When DMA is our DNA


The term 'passion' in use from 2002-2006


Much information can be drawn from free-ranging text, especially when you have enough of it, if you have the appropriate instruments to make sense of the text, especially of its underlying sense, and a bit of experience at working with those instruments.

It has become apparent to the ear – and the eye – that Fr Pascual Chávez spoke often of a certain idea as he moved around provinces, was reported in news, spoke to confrères, preached homilies, wrote for the Salesian Bulletin, addressed one or other gathering from the highly academic (receiving honorary doctorates for example) to speaking with youngsters. The idea can be characterised by a particular word – ‘passion’. In what follows I will refer to the idea in English, but the reference is constantly to the Italian passione. There is no difficulty arising from translation of the term into English, whether in its singular or plural form. We can discount the plural use – in an entire and very representative corpus (70 texts of every shape and nature since 2002) the RM used it in its plural form (usually in the sense of ‘human passions’) but two or three times. So we are interested in its use in the singular.

Calculating connections

There are various statistical measures for calculating the importance of a concept . A fairly gross but obvious approach is to count the number of times a word appears. If you want it that way, we have a score of 82 times (between 2002-2006). It is slightly more helpful to know that those 82 appearances are in 31 out of 70 texts, 44% or thereabouts. It might even be a little more helpful still to know that it appears in all but 4 of the 15 AGC Letters over the period 2002-2006, if we wanted to regard them as containing the most important of the RM’s themes for the Congregation. Actually the first of those 15 is not a letter in the way we normally understand it but the introduction to the GC25 documents. I’ll come back to this ‘introduction’ a little further on.

However, these are raw statistics based on simple surface appearance of words. We know that human speech ties words together, makes sense in phrases and sentences (as well as other levels at paragraph or discourse level). Another statistic, then, is interesting. Across all 70 texts, what words does ‘passion’ statistically link to most frequently? We can make an assumption that five words either side, if we regard ‘passion’ as the central term, would be about the limit. Beyond that, the meaningful linkage between ‘passion’ and another term would be minimal. We know this from human experience, but I can tell you that linguists support this from their perspective also.

There is a measure we can use that suggests the importance of terms that correlate across the distance I have mentioned. It has various names, but let’s call it a ‘mutual information score’ or MI. When we run an MI on all of the RM’s language across the 70 texts in relation to 'passion', the ‘winner’ is clear: animas (the MI score is 10.5. There is nothing higher). Mihi gains an equivalent score and the next one down is vissuta (lived, experienced) at 8.9 so we know what we are talking about here. ‘Da’ doesn’t feature at this point because as a preposition it links with too many words to feature statistically for a single term. Mihi only correlates with one term in our context, we know. The conclusion then is that ‘Da Mihi Animas’ is what gives us the meaning of ‘passion’ as used by Pascual Chávez, or the other way around if you wish: ‘passion’ gives us the meaning of ‘Da mihi animas’ (DMA) in the context of this man’s discourse.

Yet another statistical measure is to consider relative word frequencies – this is not quite the same as a mere frequency count. The question becomes, what kind of percentage appearance does ‘passion’ make, and what other terms have much the same or greater percentage? This too is instructive, especially once we have established the link between passion and ‘DMA’.

The highest percentage is 3.99 – words with this kind of score are function words like of, a, the… This is to be expected. We don’t reach a substantive (noun) until 1.483 (life), but then other major substantives start to come in at 0.24 (God, Church, Don Boscocommunication just makes it over 0.1). After that we are into the 0.09 and below group. Terms that come in at 0.03, other than passion, include pedagogy, freedom, growing, disciples, experiences, accompaniment, solidarity, salvation, poverty, fidelity, challenges…. This is not to establish semantic relationships between ‘passion’ and any of these words, but just to say that ‘passion’ is in good company!

