Thursday, January 29, 2009

Don Bosco the Educator

Here’s an article on the life of Don Bosco which emphasizes on his being an educator. I wrote this piece late last year. Unless pointed out in the footnotes, this work is largely based on “The Memoirs of the Oratory,” St. John Bosco's autobiography.



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“I’m 16… and I don’t know anything!” so said a ragged urchin.

The boy’s name was Bartholomew Garelli. He entered the church to seek warmth from the biting cold, but was shabbily treated by the sacristan because he refused to serve Mass. Don (Don in Italian is a title accorded to priests) John Bosco, then a 25-year old priest who was preparing for the Mass, witnessed how the sacristan bullied the poor lad. Wasting no time, he intervened by telling the sacristan that ‘his friend’ did not merit such blows.

After some quick warm informal exchange, Don Bosco bid him goodbye and asked him to come back the following Sunday with his friends. This simple encounter took place on December 8, 1841 and Don Bosco considers this as the launch of his ministry in caring for the young people.

He would carry out this work up until his death at the dawn of January 31, 1888 at the age of 73 years old. That time, 250 houses of the Salesian Society, the congregation he founded to continue his work, have been established in various parts of the world caring for more than 130,000 young people.

As an appreciation for his work with the marginalized young people of his time, Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1934 and 100 years after his death, Pope John Paul II conferred on him the distinctive title “Father and Teacher of the Young.”

Not a walk in the park

However, it's not a walk in the park for Don Bosco achieving these feat. He didn't have any school to begin with when he first set off for the mission. It was not really a problem at first since he only had a couple of young people to deal with.

In 1884, he began to gather together poor and abandoned youth. He found places for them to play in, taught them catechism and heard their confessions. After teaching them, he would take them to one of the churches in the city, where he used to say Mass for them. Since they would meet on Sundays and feast days, this gathering is called "Festive Oratory."

For three years, Don Bosco taught catechism to the boys in rooms attached to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. He and his lads were also allowed to use the courtyard of the Church for their games and recreation. He himself took part in their games. He is not a prim priest who would forbid his charges to run, jump and make noise. Don Bosco is an ever-youthful priest in the midst of the young people!

However, when the members of the festive oratory swelled to about 300 strong, the real problem started to show itself. Don Bosco and his friends would be ‘homeless,’ as it were, without a roof to shield them from rain, snow or bitter winds. To offer his boys a vast space that would serve as a playground, Don Bosco and his boys would hike to out-of-town destinations. As they would walk from one place to another, Don Bosco's friends' behavior never failed to edify people, even the monks.

The life of a priest in a prominently 19th Century Catholic Italy may have been a bed of roses. The most religious of people, and even those who were not, would continue to be good benefactors to them. In fact, a rich benefactor offered him to work for her hospice in exchange of a handsome remuneration package. But Don Bosco politely declined the offer musing that she can pay someone to work for her abandoned girls, but no one will take care of his boys.

Receiving a special mission

Don Bosco was from a poor family. He lost his father to pneumonia when he was barely two years old. His mother, Mamma Margaret, now a Servant of God, singlehandedly provided for him and his other two siblings.

In his autobiography, he accounts that Mamma Margaret’s greatest care was to instruct “her sons in their religion, making them value obedience, and keeping them busy with tasks suited to their age.” She herself taught the little Johnny to pray. And as soon as he was old enough to join his brothers, they recited their prayers together, including the rosary. She continued to do this until Don Bosco reached the age when she judged him able to use the sacrament well on his own.[1]

He was nine years old when he received a mission through one of his dreams that would have a strong impact in his entire life. He saw a multitude of boys fighting and cursing as they played. A Man of majestic appearance told him: "With meekness and charity you will conquer these friends." And a Lady just as majestic added: "Make yourself humble, strong and robust... At the right time you will understand everything."

This dream gave him direction. Realizing that he has a special mission for the young, he enriched himself with skills (e.g. acrobatics and juggling, etc.) that would attract young people towards him. He recalled that everyone would flock around him to hear him deliver stories he would draw from books, sermons, catechism lessons.

