St John Bosco; an educator and a man of God

The connection between religion and education is present in every Abrahamic religion. Frank Gelli recalls the legacy of S John Bosco who dedicated his life to educating the poor and underprivileged.

Education, education, education’. A slogan once used by British PM Tony Blair to boast of his priorities. Whether he succeeded or miserably failed is a matter of dispute. However, it is certain that nothing could be more important for any country than educating its young. That was the goal to which a peasant boy called John Bosco dedicated his life. In his case, it was an extraordinary success. Also an encouraging example, perhaps, for those who believe that faith schools have much to contribute to society.

Born two hundred years ago in Piedmont, Northern Italy, the boy John from the beginning felt drawn to working amongst the young, especially those from a humble background. Poor himself, his parish priest taught him to read and write but it was his beloved, widowed mother, Margaret, who nurtured him into religion. She introduced her son to those habits of piety and devotion which became the solid foundation of John’s teaching ministry – a wonderful revolution for good.

Short, sturdy and curly-headed, with sparkling eyes and an infectious smile, young John showed early a gift for drawing other youngsters to God. Above all, he wanted to help the poor. After being ordained as a priest, he started a hostel for homeless lads, vagrants and orphans. Father John well knew that ‘Idle hands make the devil’s work’, so he also set up workshops for teaching practical, useful skills, like tailoring, shoe-making, book-binding, brick-laying and carpentry. Trades that would at least enable his charges – many of whom today might fall into the category of ‘young offenders’ – to learn an honest living. Naturally the local, respectable folks complained about the presence of rough kids. ‘Fr John must be quite mad to surround himself with such riff-raff’’, they muttered. Even his mum felt they were too much, whereupon her son silently pointed to the image of Christ. That won her over and Fr John’s work continued and indeed prospered.

“Religion was the cement that held learning and recreation together, never a tool for dominating or oppressing others. In education, faith really works!

It was a stormy time for Europe. The movement for Italian independence was at its height. The Italian patriots were by and large anti-religion. Some were violently opposed to John Bosco’s apostolate towards the poor. Masonic lodges, extremely powerful in Piedmont, were particularly virulent against him. He was threatened, defamed, attacked in print and in body, even shot at, but they found in him a worthy, feisty adversary who rose up to the challenge. He poured out a stream of pamphlets and tracts rebutting his enemies. He also made fun of them. It worked. The freemasons snarled but withdrew, frustrated and defeated.
In 1857 Fr John’s homes and workshops had grown so much that he gathered them and his priestly helpers into a religious institute called ‘Salesian Society’. So named after St Francis of Sales, for whose quiet spirituality John Bosco had a deep attachment. Nor did he neglect the needs of girls. In 1872, aided by a young woman from Genoa, Maria Mazzarello, the priest began a female organisation for similar work among girls, ‘The Daughters of Mary’. That too quickly met with good fortune. Today, Salesian schools and colleges are spread all over the world. A phenomenal success story. What was John’s secret?

‘I have no system’, he said in answer to inquiries. ‘I just try to make things attractive to young people’. Fr John was blessed with a natural gift for innocent amusements. As a boy he could sing, dance, be a ventriloquist, do conjuring tricks and even tight-rope walking. So he later used music, songs, sport, games, story-telling, anything that would interest and amuse. Also, he addressed his children not in pompous, ‘clerical’ tones but in simple, natural ways they could understand. In times of recreation his attitude was friendly and tolerant. His motto was: ‘do as you wish, as long as you do not sin’. Mind you, he would not tolerate bad language, blasphemies, impure talk or behaviour. At those he would draw the line.

Although he might not have embraced a strict system, Fr John had a method. His way was to train character, to shape young people both physically and morally. To do that he made use of religion. His youths were instructed in the Christian faith. They were encouraged, though not obliged, to attend church services. He and his assistants would preach very short sermons, filled with interesting images and anecdotes. They did not bore the youngsters but tried to interest and stimulate them. In that way he gradually and effortlessly inculcated into the young minds the vital distinction between right and wrong, making his kids into good citizens. A pioneer of faith schools, I wish to suggest. Religion as contributing to civil duties.

Some may see in Fr John’s method parallels with the famous (or notorious?) English private, boarding schools, perversely called ‘public schools’. They too at their best were supposed to combine learning with training of character through sport, games and religion. However, a vital distinction is that the English public schools were and are fee-paying institutions, for long largely or exclusively reserved for the children of the rich, the scions of the upper or aristocratic classes. In the days of the British Empire, such schools were meant to produce rulers, military officers and administrators needed to run a worldwide machine of robbery and plunder, thriving on the exploitation of colonial peoples. By contrast, the Salesian schools were not meant for the rich but for the poor, the marginalised and the underprivileged. They were free, aiming at teaching not just academic subjects but also useful skills and metiers. Religion was the cement that held learning and recreation together, never a tool for dominating or oppressing others. In education, faith really works!
There is the question of school discipline, without which no teaching and learning are possible. That was a time when corporal punishment in schools was a matter of course. Pupils could be beaten, caned or birched for most transgressions. Amazingly, Fr John once said that he could not recall ever formally punishing a boy. He disliked repressive means, favouring prevention instead. Nor did he ike to stress the fear of Hell, so de riguer in centuries past. His counsel to his helpers was: ‘Be kind. Never preach fear unless you have first preached love. Talk first of the merciful God, last of the Devil. Draw out whatever evil you may discern by cultivating the elements of goodness present in all souls. Teach them to fly upwards, into the joys of Heaven. Once they have caught a glimpse of the supernal truths, they will not want to come down, sinking back into the mud.’
Despite his heroic virtue and outward cheerfulness, Fr John was not spared inner trials, physical as well as spiritual. He suffered from splitting headaches, eczemas, depressions, doubts and even an occasional sense of despair. Many great saints have spoken of undergoing similar tests as ‘the dark night of the soul’. It seems the Devil is always keen on attacking those who are closest to the Lord. Persevering in prayer throughout was the servant of God’s best defensive and ultimately victorious weapon.
John Bosco died in 1888. He was canonised, proclaimed a saint of the Catholic Church in 1934. (His feast day falls on 31 January.) Today there are 16.000 Salesian priests and lay brothers working in 131 countries. They run schools of all kinds, not just for the disadvantaged but also first class colleges. In Britain there are six secondary schools in which the sons and daughters of St John Bosco are actively involved. I can think of no better words to hint at St John’s eternal reward for his labours than those of the parable of the Talents in St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter now into the joy of your Lord.’


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