Do you want to do a good deed? Teach the young! Do you want to perform a holy act? Teach the young! Do you want to do a holy thing? Teach the young! Truly, now and for the future, among holy things, this is the holiest.—- St. John Bosco (1815-1888)
Let me just say at the start that I’ve loved the spirituality of St. Francis De Sales (1567-1622), ever since reading his Introduction to the Devout Life as an undergraduate. What moves me is his loving gentleness, his emphasis on moderation and common sense, and his desire to make spirituality accessible to people in every walk of life.
When St. John Bosco was choosing a name for his new religious order devoted to serving youth, he picked the Society of St. Francis De Sales,
because we had put our own ministry, which called for great calm and meekness, under the protection of this saint in the hope that he might obtain for us from God the grace of being able to imitate him in his extraordinary meekness and in winning souls.
What does the Salesian vocation consist of? Outreach to young people through evangelization and education. One Salesian writes that there is “nothing complicated” about their spirituality. As one of their star pupils, young St. Dominic Savio (1842-1857) said, they made “holiness cheerful.”
St. John Bosco was born in poverty on a farm in northern Italy. Toward the end of his life, he described himself as “poor, penniless Don Bosco, a shepherd boy of the hills. I have lived poor and shall die poor.” He worked his way through the seminary doing odd-jobs here and there. As a young priest, a chance encounter with sixteen-year-old Bartolomeo Garelli in the sacristy of his first parish changed his life.
When Bartolomeo snuck into the church to keep warm, the sacristan castigated him, but the young priest said: “Stop! He is my friend.” As Don Bosco helped the boy get back on his feet, he treated Bartolomeo and other youth not as an authority figure, but as a friend. “Not with blows,” he later wrote, “but with charity and gentleness must you draw these friends to the path of virtue.”
Throughout Italy, Don Bosco and his companions started schools, vocational training, even printing presses. In Turin in 1859, they formally introduced the Salesian Fathers and Brothers. Together with St. Mary Mazzarello (1837-1881), he co-founded the Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians, the Salesian Sisters, to work with girls. By the time of his death in 1888, Salesians were working in Europe and South America.
As part of his youth ministry, Don Bosco was a pioneer in educational approaches. What became known as the Salesian preventive system, which is based on three pillars: reason, religion, and loving kindness. “As far as possible avoid punishing,” he wrote, “try to gain love before inspiring fear.” In a letter to his priests, he summed up his philosophy of education:
Let us regard those boys over whom we have some authority as our own sons. Let us place ourselves in their service. Let us be ashamed to assume an attitude of superiority. Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better. This was the method that Jesus used with the apostles. He put up with their ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity. He treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalized and still others to hope for God’s mercy. And so he bade us to be gentle and humble of heart.
Today Don Bosco’s priests, religious, and lay associates are known as the Salesian family. Some forty thousand women and men working in 132 countries worldwide in ministries that encompass parishes, high schools, colleges and universities. The Salesian vocation is exacting but rewarding. It demands patience and balance, but above all love. As Don Bosco put it: “It is not enough to love the young. They must know they are loved.”
(*The drawing of St. John Bosco is by Pat McNamara.)