Rorate Caeli

ARTICLE: Saint John Bosco, the Educator -- by Fr. Konrad zu Loewenstein

Saint John Bosco, the Educator

St. John Bosco was one of the most celebrated pedagogues and educators that has ever lived. What was his method? Apart from a brief disquisition on the 'Preventive and Repressive Systems' which we shall consider later, he did not set forth his principles of education in any detail. However, in a sermon on St. Philip Neri to a gathering of priests in May 1868, he describes an ideal of apostolate to the young, which to any-one acquainted with the life of Don Bosco and to the audience that day manifestly represents his own personal ideal. In view of this fact let us quote from this sermon at some length: -  

"'Venite filii, audite me, timorem Domini docebo vos'… these words, together with his great kindness and a life shining with virtue, did bring great crowds of boys from everywhere flocking to our saint. He would talk personally to each of them. With the student, he was the scholar and with the apprentice he was the master. Thus with the young carpenter he was the trained craftsman; with the barber, the skilled professional; with the brick-layer the foreman; with the cobbler's apprentice the shoemaker. In becoming all things to all men, he won them all for Jesus Christ. Hence the youngsters, enticed by his gentle ways, his edifying and helpful conversations, felt drawn to what Philip had to offer them… Yet how could he turn these scatterbrained lads - so fond of eating, drinking and fun - towards piety and the Church? Listen. Philip found the key: by emulating the Saviour's meekness and kindness, he dealt with them patiently and lovingly…"

When people asked St. John Bosco to expound his system of education, or when his disciples were about to leave for any special destination he would tell them: "All you have to do is observe what I do, then go and do likewise."  Our saint was no theoretician, but a man of action through and through. Let us then observe him in action and endeavour to ascertain his educational methods by this means. 

One morning, on his first journey to Rome in 1858, he was discussing education with a certain Cardinal Tosti. He told the Cardinal that it was essential to win the children's confidence and love. How can one achieve this? By "doing all one can to bring the children into touch with oneself, by breaking all the hindrances that keep them at a distance." And how was one to achieve this? "... by trying to accommodate ourselves to their tastes, by making ourselves like them." To illustrate his point Don Bosco accompanies the Cardinal to the Piazza del Popolo, walks over to a group of children, gives them a present, a medal or two, asks them about their families and then joins in their game, tucking up his soutane. From time to time he asks them gently if they ever say their prayers or go to confession. He establishes such a rapport with them by the end that they do not want him to leave and when he does go, they escort him in a cheering crowd. 

The spirit of intimacy, love, and joy was characteristic of St. John Bosco’s Oratory. "An educator must take part in the whole of the life of his pupils" he once said. In the Oratory he was everywhere at once, exercising a constant and loving watchfulness and supervision over his children. At recreation he would take the place of a boy who was becoming quarrelsome or using bad language, and send him off to play somewhere else. He would charm all of them with his wit and imagination, and impress them with his mastery at every game. He would head a procession of hundreds of boys about the Oratory in a hilarious game of 'Follow the Leader' which would serve the secondary purpose of inspecting the dark recesses of the building for any misdemeanour they might harbour. At night the boys would make their way into the room where he was eating and he would tell them anecdotes or riddles and pour out his affection upon them. 

To surround these young folk with the warmth and light they needed, the Saint tried in every possible way to plunge them in a permanent atmosphere of joy. He counted upon joy to expand the soul, to banish boredom, to impart a thrill of life, to quicken the intelligence, to associate the notion of pleasure in the boy's mind, with that of duty, and above all to fill his heart with a sense of confidence and abandonment. He wanted joy not only during recreation and in out-of-school activities but in the classes too. In 1847 he was one of the first modern educators to set up a stage. Other activities included music and altar societies. The success of his quest for joy is witnessed by the remark of a great social worker of Turin: "There is a No.32 Cottolengo Street what is nowhere else to be found, even in religious communities; a room out of which goes forth radiant with joy the boy or youth who entered into it with a heart full of weariness or bitterness: it is the room of Don Bosco."

