History of the
International Commission for
Salesian Studies

This year (2006) marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the International Commission for Salesian Studies (ICSS) by the directive of the 14th General Chapter of the Oblates  of St. Francis de Sales (1976).  This milestone provides a welcome opportunity to review the work of the ICSS over the past three decades, as well as to consider its future direction.

Origins

The General Chapters in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council were known as “chapters of renewal” because their work was in direct response to Vatican II’s call for the “appropriate renewal of religious life.” Perfectae Caritatis, the Council’s Decree on the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life, indicated that such renewal involved “two simultaneous processes: (1) a continuous return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original inspiration behind a given community and (2) an adjustment of the community to the changed conditions of the times” (n. 2).  Thus, the Council envisioned that religious communities were to go back to their foundational sources to retrieve their charism with a view to making it applicable and attractive to the contemporary world.  With this in mind, the General Chapter of 1972, held in Eichstätt, Germany, authorized the Superior General to establish a commission to develop a statute for an International Commission for Salesian Studies for presentation at the next General Chapter. The then Superior General, Fr. William Ward, appointed Frs. Anton Nobis, Daniel Gambet, and Alexander Pocetto to accomplish this task. Their work was approved by the 14th General Chapter (1976).

 The Statute approved by the Chapter describes the scope of Salesian Studies as those “relative to St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal, Father Brisson, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, the De Sales Secular Institute and the entire Salesian family.” Moreover, the scope of Salesian Studies is defined in terms of three concentric circles:  the innermost core or circle is basic research; from this center radiate two wider circles—the popular, which “[makes] the findings of basic research available to people not interested in scientific research, but interested in knowing and living Salesian doctrine,” and the pastoral, which includes “people who are actively engaged in disseminating Salesian thought and spirit through the press, the media, preaching, and spiritual direction” (ICSS Statute, I).

The principal vehicle for promoting Salesian Studies on a worldwide level was an International Commission consisting of three Oblates, “preferably experts in Salesian Studies,” each representing the major languages of the Congregation:  “One of them is to represent the English-speaking areas, one the French and Italian, one the German and Dutch” (ICSS Statute, II.1).  Members of the Commission are appointed by the Superior General after consultation with the respective Provinces and Regions.

Historical Retrospective:  1976-2005

Fr. Anton Nobis of the Austrian-South German Province was appointed as the first chairman of the ICSS. He was succeeded by Fr. James Langelaan (1985-92), who was a charter member of the Commission. The third chairman was  Fr. Alexander Pocetto, who served from 1992 until 2002, and was succeeded by Fr. Joseph Chorpenning.  Other Oblates who have served on the ICSS are Frs. Bernard Baussand, Jean Brachet, Michel Tournade, Jean Gayet, Konrad Eßer, Herbert Winklehner, and Dirk Koster.

To encourage Oblates to work on projects in Salesian Studies, the ICSS Statute made provision for the awarding of modest grants.  Applications for these grants are submitted to and evaluated by the ICSS, whose recommendations are then forwarded to the Superior General and his Council for approval. Over the years, a number of grants have been funded that fit into one of the three concentric circles set forth in the Statute of the ICSS.  These grants helped finance projects such as the publication of the Jahrbuch für salesianische Studien of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Salesianische Studien founded by the Austrian-South German Province and the Salesian Scholars Seminar initiated by Fr. Joseph Power. Other grants provided support for multimedia projects that could be used in a variety of ways to promote and teach Salesian Studies.

On its own initiative, the ICSS translated and published for private distribution in 2000 the groundbreaking scholarly study, by the Congregation’s archivist, Fr. Roger Balducelli, of the Good Mother’s cause for beatification, which masterfully refutes  Fr. Watrigant’s baseless charges. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the episcopal ordination of St. Francis de Sales as well as the 125th anniversary of his declaration as a Doctor of the Church, the ICSS published the booklet Leadership in the Salesian Tradition in 2002. Yet another initiative undertaken by the ICSS is the sponsorship and preparation of a volume of original essays by Salesian scholars to commemorate the 4th centenary of the initial meeting in 1604 of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal: Human Encounter in the Salesian Tradition.  The response to the call for submissions exceeded all expectations.  This volume, containing twenty essays in the three languages of the Congregation (English, French, and German), will make available a wealth of information and material, together with a great variety of methodological approaches, for reflection and dissemination at several levels: the scholarly, the popular, and the pastoral.  It will be published in 2006. 

In 1997, the General Council expressed concerns about the nature and scope of some of the grants being sought, and advised the ICSS to revise its Statute to limit the number of years for funding ongoing projects to three and to make sure there was not an overemphasis on the Internet and electronic means for accomplishing its mission. Revisions reflecting these concerns, as well as other changes in keeping with the way the ICSS actually functioned, were made in the ICSS Statute.  In 2005, the ICSS proposed that several amendments and deletions be made to its Statue, which were subsequently approved by the General Council.

