Writings and testimonies of don bosco on spiritual life


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Aldo Giraudo

Don Bosco, a prolific religious writer, is not considered a “spiritual writer” in the classic sense of this term. We don't find texts by him which are analogous to the autobiographical writing of Saint Teresa d’Ávila, St John of the Cross or St Teresa of Lisieux. Nor did he write treatises or manuals of spiritual life similar to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, or the Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli, the Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales, the Exercise of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alonso Rodriguez or other ascetic works by Alphonsus Liguori. Nevertheless he left a broad testimony of spiritual teaching throughout his many writings and documented in memoirs collected by his disciples. This is why he can be considered a “master of spiritual life” especially for his very fruitful activity in forming saints, a spiritual guide of communities and individuals, founder of congregations, initiator of a historical movement with unmistakeable features which become a true school of Christian holiness1.

If we compare features of his magisterium and praxis with those of other spiritual schools we see clear connections with the teaching of St Francis de Sales, and substantial elements assimilated, through St Joseph Cafasso, of the moral and ascetic teachings of St Alphonsus Liguori, classic spirituality, Jesuit literature. In his apostolate too and especially in his outstanding charity to the young we see many points of contact with St Philip Neri. But Don Bosco is unmistakeable.

Through the Introduction to the Devout Life and the Spiritual Treatises, Francis de Sales passed on to him, reworks the substance of Italian spirituality of devout Humanism stressing the beauty of piety, source of spiritual joy, keeps a balance between human will and grace, and love simplifying practices so they can be readily available to common people. The Italian spiritual school also has a somewhat combative approach that comes from awareness of the presence in the human heart of the “double law” encouraging 'spiritual warfare', mortification of the senses, prayer and sacramental practice with a view to growth in virtue. Like Francis de Sales, Don Bosco looks optimistically at this struggle, in the certainty of victory, because of his belief in the power of sanctifying grace, the effectiveness of the Blood of Christ which makes human effort fruitful and makes the way to holiness possible for the little ones including youngsters. In consideration of this latter group's psychological structure, he looks after little things, gives more important to inward mortification than corporal mortification, relies on inner joy and emotion in piety, insists on unifying the life of prayer and action, educates to a spirit of adaptation and conciliation without ever detracting from the total gift of self to God.

This “giving oneself to God” which he insisted on with his boys is none other than the invitation to conversion through generosity and to the primacy of divine love, overcoming attachment and withdrawal. Substantially it is about leading each one to fully and finally take up his baptismal promises, live out one's baptism as a boy or teenager; being happy to put God at the centre of one's life, thoughts, interest. What springs from this is an inner energy which is fruitful in daily life in spiritual terms, gives rise to purification, virtue, aims at an active holiness, that is a well-integrated and joyful Christian existence expresses in fleeing from sin, practical charity, union with God, fidelity to one's duties especially duties of one's state in life, and fervent and fruitful human relationships.

The consequence of this choice is a life of zeal, marked by fidelity, obedient and joyful observance, permeated by kindness, warmth, service, action; it is an ongoing thing demonstrating self-control, purification of the heart and practising virtue; it becomes testimony, apostolic energy, vocation to serve the Church and society. From this point of view Don Bosco is more ascetic than mystic, even if love of God is the driving force, and even though the piety he fosters is characterised by perfect union of contemplation and action. It could not have been different given his contemplative but active character. He was a contemporary apostle. He wanted to be salt and light, the Gospel leaven in the earthly city in view of reaching the heavenly one.

Unmistakeable features of Don Bosco are his insistence on the centrality of obedience as a way of perfect conformation to Christ in the generous gift of self; his emphasis on the “beautiful virtue”, chastity, as essential for loving intimacy with God and a source of grace, as perfect realisation of giving oneself to Him who is loved above all things; the pedagogical worth of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist; promotion of a devotion to Our Lady inseparable from the decisive inner orientation to virtuous perfection by corresponding in practical terms to grace, zeal for the glory of God, the spirit of prayer, the exercise of everyday virtue, Eucharistic and apostolic fervour: a Marian devotion which could kindle a desire in young people for perfection at the highest level2.