Joy and love are inseparably joined, and if any one word can sum up St. John Bosco's educational method and indeed his whole being, that word is 'love'. His understanding, his concern for his boys, his devotion, his self-sacrifice for them, his affection for them, his claims on them, his authority over them, were based on love and love alone. "Without affection there is no confidence, and without confidence there is no education" was one of his constant sayings, or again: "make thyself loved if thou wouldst be obeyed". "Would you be loved? Then love. And even if that is not enough; take a further step: not only must you love your pupils, you must make them feel that you love them. And how are they to feel that? Listen to your own heart; it will tell you."

Let us consider in more detail his relationship to his boys. "His aim was to reproduce the family atmosphere which is indispensible to human beings." His most obvious rôle to his boys was indeed that of a father. It does not take a great psychologist to appreciate the fact that at least on a natural level it was his grief and loss at the death of his own father at a tender age, that inspired him with fatherly concern for abandoned, orphaned, and suffering boys. In 1885 for example he writes to the young man Francesco Bonmartini: "My dear little Francesco… Whatever happens you know that Don Bosco has promised you… that he wants to be your father, and particularly he wants to be the father of your soul." He calls his novices gaudium meum et corona mea (my joy and my crown) in the heart of their loving father, and to his spiritual sons he said: "Be not superiors, but fathers."  And yet his love was not only the love of a father, it was the love of a friend and a brother as well, perhaps in reflection of God's love for man who loves not only as a Father but also as a friend and a brother in Christ. "I come to you as a father, a friend, and a brother" he writes in a letter to the Oratorians of Mirabello in 1867. "Just allow me to hold your hearts in my hands for a few moments and you will be happy and content, because the grace of the Lord will enrich your souls and give you peace… pray for one who remains with all his heart affectionately yours in Jesus Christ." His letter to Francesco mentioned above concludes with these words: "Your most  affectionate friend, Father John Bosco", and at the very outset of his priestly ministry in the early 1840's the sight of adolescents behind bars inspires him with the desire to befriend suffering youths. "'Who knows' I said to myself, ' if these lads were to find a friend outside who would take an interest in them and who would also teach them religion on Sundays, who knows whether they might not be able to make a go of it, or at least lessen the number of relapses?' "

Before continuing, let us briefly suggest some characteristics of the love of father, brother, and friend in an attempt to understand more clearly the love of Don Bosco for his children. The love of a father is founded on experience and knowledge, it is a strong, deep, and all-embracing love; the love of a brother is a love which encourages one and draws one out, it fosters admiration and respect without involving distances or fear; the love of a friend is an intimate love between equals, on the same level. It is not based on family ties but brings with it a sense of gratuitousness and gives one a sense of objective worth. 

Let us investigate Don Bosco's love for his boys in two domains: that of discipline and that of spiritual formation. What has been said above regarding the nature of his love is clearly manifest in these two domains, where his methods are never authoritarian but always subtle and gentle, and appealing to the heart.

His method of discipline he named 'preventive' rather than 'repressive'. He describes the repressive system as involving severe looks, a lack of familiarity, frequent absence of the superior, except when issuing warning and punishments. In opposition to this method is the preventive method, involving a clear explanation of the rules, loving vigilance on the part of the superiors, and advice and correction in a charitable manner. "It is entirely based on reason, religion, and charity. It therefore excludes all violent punishment and tries to do without even the slightest chastisement." Since the boy has previously been advised, he will not be downcast at his faults; since he is treated in a friendly manner which appeals to his reasons, he will not be irritated by correction. "The primary reason for this system is seen in the thoughtlessness of youth. A boy often becomes deserving of punishment when heedlessly committing a fault he would have avoided, had a friendly voice warned him in time."

On the rare occasions that punishment must be used the one who punishes “must take care not to harden the heart of the boy, and thus close it against the positive work of education." In consequence of this principle "punishments were to be deferred as much as possible, they were to be neither humiliating nor irritating, they were to be reasonable, they were to be prompted by kindness, with an appeal, as far as possible, to the heart of the child." Public punishments were to be avoided, expulsions necessitated by scandals or obstinate disobedience were carried out with consideration; there were to be no general punishments when an offender could not be traced, no fixed punishments, and never recourse to physical punishment. "With the young, punishment is anything that is meant as a punishment - a reproachful look is more effective than a blow. Praise of work well done, and blame when duties are neglected are themselves reward or punishment." It became punishment enough for him merely to deny a boy his usual warm glance or friendly greeting. Frequently boys withdrew to a corner to weep because "Don Bosco didn't look at me." St. John Bosco remarks that the educator must first strive to be loved, once he succeeds in this, "the omission of some token of kindness is a punishment which rekindles emulation and revives courage, yet never degrades."

