Don Bosco's Way

Source: District of Asia

Tucked away in one of the last volumes of the biographical memoirs of St. John Bosco, there is a significant passage in which two directors of souls are brought together, Msgr. Dupuy and Father Bosco, confronting one another on the methodology of the spiritual life. Father (St. John) Bosco has just returned from a visit to the major seminary in Montpellier, France, when a letter reaches him in which Msgr. Dupuy thanks him for the courtesy shown the staff and students, but also expresses regret that he had no opportunity to speak with him alone to question him on the method he used to bring souls to God.

Don Bosco answered that his whole secret lay in instilling in his boys the holy fear of God. The superior of Montpellier was not satisfied with this reply. "The fear of God," he pointed out, "is only the beginning of wisdom. I should like to know your method of bringing souls to the heights of wisdom, which is the love of God. In one of the spiritual conferences for the priests' monthly day of recollection we considered the methods employed by St. Vincent de Paul and by St. Francis de Sales to lead souls to perfection and concluded that St. Vincent demanded that a soul feel annihilated before the majesty of God in order to give itself entirely to Him, while St. Francis contented himself with proposing to all, even to the simplest souls, the seeking in everything of God's good pleasure."  When these observations were read to him, Don Bosco exclaimed: "They want me to explain my method. Bah!... I don't even know it myself. I have always gone ahead as the Lord in- spired me and circumstances dictated."

This reply of Don Bosco, simple as it sounds at first reading, is, nevertheless, rich in practical mysticism-practical, in the sense that Don Bosco left it to God's providence to express His will in the events and circumstances of his mushrooming work among boys; mystical, in the sense that Don Bosco was a soul in the unitive way, moved by the lights and inspirations of the Holy Spirit, far above the domain of reason and natural prudence.


Devoid of theory, then, or better, using any theory that events and circumstances would dictate in the abiding love of God, St. John Bosco based his whole system of moral education on two pillars apt to bring about and preserve the union of a soul in the state of grace with its Maker and Lord. They are confession and Communion-first of all confession, following the praxis of Don Bosco's mentors in the spiritual life: St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus de Liguori.

In the happy and carefree environment of Salesian schools and centers a casual visitor, even a Catholic, is far from grasping the perennial supernatural viewpoint uppermost in the minds of the superiors and staff-the viewpoint that sin is a kill-joy, a tremendous obstacle to moral education. Salesians, following their founder, have been impressed with the idea that a soul not in the state of grace is not disposed to be good, nor to do good, nor is it capable of being educated, because Christ is absent! The educator does not work alone, he works with Christ. Docility in matters of the spirit, or teachableness in any line, comes only from the state of grace. Hence the great value attached to confession in a Salesian milieu.

Why daily Mass, if possible? Why feast-day celebrations? Why special devotions to the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Mother, if not to give the boys a chance to go to confession under the natural impulse of the liturgy, that they might clear up their souls or fortify them for their daily battles? Why the ease with which a Salesian pupil may at any time leave the room, his task, his play, if he desires the confessor's advise? Why the abundance of confessors, if not to leave the boy free in his choice of one who might best help him to unburden himself of sin? Confession is the high-road to grace, to love, and to the Communion rail. "What is more beautiful to work with, to form Christ within it," thought Don Bosco with the saints, "than a soul in the state of grace?" The educator is not working alone but with the Holy Spirit and hence not one method but many or even "none," as Don Bosco humbly hinted to Msgr. Dupuy, may be used.

Moral education through sacramental usage has rich rewards. St. John Bosco himself states: "Experience proves that the strongest props for adolescence are the sacraments of confession and Communion. Give me a boy who receives the sacraments and you will see him grow up in his youth, reach manhood, and arrive at old age, if it so pleases God, with a behavior that will be an example for all those that come to know him. Let this maxim be understood by the young in order to practice it; let it be understood by all those who are educators, to inculcate it."

