St. John Bosco – An exhortation to educators

Don Bosco
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Letter from St. John Bosco to his Salesians, from Rome, May 10, 1884 outlining the place of friendship, relationship and recreation in his ‘preventative’ approach.

contents: preface · an exhortation to educators · how to cite this piece

Don Bosco (1815-1888) was a talented educator and animateur. He was particularly concerned with the needs of young people. His work initially looked to encourage work with children and young people in the sorts of settings familiar to youth workers. The main form he adopted was the youth oratory – a mixture of what might be called a youth club and a youth parish. Later he was to turn his attention to schooling, particularly trade schools.  His educational system is often described as the ‘preventive system’. It was an approach built on love and the character of the educator. The concern, in Don Bosco’s words, was for learners ‘to obey not from fear or compulsion, but from persuasion. In this system all force must be excluded, and in its place charity must be the mainspring of action’. He taught that educators should act like caring parents; always be gentle and prudent; allow for the thoughtlessness of youth; be alert for hidden motives; speak kindly; give timely advice; and ‘correct often’. Alongside love, Don Bosco stressed the importance of reason and religion. His educational method was largely developed through reflection upon his own experience and disseminated through letters, talks and example. Don Bosco also founded the Salesian Society – now the third largest Catholic religious order in the world – in 1859. The Society was named after St. Francis de Sales who was known for his kindness and gentleness, a trait which Don Bosco wanted his Salesians to acquire. In Britain they have focused on the provision of Catholic secondary schools initially for ‘the aspiring working class’, homes and residential schools for children at risk, and more recently local community projects and retreats.


Dear sons in Jesus Christ,

Near or far, I am always thinking of you. My only desire is to see you happy both in this world and the next. That is why I am writing this letter to you. My absence from you weighs heavily on me, and not being able to see and hear you hurts me more than you can imagine. Indeed, I wanted to write to you a week ago but was prevented from doing so by endless business. It will not be all that long now before I am back among you, nevertheless I want to anticipate my return by means of a letter since I am unable to come in person. I am speaking as one who loves you tenderly in Christ Jesus and who feels it his duty to speak to you with the freedom of a father. You’ll allow me that, won’t you? And you will listen to me carefully and do what I tell you.

As I said, you are the sole object of my thoughts. Well then, I went up to my room a few nights ago and began to say the prayers my good mother taught me, before getting into bed, and whether I was simply overcome by sleep or carried away by a distraction I don’t really know, but it seemed that two of the former pupils of the Oratory were standing there before me.

One of them came forward and greeted me affectionately, saying “Don Bosco! Do you know me?” “Of course, I do,” I replied. “And do you remember me?” he went on. “Yes, not only you, but the others too. You’re Valfre and you were at the Oratory before 1870.”

“Tell me,” he added, “would you like to see the boys who were at the Oratory in my time?” “Oh, yes, let me see them.” I replied, “I would be delighted.”

Valfre then showed me the boys just as they were at that time, the same features, height and so on. It seemed to me that I was in recreation in the Oratory of those days. Everywhere I looked there was life, movement and joy; some were running, some jumping, some skipping. Some were playing leap-frog, some tag, some with a ball; in one corner was a huddle of boys hanging on the words of one of the priests as he told them a story; in another corner a cleric was playing with a group of lads. There were songs and laughter on all sides, Brothers and Priests everywhere and the joyful cries of the boys around them. It was perfectly clear that the greatest cordiality and confidence existed between the boys and their superiors. I was overjoyed by the sight and Valfre said to me: “As you can see familiarity breeds affection and affection breeds confidence. This is what opens hearts; the boys can open up without fear to their teachers, assistants and superiors. They become frank both inside and outside the confessional and in general they show great docility to the commands of those of whose love they are sure.”

At that moment the other past pupil, who had a pure white beard, now came forward and said: “Don Bosco, would you like now to know and see the boys who are at the Oratory today?” It was Joseph Buzzetti who spoke.

“Yes,” I replied, “For it is more than a month since I last saw them.”