An example of his subtle and gentle methods of correction can be found in the writings of Count Connestable. When the latter asked him what punishment he had in store for one of his worst offenders, our saint told him that he would go up to the boy during recreation and ask about his health. The boy will reply that he is well. Don Bosco will proceed to ask him, "- so you are really quite pleased with yourself?" while looking him straight in the face.  The boy will blush and not reply. The saint will continue in an affectionate tone: "Come! I see that although your body is well, perhaps your soul is poorly. How long is it since you last went to confession? Well, don't answer. Your silence tells me a good deal. Promise me to settle up matters as soon as possible, won't you, my boy?" A few minutes later the boy will be in the confessional and there will be no more complaints about him. 

One positive effect of the preventive system is that "the pupil will always be respectful towards his educators and will remember their care. He will look upon them as fathers and brothers…" Indeed as Father Peter Lappin observes, Don Bosco "lived in what was the nearest thing to a glass case. Even at that age they could understand how his whole existence revolved around them, how he dedicated every waking moment to their welfare." 

Don Bosco finishes his brief disquisition on the 'preventive system' with the words, "If it should happen that boys who have already contracted bad habits do enter the school, they would not be able to harm the others, since there is neither time nor place nor opportunity to do so." This points to a further essential feature of his educational system, namely industry: the boys were kept busy from the moment they rose to the moment they lay down to sleep. "One must keep the boys of the Oratory constantly occupied" he says - with classes, with their trade, music, altar societies, games, gymnastics, recitations, acting, and outings, all of which are "most effective means of obtaining discipline and improving conduct and health." Their minds too must be constantly active. Indeed Bishop Ferre of Casale Montferrato calls our saint's insistence on work one of his two great secrets: "he piles on them so much work, he so occupies their minds, that they do not have time to turn their heads to anything else."

The other great secret of our saint, which is first mentioned by the Bishop, is the piety with which he instils his boys. "He almost inebriates them" says the Bishop, "it is in the atmosphere, the air they breathe. This renders the boys so docile that they act out of conviction and according to their conscience." Even if they wanted to do any wrong they would have to swim against the tide and would be like a fish out of water. 

But how did the saint imbue his sons with piety, how did he assure their spiritual formation? Again it was without authoritarian measures but with subtlety, gentleness, and by encouragement. "Never force the boys to frequent the sacraments. Instead encourage them, and give them every opportunity to do so. During retreats, triduums, novenas, sermons, and catechism classes, the beauty, the grandeur, and the holiness of our religion must always be dwelt on, for in the sacraments it offers all of us an easy and useful means to attain peace of mind and eternal salvation." The boys were free to receive Holy Communion when they wanted, and to go to confession when they wanted. There was no obligation to frequent either sacrament at any particular time. Rather they were encouraged to do so by the "fervent and the private exhortations" of their superiors. Religious teaching was given the priority in the house in short, lively, vivid, practical lessons, well-prepared catechisms, five minute 'Good Nights' after evening prayers, leaving the listeners with a thought to sleep over, brief readings after the Mass and before benediction, religious or moral hints summing up unobtrusively whatever arose in school or at play, two or three well chosen words of advice after confession.  

It is in fact in the spiritual formation of the boys, in their piety, that the saint finds his ultimate goal. Following Fénélon he says: "Try to make the young delight in God." Father Auffray tells us: "He would have gladly summed up his entire method in these words: 'Make yourself loved to make God more loved.'" In the same vein he writes in a letter to the seminarians at Mirabello in 1864: "My dear sons, I declare that I love you deeply and that I want to see you very much before long. I also want you to give me your heart so that I may offer it to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament when I celebrate Holy Mass."