One of the important responsibilities of the ICSS is to collect and disseminate information on “institutions, activities, studies and plans inside and outside the Congregation” in the area of Salesian Studies worldwide (ICSS Statue, III.2.a). With this purpose in mind, Fr. Pocetto, as editor, and ably assisted by Frs. Winklehner and Gayet, inaugurated in November 1997 the publication of the ICSS Newsletter, which is translated into French, German, and, more recently, Spanish and Portuguese. Technical and design assistance was generously provided by Mr. Thomas McNamara, director of publications at De Sales University. 

When Fr. Chorpenning became chairman of the ICSS and consequently editor of the Newsletter, its design and printing began to be done at Saint Joseph’s University Press in Philadelphia, where he also serves as editorial director.  Beginning in January 2004, the ICSS Newsletter was given a new design, format, and style.  Each issue now has a lead essay, in addition to the usual news items from throughout the Salesian world, as well as other features, such as Salesian bibliography and the occasional book review.  The guiding idea behind the lead essay is that it presents a reflection on a substantial, and perhaps neglected or unexplored, theme of our Salesian heritage that is both grounded in scholarship and accessible to a wide general audience so as to nurture and support those engaged in the popular and pastoral dissemination of our Salesian charism.  With characteristic graciousness and generosity, Fr. Pocetto, who played such a pivotal role in the inception and development of the ICSS over so many years and was the Newsletter’s founding editor, accepted his successor’s invitation to serve as the Newsletter’s News Editor.

Prior to the publication of the ICSS Newsletter, a website was developed by Fr. Pocetto in 1995, with the assistance of the expertise and extensive computer facilities of De Sales University. The site was one of the first to promote Salesian Studies on a worldwide basis.  In 2003, Fr. Winklehner, a member of the ICSS, assumed the responsibilities of webmaster.  Building on the pioneering work of Fr. Pocetto, he re-designed the website, making it even more attractive and user-friendly, and does an outstanding job of maintaining it.  The ICSS website makes available a great many Salesian resources (bibliographies, a virtual library of several works of St. Francis de Sales in various languages, articles, archived newsletters, music, and iconography), as well as links to numerous Oblate and related Salesian sites. The Annecy edition of the Oeuvres is currently in the process of being added to this website. Recently, Fr. Winklehner has launched a website dedicated to Fr. Brisson (www.louisbrisson.org) that will eventually contain the edition millénaire of the works of the founder of the De Sales Oblates.  By means of these initiatives, Salesian Studies has become part of the electronic age as it had not previously been, and all under the auspices of the ICSS.

The ICSS Enters Its 4th Decade

As the ICSS commences its fourth decade, it will continue to communicate, by means of its biannual Newsletter, “what exists and has been carried out” (ICSS Statute, II.3.a) in the world of Salesian scholarship to the Congregation and beyond, to lend financial support to Salesian projects carried out by De Sales Oblates, and to initiate Salesian scholarly projects on behalf of and for the benefit of the Congregation and the wider world of Salesian scholarship to an even greater degree.  Many religious orders and congregations have a formally sponsored body that leads its efforts to mine its spiritual patrimony by sponsoring and promoting scholarly research into its primary sources.  The ICSS fulfills this function for our Congregation, as well as for much of the wider Salesian tradition.

 In its work, the ICSS is guided by its Statute, as well as by the principles of the Salesian charism itself.   For example, the primacy of human friendship and the relational in the Salesian spiritual vision suggests a fresh and more grounded way of understanding the dynamic and vital relationship that must necessarily exist among the three concentric circles of Salesian Studies. Salesian research in primary sources takes place within an international community of scholars that is composed of both Oblates and non-Oblates.  Moreover, this is not research simply for the sake of research; rather, the new insights brought forth by Salesian scholars working in the primary sources nourish and help to keep vital the dissemination of the Salesian charism on the practical and pastoral levels, which otherwise are in danger of becoming stale, even stagnant.  Just as great care is taken to foster and support the popular and pastoral dissemination of the charism, there must be an equally firm commitment to promoting research into the primary sources of our Salesian heritage and patrimony.

Another hallmark of Salesian spirituality that guides the ICSS is careful attention to “our times,” to discerning the presence of the hand of Divine Providence in the ordinary events and circumstances of daily life.  As we behold “our times,” we discover that, over the next sixteen years, no fewer than five major Salesian anniversaries will offer singular, “once-in-a-century,” opportunities to disseminate our Salesian charism:  in 2008, the centenary of the death of Fr. Brisson; in 2009, the 4th centenary of the publication of the Introduction to the Devout Life; in 2010, the 4th centenary of the foundation of the Visitation Order; in 2016, the 4th centenary of the publication of the Treatise on the Love of God; and, in 2022, the 4th centenary of the death of St. Francis de Sales.  Accordingly, it is more than appropriate that these historic anniversaries be the focal points of the initiatives undertaken by the ICSS over the coming years, as indicated in the Five-Year Strategic Plan (2006-2011) formulated and adopted by the ICSS at its meeting in Rome in April 2005.

The Statute of the ICSS, as well as its Five-Year Strategic Plan may be accessed on the ICSS website: >>> Statute.