So he showed me them. I saw the Oratory and everyone of you in recreation. But the cries of joy and the songs I no longer heard, nor was there the lively activity of the previous scene. Instead boredom, weariness and ill-humour could be seen in the actions and on the faces of many of the lads, together with a lack of trust which made me sore at heart. There were many, it is true, who were moving and running about in a spirit of carefree joy. But I saw others, and their number was anything but small, standing by themselves, leaning against the pillars where they were a prey to disturbing fantasies, or standing on the steps or in the corridors or on the garden terraces, trying to get away from the common recreation. Some were strolling about in groups, talking in subdued voices and casting suspicious and furtive glances in every direction; they would smile from time to time but the glances that accompanied their smiles made it plain that St. Aloysius would have blushed had he been in their company. Even among those who ran around there were some who put so little heart into what they were about that it was quite clear they had no real taste for their games.

“Have you seen your boys?” said my past pupil.

“I can see them.” I said, sadly. “How different they are from what we used to be,” went on my good past-pupil. “Alas! What a lack of interest in the recreation!”

“Here you have the reason why they approach the sacraments so coldly, why they neglect their practices of piety in the church and elsewhere, why they stay so unwillingly in a place where Divine Providence endues them with every blessing for body, soul and mind; this is why many do not correspond with their vocation, why superiors meet with ingratitude, why you get secret groups forming, with grumbling and all the other deplorable consequences.”

“I see; I understand,” I replied. “But how am I to put fresh life into my dear boys that they may be as active, joyful and expansive as before?”

“With charity!”

“With charity? Are my boys not loved enough? Surely you know that I love them. You know how much I have suffered and put up with for their sake for 40 years and more, and how much I still endure and suffer for them. The weariness, humiliations, opposition, persecutions, to find them bread and board, and teachers, but above all to help them to save their souls. I have done all I could for their sakes, for they are the object of all my affections.”

“I’m not talking about you!”

“Whom are you talking about then? About those who take my place? The Rectors, prefects, teachers and assistants? Surely you see that they are martyrs to work and study and that they wear out their young lives for those whom Providence has confided to them?”

“I can see that and I am well aware of it, but it’s not enough; the best thing is missing.”

“What is lacking then?”

“That the boys should not only be loved, but realize that they are loved.”

“But have they not got eyes in their heads? Have they no intelligence? Can’t they see how much is being done for them out of love?”

“No. I repeat, that’s not enough.”

“Well then, what is needed?”

“That they be loved in the things which they themselves like by a sharing in their youthful interests; in this way they will learn to see your love in matters which naturally speaking are not very pleasing to them, as is the case with study, discipline, and self-denial: in this way they will learn to do these things also with love.”

“Could you clarify that a little?”

“Just look at your boys in recreation.”

I looked and then replied: “Well, what’s special about it?”

“Don’t you understand after all these years in the education of the young? Have a better look. Where are the Salesians?”

As I looked I saw that there were very few priests and clerics mixing with the boys and fewer still taking part in their games: the superiors were no longer the heart and soul of the recreation; most of them were walking up and down by themselves conversing together and paying little attention to what the boys were doing; others were looking on at the recreation but with no real concern for the boys; others watched from a distance with never a word to those at fault; some did warn the boys but rarely and when they did so it was in a threatening manner. There were some Salesians who did want to mix with the boys only to discover that the latter wanted earnestly to get away from the masters and the superiors.

It was then that my friend went on: “In the old days at the Oratory you were always among the boys, weren’t you, especially during the recreation? Do you remember those marvellous years? It was a foretaste of heaven, years that we always remember with love for in those days it was affection that took the place of rule and from you we had no secrets.”

“Yes, indeed, in those days everything was a joy to me, with the boys rushing to gather around me, glad to listen to me, anxious to hear my advice and act on it. But you see how I am kept from them today with endless visits, increasing business and ill-health.”

“True, but if you cannot do it, why don’t your Salesians do so? Why don’t you insist that they treat the boys as you did?”

“But I do. I talk until I’m hoarse but alas, there are many who feel that they just couldn’t stand up to the strains of the past.”

“And so neglecting the less, they lose the more, the ‘more’ being their labours. Let them like what the boys like, and the boys will come to like what the superiors like. This will make the work easy. The reason for the present change in the Oratory is the lack of confidence in their superiors on the part of many boys. In the past hearts were wide open to the superiors, for the boys loved them and obeyed them promptly. Today however, the superiors are seen precisely as superiors and not at all as fathers, brothers and friends. That’s why the boys are afraid of them and don’t love them. If you want to see everyone of one heart and one mind again, then, for the love of God, you must break down the fatal barrier of distrust and put a happy spirit of confidence in its place. Then, just as a mother guides her child, so obedience will guide the boys, and there will be peace and joy at the Oratory once again, as in the days gone by.”