The goal of piety and a good spiritual formation is of course to save a soul. In a letter to his Turin Co-operators of 1878, he instructs them earnestly to "Teach the young" repeating the injunction three times, and continues: "The most divine of godly acts is to cooperate with God in the salvation of souls." In this regard it should be noted that the name of St. Francis de Sales was first given to his Oratory not only because his patroness had commissioned a portrait of this saint in that house but also because, as St. John Bosco himself writes, "we wanted to be under the protection of this saint so that he may obtain for us the grace to become like him in his great meekness and in saving souls." St. John Bosco's ultimate goal is expressed in a maxim of St. Francis de Sales which he kept written on a card always in sight, a maxim which was to become the motto of Salesian Congregation. Da mihi animas, cetera tolle (Give me souls. All else remove).

What then are the spiritual means of salvation? "Frequent Confession, Communion, and daily Mass are the pillars which must support the edifice of education" he states. Confession was a practice on which Don Bosco insisted on his whole life long. It was a frequent theme of his 'Good Nights' and featured in three of the four scriptural texts he had painted in the porticos of his house for the benefit of his boys. As soon as he established contact with a boy, he would encourage him to make a confession, a confession which would open the whole soul to the confessor and enable him to help the boy to spiritual maturity. At a time when neither early nor frequent Communion was well favoured, he encouraged both. It may be said that the first devotion he fostered was devotion to the Blessed Eucharist, and the second the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Just as he had dreamt in the imagery of a ferocious sea battle that the Church would be saved by devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin, so he believed that his sons would be saved if they too were armed with these two shields. One of his last statements, uttered three days before he died was: "When you speak or preach, insist on frequent Communion and devotion to Mary Most Holy!"

Two further features of the spiritual formation he gave his sons which are worthy of note were the inculcation of an awareness of death and the fostering of chastity. Father Lappin writes: "To help them understand the meaning of life, he reminded them constantly of the presence of death by such ordinary means as his talks, sermons, and meditations, and by such extraordinary means as foretelling when many of them would die." He would impress on their minds the two great truths "that life is but a preparation for death and that the most important act is one's life is to die well." For, if he died well, he would save his soul. In the first draft of his constitutions of 1858, he designated the last day of every month as "a day of recollection in which every member will practice the Exercise of a Happy Death". He often remarked that "I believe that one could call assured the salvation of a boy who makes the Exercise of a Happy Death, goes to confession every month and receives Holy Communion as if for the last time."

In these same constitutions, Don Bosco describes chastity as the "virtue that is dearest to the Son of God." He did all he could to foster this virtue and prevent offences against it, "Rather than sins being committed against this virtue it would be better for the Oratory to close down" he would say. "Once the morality of the members and boys is ensured, everything is ensured, when it is lacking, everything is lacking." He states "that which distinguishes our Society is the virtue of Chastity, just as the virtue of Poverty distinguishes the sons of St. Francis of Assisi and Obedience the Sons of St. Ignatius." To this virtue he gives the highest praise in a commentary on the articles of the constitutions: "The supreme virtue that is the most necessary one, the sublime, the angelic, the one virtue around which all others revolve, is chastity. The words of the Holy Spirit: 'Venerunt autem mihi omnia bona pariter cum illa.' (all good things came to me together with it. Ws. 7.11) refer to this virtue. Our Saviour assures us that those who gain this priceless treasure become like the angels of God, even in this life, 'erunt sicut angeli Dei.’" He gives much practical advice for its protection, in particular detachment, mortification, and recourse to the Blessed Sacrament, to the Blessed Virgin, and the saints.

Here then is an attempt to uncover the educational system of one of the greatest educators of all time, a system that was less methodical than spontaneous, and which can be described in a word as love: a joy in his charges, a familiar intimacy with them, a personal concern for them and a devotion - a love which was that of a 'father, brother and friend '; a love that with gentleness and subtlety sought the best for them: the salvation of their souls through Confession, Holy Communion, Mass, chastity and the awareness of their final end. The success of his methods is amply witnessed by the "climate of saints" he produced in his Oratory, as one bishop described it. He took great pains to convince every boy that he was called to be a saint, and even during his lifetime his Salesian brethren were to spread this sanctity across the face of the globe.    

Deo Gratias!

 Sancte Joannes Bosco, ora pro nobis!

Reference made to the books on St. John Bosco by Father Peter Lappin and Father Auffray