To appreciate properly Don Bosco's contribution to sacramental usage on the part of adolescents it will be advantageous to consider what the sacramental theory and practice was at the time in which he lived. The Saint pursued the ordinary ecclesiastical studies at the major seminary from 1837 through 1843, later doing post-graduate work in moral theology at the convitto ecclesiastico of Turin, where St. Joseph Cafasso was teaching. At that time moral theologians, following Liguori, had a very definite praxis in regard to both confession and Communion. Chief of the technicalities which had to be mastered and put into practice was the division of confession (and Communion) into monthly, weekly, frequent (twice a week), and daily. Only very advanced souls were permitted frequent confession with correspondingly frequent Communion. It was the confessor who determined for his penitents the frequency of their reception of the sacraments. Most confessors allowed a boy to receive once a month if he showed signs of desiring to abstain from deliberate mortal sin, or if he fell only occasionally. On the other hand, he could receive once a week if he abstained from deliberate venial sins or com- mitted them only occasionally. To be admitted to frequent Communion a boy had to show a freedom from attachment to venial sin and a strong desire to receive our Lord in the Eucharist! As a result it was not very common. The above-mentioned pattern was followed by most confessors and priest-educators until 1905, when St. Pius X opened the gates to the reception of Holy Communion on a much more frequent basis. Hence, if Dominic Savio and many others of Don Bosco's pupils were permitted to receive daily Communion, the fact should cause great wonderment, as it evidences souls thoroughly imbued and moved by the grace of God!


St. John Bosco's spiritual program for youths cannot be fully understood without a consideration of his attitude toward school regulations. The modern-day student, confronted with rules and regulations, seems to regard them either (1) as an imposition from above, placed as a curb on his liberty of action, or (2) as a convenient pattern to follow in order to play the "game" right. Both attitudes were foreign to St. John Bosco, along with a third, commonly found among teachers, viz., that rules and regulations are but a means of obtaining order and discipline.

For Don Bosco, rules were a test of piety in adolescents. Exact- ness in daily duties was the foundation of his whole spiritual edifice. Rules were imposed that were practical, reasonable, but they always had this distinct flavor: they hid within themselves a spiritual program of progress in perfection attainable by the average boy. Rules have no value if they do not carry with them a spiritual motive. They must be observed in the presence of God, as an exercise in the love of God, and as a means of daily mortification of one's will. St. John Bosco went so far as to note that boys easily forget rules that have no supernatural motivation and sanction. How correct his judgment was is now a constant daily experience of Catholic religious teachers the world over. For Don Bosco rules became a matter of conscience, a matter for confessions, and good confessions meant an improvement in conduct and increased love of God.

It is recorded that on the night of May 30, 1865, St. John Bosco told his boys of a dream he had, in which he had seen his students and artisans offering gifts to the Blessed Mother. Their gifts were of many kinds: some beautiful and becoming, others common or strange. He saw many bouquets of carnations and roses; some with thorns, some with spikes, others already decaying. Don Bosco explained that the thorns represented the small disobediences and transgressions of the rules, such as keeping money on one's person without permission, disregard for the time table of the school, getting up late from sleep, sending and receiving letters without supervision, breaking silence and so on. "That's what the thorns mean," he concluded. "Many will wish to ask me: 'Is it or is it not a sin to break the rules of the school?' I have seriously thought over this question, and I answer: 'Yes, absolutely! I do not say whether it is a venial or a mortal sin (that depends on the circumstances) but there is sin.' It may be objected 'Where is it stated in God's law that we must obey the rules of the school?' I reply: 'In the Ten Commandments! The command to honor father and mother prescribes obedience not only to parents but to all who take their place as well, to all who are placed over us. If we are obliged to obey, it is necessary that some orders be given.' Such is the origin of the rules of the school and the reason they are binding in conscience."

No return is advocated to a past praxis of sacramental usage as mentioned earlier in this article, but a re-evaluation of the use and effectiveness of rules and regulations is in order if youth is to be brought to an intense love of God in this age of materialism and secularism. The following suggestions of St. John Bosco are well worth the consideration of all who are engaged in the moral training of youth:

  1. Provide youths with an abundance of confessors.
  2. Allow for ease of approach to the sacraments.
  3. Make the liturgical season and feasts occasions for the reception of the sacraments.
  4. Preach and teach the presence of God.
  5. Let the rules of a school be few and well chosen.
  6. Encourage their observance from supernatural motives and as an exercise in the love of God.

The Saint's whole program hinges on confession and Communion. To work with a boy not in the state of grace is to work without Christ!