26. The venerable don Eugenio Reffo educator of youths
The Venerable Fr. Eugenio Reffo spent his whole life for young people, acquiring a large practice of the educational mission and putting himself entirely at the service of the growth of children, training of teachers and preparation of the first members of the Congregation of St. Joseph. In addition to some basic ideas, especially Don Reffo offers practical advice, the result of his long experience. We are in the early days of the life of the Congregation, when St. L. Murialdo, Fr. Reffo and Fr. Costantino embodied together the Josephan educational charism in favour of the poor and abandoned youth.
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26. The venerable don Eugenio Reffo educator of youths (Tullio Locatelli)
A “born” educator
Fr. Reffo was a model educator and formator of educators; tasks that had him engaged all his life within the walls of the Artigianelli since 1861 and, at the same time, within the Congregation since its foundation in 1873. He had all the qualities to be rightfully so and his merit was to express them in their fullness, so fulfilling his vocation as Josephan religious priest, a confrere and a wise and zealous superior.
Fr. Reffo was aware of this mission and in it he saw a constitutive aspect of his donation to God in the priesthood and religious life. Raised in the school of Fr. Cocchi and Berizzi, he lived his being an educator with absolute dedication, total selflessness, generosity and limitless charity. He was fully convinced that all those children and young people, orphans, misfits, violent, at the mercy of every possible adventure could not be left alone, and that his life would be well spent for their human and religious salvation. It comes out from here the “stern” Fr. Reffo, demanding with himself, the confreres and the young people, because when it comes to saving even one soul, there is no time to lose and calculations to be done.
His “method” of education
In a letter to a local superior Fr. Reffo expressed the fundamental elements of his method of education: “Since then magna debetur puero reverentia (meaning: the greatest respect must be given to children), it is absolutely forbidden to beat them, pull their ears, give children humiliating names, mock their physical flaws, and do not ever let them jeer and insult each other. During recreation time then it is not enough to watch them in a passive way, it should be an active, educational watching, and the youth should see that you are willingly in the midst of them, and take part in their amusements.”
He reasoned more widely on education to help a confrere who was in difficulty. Having said that there was no need to wear dark glasses, because otherwise you could not see the good sides that each boy had and, on the other hand, you should not think that all youths were already naturally virtuous in everything, Fr. Reffo listed a series of practical recommendations, the result of his long experience. “1. Do not ever call these poor children rogues, you do them wrong even to think it. Try instead to convince yourself that they are better than you think, and you do not yet know them perfectly. 2. Take things slowly, both when reproaching and when punishing. Be convinced that it is better to forgive than to punish. 3. Try to induce the other confreres too with your example and your words to deal meekly and no more harshly with these poor boys. 4. Case-by-case consult the Director, and stick to what he says, even though it may not seem fair or prudent to you; obey and you will not regret it. 5. Last rule: the best, indeed the only one, the one given by St. Paul, very short but effective and foolproof: vince in bono malum (meaning: overcome evil with good). They are bad? And you be good – they are worse? And you be even better. They are even very bad? And you be very good, with an outstanding and unalterable kindness. This is the rule of rules.”
Being a playwright, he was able to say which the place for theatre was, clearly indicating the hierarchy of educational activities: “I am pleased that you play some theatre, if it is good for the development of the Oratory and the Catechism to the kids.”
Some ideas on education
Among the writings of Fr. Reffo there is a file containing a series of notes for lectures on the theme of educating. In order to understand something on the importance of educating, Fr. Reffo wondered: what is a child? A child is: “1. A soul to be saved. 2. A seed that can produce a lot of evil and a lot of good. 3. He may become father of a family, will give others the education he received.” So it is the recipient of the educational work that gives meaning to everything. No less serious are the reasons that Fr. Reffo draws from the Gospel, especially the words of Jesus who recalls: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” If great was the children’s dignity, Fr. Reffo called “terrible” the educators’ responsibility. Because in the end we will be asked to account for the children’s body and soul, not only if we did not harm them, but above all if we did some good to them.
In a second step Fr. Reffo reflected on the task of educating starting from the educator. The educator performs especially the office of father and apostle. The educator is a parent because he takes the place of the natural father, nurtures and educates, houses and lives with them; the educator is an apostle because devotes himself entirely to young people without expecting any personal interest. Fr. Reffo recalls to his confreres the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her infant (…)? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15), to remember that every educator is an image of God who never abandons his sons.
But, then, Fr. Reffo wondered: does the true educator perform a variety of tasks? Of course: he is a teacher, watcher, nurse, catechist workshop master, comforter and promoter of joy, able to adapt and respond to the many needs that a child has while he is growing up. The early Josephan confreres who heard Fr. Reffo, knew very well that the boys received in the boarding school were in need of everything and everything asked of them, so they could only nod when they heard that the real educator could emulate the virtue of charity, declined in the thousand ways that the needs of educating required.
For Fr. Reffo educating meant “bring out” in the sense that in humans there are several potentialities that should be helped to develop, according to the threefold order: physical, moral and intellectual, to mature the body, mind and will. The educator is then that external agent allowing and helping personal growth, through his authority and science; the first requires the ability to be obeyed, the second comes to the educator from study and experience.
Education then has a single goal: leading youth to love God. Hence the essentially religious nature of education, since the development of all the faculties has as its goal that the creature might acknowledge, praise and love his Creator.
Very practical advice
Fr. Reffo firmed up the Josephan method of education in eight points: “1. Living their lives as far as you can, being with them and following them in all their exercises. 2. Knowing them one by one, their name, character and origin. 3. Studying in them each one’s defects and get a clear perception of them, for correcting and eradicating if necessary. 4. Talking and talking a lot to all together, and even more to each one individually, showing interest in their things and gaining little by little their confidence. 5. Enticing them to good with good attractions and encouraging them to practice virtue. 6. Helping them with good advice and also with good reads to be suggested them according to their age. 7. Inoculating in each one the practice of piety, which is the cement that hardens and strengthens the foundations and what is built on them, but it this piety should be sincere, natural, spontaneous and, as far as you can, well supported by wider and deep religious instruction. 8. Finally, remember that the educator in a boarding school is the representative and the one taking the place of parents; he therefore must behave towards his wards as good and genuinely Christian parents do and like them love all and each of his sons, and have a special care of one and all.”
About Spiritual Direction
In a letter to a confrere Fr. Reffo gave some tips for being a good spiritual director. He wrote: “The main conditions are: deep humility, great spirit of prayer and unshakeable patience; you do not achieve it in a jiffy; sometimes you have to grow old for this, but do not lose courage, never be jealous because others succeed better than us, wait and wait still more for the right moment of grace, and in the mean-time pray, and so do first through confident and untiring prayer what, God willing, one day you will do through direction.”
Then on how to practice spiritual direction, Fr. Reffo advised: “Direction then is made of two parts: listening and speaking: listen patiently and showing to give importance to what the boy says, his little troubles, small sorrows, doubts, dislikes, aversions, his defences etc.; then talk, namely comfort, correct, suggest remedies and use for this purpose the example of the saints, who are always the boon of good and eager to mend souls. In the talk, better not be long-winded, not to drown the guy with too many reasons, and in answering be short, clear and practical, so that you cause more confusion than instruction.”
Fr. Reffo was speaking from experience: he himself was a disciple of Fr. Cocchi, Berizzi and Murialdo; let himself be guided by his confessor and spiritual father; for decades he lived in the midst of the children; for decades prepared young people to become “good Christians and honest citizens” and also to be educators.