When he was only ten years old, when he started to take interest in taking care of children. He was aware that he had the ability of gauging the personalities of his companions merely by looking at them. This gift won him the love and esteem of the boys his own age.

When he told his mother that he wanted to become a priest, she replied “The most important thing is the salvation of your soul... But I wish to make this very clear to you: if you become a priest and should unfortunately become rich, I will never pay you a single visit. Remember that well."

Don Bosco took these words of his saintly mother to his heart. He was ordained a priest on June 5, 1846 at the age of 26. His becoming a priest has led way for him to see closely the sorry state of the many young people who were working in a fast-becoming-industrialized city: child labor was rampant, the poor young working in the sweatshops of Turin, and education was affordable only to the middle and higher classes. But still, the city was a refuge to people coming from the rural areas. Opportunities became a tempting offer for everyone, especially for the young people. Consequently, young people, dreaming of a better future, flocked to the city. The young were left to caring for themselves. No guardian to fend for them, they were exposed to the ills of the society.

On his free time, he went to the prisons to take care of the spiritual welfare of the inmates. He was horrified to see large numbers of young lads aged from 12 to 18 all mixed up with adult offenders. His heart went out to them. He became a very good friend to some of them and he was able to hear their stories. He noted that most lads who were discharged were resolute in their disposition to do better but he was disgusted that in only a short time, they would land back again in the prison shortly after being released.

He blamed this phenomenon to the fact that the young had nowhere to go to. Some of them thrown out by the society and not a few were even rejected by their own family, they were practically left to their own resources. And then he thought "if these youngsters had a friend outside who would take care of them, help them, teach them religion on feast days... Who knows but they could be steered away from ruin, or at least the number of those who return to prison could be lessened?"

This matter he referred to his spiritual guide, Fr. Joseph Caffasso, who like him also became a saint. Fr. Cafasso gave him the go signal and the inspiration to realize his idea into a concrete reality. But everything, he left to God’s mercy.

Opening up a School

These realities and his wanting to teach the young people the truths of faith made him conscious of the need for some kind of school. He noticed that some children who are already advanced in years are still completely ignorant of their faith. Hence, he started a regular Sunday school, and eventually, a regular night school that would not only teach religion to the young, but would also equip them with necessary skills to cope with the demands of their environment.

Don Bosco embarked on teaching the young alphabet, structures of syllables, and reading. He thought this necessary in order to teach them the catechism lessons. Eventually, he would succeed in getting some to read and study on their own a whole page of catechism.

However, since Don Bosco accepted various kinds of young people, he found it quite challenging to deal with the slower pupils. They would forget what they had learned the previous Sunday. This gave way to the opening of the night courses.

Don Bosco was not alone in carrying out this task since he enjoyed the assistance extended to him by his some of his brother priests. Among the young people they would caring for emerged some bright ones. He invited them to help him teach the younger ones. Soon, he would count on their help as they educated the young lads flocking to the oratory.

The success of the Sunday and night courses encouraged Don Bosco to introduce arithmetic and art to the reading and writing classes. The concept of his school was quite revolutionary at that time that soon, everybody spoke of it as a great innova­tion. Before long, visitors such as professors and other persons of distinction graced his school. Even the city sent a delegation to see for themselves if the results of his night school was as good as it was reported to be.

They themselves examined the boys in pro­nunciation, arithmetic, and recitation. They found it hard to explain how young men who were illiterate until they were 18 and even 20 years of age had progressed so well in manners and instruction in a few months.

His Educational Method

Don Bosco had a thorough concept of education. Hence, instead of merely confining his young people in the classroom, he encouraged them to play in the fields and brought them out occasionally for out-of-town hikes. Walking along with a group of lads, he was always dressed in his cassock and dripping with sweat.

During his time, music captivated the young. This did not escape Don Bosco’s perception that he also taught the lads various musical skills. He organized a brass band and this provided entertainment when there were feasts and special occasions.