“How are we to go about breaking down this barrier?”

“By a friendly relationship with the boys, especially in recreation. Affection can’t be shown without this friendly relationship, and unless affection is seen there can be no confidence. He who wants to be loved must first show his own love. Our Lord made himself little with the little ones and bore our infirmities. He is our Master in this matter of the friendly approach. A master who is only seen in the master’s chair is just a master and nothing more, but if he goes into recreation with the boys he becomes their brother.

If someone is only seen preaching from the pulpit, it will be said that he does his duty, neither more nor less, whereas if he whispers a little word in recreation, this is seen as the word of a friend. How many conversions were brought about by those few words which you whispered suddenly in a boy’s ear, in the thick of the game! When a person knows he is loved, he will love in return, and when a person is loved he can get anything, especially from boys. This confidence sets up an electric current between boys and superiors. Hearts are opened, needs and weaknesses made known. This love enables superiors to bear with weariness, annoyance, ingratitude, or the troubles, failings and neglect of the boys. Our Lord did not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax. He is your model. In this way, no one will be seen working out of vainglory or dealing out punishment out of wounded self-love, no one will be seen withdrawing from the work of assisting through jealous fear of another’s popularity, nor criticising the others in the hope of winning the boys love and esteem for himself to the exclusion of the others, gaining nothing in fact but contempt and hypocritical flattery. No one will lose his heart to some creature and, through paying court to him, forget about the rest of the boys. No one will neglect his bounden duty of assisting through a love of ease and comfort; no one will ever be seen refraining from correction, where correction is due, through human respect. With this true love only the glory of God and the good of souls will be sought. It is when there is a cooling off in such love that things go badly. Why let charity yield to cold legislation? Why are superiors moving away from the educational directives given them by Don Bosco? Why the steady replacement of loving and watchful prevention by a system which consists in framing laws? This is certainly less trying and a lot more convenient for the superior, but laws which are enforced by punishments stir up hatred and give rise to bitterness, whilst laws which are not enforced at all arouse only contempt for the superiors and cause serious disorders.

This is sure to happen where there is no friendly relationship. If then you want the Oratory to return to the happiness of former days, then let the system of those days flourish again. Let the superior be all things to everyone, ready to listen to the troubles or complaints of the boys, watching over their conduct with a father’s care, whole-hearted in his efforts for the spiritual and temporal welfare of those whom Providence has entrusted to him.

In this way hearts will no longer be closed and those furtive, fatal cliques will disappear. Let superiors be inexorable only in cases of scandal. It is better to run the risk of sending an innocent boy away then of keeping one who is the cause of scandal. Assistants should make it a strict obligation of conscience to refer to the superior whatever they know to be an offence against God.”

I then put this question to him: “What is the best way of bringing about this friendly relationship and this love and this confidence?”

“The exact observance of the rules of the house.”

“Is that all?”

“The best dish at dinner is a cheerful face.”

As my old friend finished speaking and I looked on sadly at the recreation, a feeling of weariness crept over me. It got stronger all the time. It became so overpowering that I could no longer bear it: I shook myself and came to.

I found I was standing by my bed. My legs were so swollen and painful that I could no longer keep on my feet. As it was very late I went to bed, resolved however to write these lines to my dear sons.

I wish I didn’t have these dreams, they leave me so exhausted. I was exhausted the next day, and thought the night would never come, so much did I want to get to bed. Yet I was hardly in bed when the dream began all over again. There was the yard before me, the present generation of Oratory boys and the same past pupil. I began to question him.

“I’ll tell my Salesians what you told me, but what should I say to the boys of the Oratory?” “Tell them,” he replied, “that they should try to realize how much their masters and assistants love them since they work so hard and zealously for them; that if they weren’t doing this for the good of the boys, they would never accept so many sacrifices. Remind them that humility is the source of all peace and that they should learn to put up with the failings of others since there is no perfection in this world but only in the next. Tell them to put an end to criticism which makes the heart grow cold, and most of all, tell them to make every effort to live in the holy grace of God. If we are not at peace with God, we are not at peace with ourselves nor with one another.”

