are called to pursue lofty and extraordinary realities without forgetting that at the end of the day, God’s will is the same for all of us: to be who we are and be that well.