He also considered the stage an avenue to educate. It inculcated discipline among his boys, and allowed them to explore other artistic opportunities. During important feasts of the Church, he would choose from among his boys—the brilliant and especially those who were well-behaved ones—to stage theatrical productions he himself wrote. These were presented on the eve of the celebration, and served as a means to spiritually prepare each one for the festivity.

At a time when priests were held in pedestal, Don Bosco volunteered to mend clothes, fix shoes, cook dishes—and a lot more all—all for the sake of his boys! Don Bosco stuck to this mission until the end. To the youth of his time he had these words to say: “For you I study, for you I work, for you I live, for you I am ready even to give my life."

However, apart from these methods, Don Bosco based his educational method on affective relationships. Fore mostly, he believed that "The youngsters should not only be loved, but that they themselves should know that they are loved."[2]

He reasoned out "By being loved in the things they like, through taking part in their youthful interests, they are led to see love in those things which they find less attractive, such as discipline, study and self-denial, and so learn to do these things too with love."[3]

The Value of the Playground

A shrewd philosopher once noted that “If St. Francis of Assisi sanctified nature and poverty, St. John Bosco sanctified work and joy. I would not be surprised if he would be proclaimed protector Saint of Modern Games and Sports.”[4]

Don Bosco believed that the playground is an important component to the educative process because playgrounds are venues when young people are not restricted to speak and act. One can win a friendly informal relationship with the boys, especially in recreation. This explains why all his schools consider the playground as a basic facility that the school must have.

His Preventive System

On the centenary of his death in 1988, then Pope John Paul II wrote, "One may say that the peculiar trait of [Don Bosco’s] brilliance is linked with the educational method which he himself called the "preventive system." In a certain sense this represents the heart of his wisdom as an educator and constitutes the prophetic message which he has left to his followers and to the Church, and which has received attention and recognition from numerous educators and students of pedagogy."[5]

The Preventive System, a handiwork he left to his Salesians has in its core three elements: Reason, Religion and Loving Kindness. This pedagogical method brings together educators and young people in a family experience of transparency and respect. The practice of the preventive system demands an empathy with the young and a willingness to be with them, not only as a teacher, but also a friend.

Don Bosco passed on this technology to his Salesians, not by merely talking about it, but by allowing them to see how he lived it. In his school, he cultivated an environment of spontaneity. He developed a personal relationship with his students. He treated his students with respect. And he strictly taught his Salesians not to humiliate the young in public. He was for the kindest love. He is their father and friend.

In return, his students loved him. When he was critically ill, his boys stormed the heavens with their prayers just so he would survive. They accompanied their prayers with vows and promises to become better boys. Not a few of them promised to pray the holy rosary all their life while some offered to only eat bread just so Don Bosco would retain his health.

Hence, when he miraculously got well, one of the first things he had to do was to change something manageable all the vows and promises which many had, without due thought, when his life was at stake.

Blessed Michael Rua, a young by who grew up beside Don Bosco and who would succeed him after his death has to say: “Don Bosco took no step, spoke no word, undertook no work that did not have the salvation of the young as their object. He left it to others to go after money, comforts and honors. As for himself, he never had anything truly at heart, except the salvation of souls. In word above and above all in deed did he live by the motto ‘Give me souls take away the rest.’”

Don Bosco’s earthly sojourn ended for more than 120 years now. But we still hear the repeated cries of the young people all over the world “I am 16… and I don’t know anything.”

He responded to this plea by providing them education, not only by teaching them how to read or write, nor by merely teaching them some basic skills in order to live. He taught them how to love by exactly showing them a clear example how.


[1] Memoirs of the Oratory

[2] Letter from Rome, 1884

[3] ibid

[4] P. 149 Don Bosco’s Pedagogical Experience

[5] Pope John Paul II, Iuvenum Patris n.8, Letter marking the Centenary of the Death of Don Bosco, 1988.