“Are you telling me that some of my boys are not at peace with God?”

“This is the first cause of bad spirit, among other things which you know well enough without my mentioning them, and which you must remedy. Indeed the only person who shows distrust is one who has secrets to guard, who is afraid they may become known and cause him unhappiness and shame. At the same time, if his heart is not at peace with God, he will be a prey to restless anxiety, intolerant of obedience and will get upset for nothing at all. He will feel that everything is going against him and because he is without love himself, he will think the superiors have none in his regard either.”

“But surely, my good friend, you can see for yourself how regularly the sacraments of confession and communion are received in the Oratory!”

“That is so; many do go to confession but what is basically lacking in the confessions of so many young people, is a firm purpose of amendment. They confess all right but the faults are always the same, the same acts of disobedience and the same neglect of duty. So it goes on for months and months, for years and years and right up to the top form. Such confessions are worth little or nothing, they bring no peace and if a young man were called before the tribunal of God in such a state, it would be a serious matter indeed.”

“Are there many boys like that in the Oratory?”

“No. Considering the large number of boys in the house, they are few.” So saying he let me see them.

I looked and saw each of these boys in turn. There were not many but what I saw in them made me very sad at heart. I won’t say in my letter what I saw, but as soon as I get back I intend to have a word with each of the boys in question. For the moment I shall simply say that it is time for prayer and firm resolutions: to show by deeds and not just by words that the Comollos, the Dominic Savios, the Besuccos and Saccardis are still among us.

I put a final question to my friend: “Have you anything else to tell me?”

“Tell them all, both young and old, not to forget Mary’s help of Christians. Tell them that she has brought them together to protect them from the dangers of the world, so that they may love one another as brothers and give glory to God and to her by their good conduct. Tell them that it is Our Lady who sends them bread and the means to study, by a constant flow of favours and marvels. Remind them that they are on the threshold of their holy Mother’s feast, with whose help there must come down the barrier of distrust which the devil has so cunningly erected between the superiors and the boys, which he exploits for the ruination of certain souls.”

“Shall we succeed in breaking down this barrier?”

“Certainly you will, provided that both young and old alike are willing to perform some little mortification in honour of Our Lady, and if they put into practice what I have told you.”

Meanwhile I kept my eyes on the boys but the sight of those whom I saw heading for eternal ruin hurt my heart so much that I woke up.

There is a whole host of things, all important, that I should like to tell you about, but I have neither time nor opportunity now.

I must finish off. Do you know what this old man who has spent his life for his dear boys, wants from you? One thing only, that, due allowances being made, the happy days of the Oratory may return; the days of affection and Christian confidence between the boys and superiors; the days of affability and mutual forbearance for the love of Jesus Christ; the days when hearts were open in all simplicity and candour, the days of charity and true happiness for all. I need the consolation of your promise that you will do all I ask of you for the good of your souls. You do not realize sufficiently how fortunate you are in being given shelter at the Oratory. I can tell you before God, that it is enough for a boy to enter a Salesian house for our blessed Lady to take him immediately under her special protection. Let us all be at one in this: let the charity of those who are in authority and the charity of those who have to obey cause the spirit of St. Francis de Sales to reign among us.

Oh, my dear boys, the time is drawing near when I shall have to leave you and depart for eternity. [Secretary ‘s note: At this point Don Bosco broke off the dictation; his eyes filled with tears, not of sorrow but because of the ineffable tenderness that was evident from his looks and words; after a few moments he went on.] That is why, O my dear Fathers and Brothers and dearest boys, I want to leave you on the road which the Lord himself would have you.

To this end the Holy Father whom I saw on May 9th, sends you his blessing with all his heart. On the feast of Mary Help of Christians I shall be back with you before the statue of our loving mother. I want this great feast to be celebrated with the maximum solemnity and I would like Don Lazzero and Don Marchisio to see to it that you enjoy yourselves in the refectory as well. The feast of Mary Help of Christians must be the prelude to the neverending feast that we must celebrate later when we are all united in Paradise.

Affectionately in Christ,
Father John Bosco

Rome, May 10, 1884

How to cite this piece:  Bosco, Don (1884) ‘An exhortation to educators’, Rome, May 10, 1884. Available in the informal education archives:

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject  to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain. First placed in the archives: January 2006. Update June 2019.