We now need to dig a little deeper. Can we describe this link outside of statistical issues? Yes, we can. The reference is essentially to a sentence in n. 20 of GC25, Ogni comunità è formata da uomini, immersi nella società, che esprimono la passione evangelica del “da mihi animas, cetera tolle” con l’ottimismo della fede, con la dinamicità e la creatività della speranza e con la bontà e la donazione totale della carità. Each community expresses the Gospel-based passion of the ‘da mihi animas’. So while the RM doesn’t actually mention the term ‘passion’ as the very first thing he wrote to the whole Congregation by way of the introduction to the GC25 documents, he is introducing a document that does, and he soon takes up the twin terms ‘passion’ and ‘da mihi animas’ in subsequent letters anyway. We can say that they were there from the beginning of his consciousness as Rector Major.

The central idea expressed by GC25, then, finds development in a gamut of repeated phrases in the RM’s public discourse up to the year 2006: it is largely a ‘passion of’ and a ‘passion for’, or passsion + adjective – for the world, for God’s holiness, for Christ, for men (people), for our mission; of Don Bosco, of (St.) Paul; educational passion, Gospel passion, pedagogical passion, intense passion.

Wider connections

Quite incidental to all this, but in a way solidly supporting the insight both of GC25 and of the RM’s constant development of the idea of an intense passion for God in one direction and humanity in the other, was the taking up of this very same theme of ‘passion for Christ, passion for humanity’ by the International Congress of Religious in Rome two years ago. The RM was part of that Congress and has continued to contribute at a central level to the USG, promoting just this notion of passion at the centre of today’s witness of consecrated life. It is important, then, not to make the error of thinking that the RM came up with the idea because of the meeting of Religious. I have demonstrated already that it has another genesis. In both cases, the idea is Gospel-inspired, of course.

Let’s keep our cultural memory

Passion is in good company’, I said at one point above, and indicated that this was to do with other statistically frequent terms in the RM’s discourse. But I think we should establish a much deeper pedigree for ‘passion’, one that takes it to the level of our very DNA as human beings, of course using DNA in the metaphorical sense of ‘core’. This is a necessary exercise today because we cannot take it for granted that ‘passion’ is univocally understood by everyone, today’s Religious included.

Occasionally one reads things like ‘the original Christian meaning of the term….’. Such a statement is not actually helpful as a way of establishing the importance of the term in human experience. We read this kind of thing in the mixed bag of comments following the release of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. To begin with, ‘Passion’ with a capital ‘P’ has quite a special meaning in Christian discourse. No need to delay on this, nor to state the obvious that it is connected with suffering. Oddly enough, the term is not a gospel one – though it does appear in the Acts (1:13; 14:15) with the two senses in which Christians have continued to use it mostly over two thousand years – the Passion of the Lord on the one hand, and human passions on the other. The religious sense of the Passion of the Lord has its own value, and can be explained clearly enough in theological terms. ‘Human passions’, on the other hand, have had a rougher ride.

We moderns are children of the Enlightenment, and ‘passion’ was one term that underwent major ‘enlightenment’! Before that period, from the time of the Greeks, (Aristotle, the Stoics…), ‘passion’ had to-ed and fro-ed as a term that people saw as either positive ( a deep power and energy, even rage which was the essence of and aroused a dynamic spirit) or negative ( as suffering but as false belief). Hellenistic philosophy in both Greece and Rome endowed a whole range of languages with basically Latin vocabulary, elaborated on by the likes of Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Kant and others. Allied to this was literature from Greek Tragedy to poets like Charlotte Bronte – and medical science, and rhetoric, ethics and so on.

But then at a certain point the post-Enlightenment shift to ‘feelings’ occurred, , and much of what was ‘passion’ was now transferred to emotions. The largely 20th century shift from a vocabulary of deep, fundamental human passion to one of feelings, emotions, moods was a derailing of high energy rage to low energy mood. By that stage we had come a long way from The Iliad!

It seems to me that the kind of language being used within our Salesian tradition and even the more general tradition of Consecrated Life as expressed by the Rome gathering, is intended to get us back on track to high energy. The strongly connected ‘passion…Da mihi animas’ belongs to our human DNA, not to the more insubstantial levels. That’s why we don’t find ‘passion’ collocating significantly with terms like inculturation, availability, options, understanding and a host of others which, while important, are not at the core, gut level of who we are and what we do as Salesians and human beings. I have little doubt that when we link this with the RM’s insistence on priorities for God, our life together as witness, the young…it is to this deepest level of being that we are being led.

Julian Fox sdb 06-04-06