A special aspect of his spirituality is the active and decisive role given to the Christian educator, his or her patient guidance, burning charity, zeal, daily dedication, and particular style of “assistance”. This is where we can place any discussion on the role of the confessor as educator, a friend of the soul who earns trust and gives rise to confidence; teaches the art of examination of conscience, forms to perfect contrition, encourages good resolutions, guides along the path of purification and virtue, introduces to taste for prayer and practice of God's presence, teaches ways to fruitful communion with Christ in the Eucharist. Frequent confession and communion are intimately bound up with Don Bosco's spiritual pedagogy. Regular diligent confessions promotes life “in God's grace” and nurtures a virtuous energy enabling one to approach frequent communion more worthily; at the same time conditions are created so that in Eucharistic communion God can take possession of the heart, so that grace finds the ideal inward conditions for it to be effective, transforming and sanctifying.

These features can be found throughout Don Bosco's spiritual magisterium. The spirituality of the Salesian religious is also imbued with this. The resolute giving of oneself to God which he proposed to the boys becomes a more radical, total thing in religious consecration, underlining the absolute primacy of God and the practical demands of following him unconditionally through the vows, a movement of complete conformation to Christ who is offered up in sacrifice. The substance is the same, that of an ardent charity that nurtures the unconditional gift of self in a practical but energetic unity which becomes obedient availability, spirit of sacrifice, ongoing work in the service of the mission, simplicity of life, serene chastity, fraternity, loving and solicitous service, and faithful observance.

In this third part, dedicated to Don Bosco's writings and testimonies on spiritual life, the quantity and variety of documentation meant a selection had to be made. The criteria adopted are historical relevance, significance and the role they can play as examples. There are six sections: 1. Guidelines on spiritual life for the young; 2. indications on spiritual life for Salesians and Daughters of Mary Help of Christians; 3. Guidelines for consistent, active Christian life; 4. The Marian dimension of Salesian spirituality; 5. Zeal for the salvation of souls: Don Bosco's models; 6. His Spiritual testament. Each section is introduced by a brief “presentation” illustrating and contextualising the sources it contains and criteria for choice.


There is no systematic writing by Don Bosco on spiritual formation of the young. However we find a good amount of printed material, biographical testimonies, formative interventions where we can identify a well-defined view of Christian life, along with some specific recurring themes, emphases on values and attitudes, insistence on virtuous behaviour to be nurtured and risks to avoid. All this allows us to reconstruct Don Bosco's spiritual horizons well-anchored in cultural parameters and sensitivities typical of his time and setting, and which clearly belong to earlier spiritual traditions. Just the same they display spiritual principles and pedagogical features which are particular to him and allow him to transpose them into a historical context and culture which was different from 18th century Italy. The items we present here are significant and exemplify this.

The section has four parts.

The first comprises substantial parts taken from the Companion of Youth (1847). This was a fundamental work by Don Bosco, “adapted to the times and the young”—as he writes in his Memoirs of the Oratory“appropriate for their religious ideas, based on the Bible”, and in which he explains “the basics of the Catholic religion with maximum brevity and clarity.”3 It is not just a collection of prayers but a small handbook on spiritual life with meditations, edifying readings, instructions and devotions aimed at nurturing the spirit of piety, touching youngsters' hearts and guiding them towards a complete and joyful Christian life. Study of this document is fundamental for grasping the basic features of Don Bosco's spiritual pedagogy4.

The second part includes a sample of letters addressed to individual boys or Salesian educational communities. We see features of Don Bosco's spiritual direction, his practical realism and tendency to simplify thingsthis was not a lowering of ideals but an educational strategy. The Christian orientation of his proposals is very clear. His suggestions are demanding ones. We see his constant reminders of daily life, its challenges and the responsibilities stemming from it. Don Bosco has the art of providing transcendent horizons of meaning and enthusiastic visions of the future and these inspire a very active life. Convinced of God's effective action in the human heart, he knows how to work with a youngster's better feelings, native generosity, in order to arouse real cooperation with sanctifying grace.

The third part draws on the original Regulations for the sodalities: St Aloyius Gonzaga (1847), the Immaculate Conception (1856) the Blessed Sacrament (1858). The sodalities were excellent tools for spiritual formation of the youthful élite at the Oratory and in Don Bosco's houses. They were reserved for boys who were more sensitive to interior life, and available for an all-encompassing spiritual journey, open to cooperating in educating their companions. The sodalities were an excellent nursery for Salesian vocations.

The fourth part has examples of Don Boscs talks to the boys, usually as Sunday instructions, or evening conversations ( “goodnights”) or accounts of his dreams. They are a good demonstration of a style of formation which was all Don Bosco's own.

The first edition of Il giovane provveduto (in English The Companion of Youth) appeared in 1847 and was Don Bosco's greatest publishing success. The year he died it had reached its 119th edition. It was reprinted with minor adaptations until 19615. It is also the book which Don Bosco most liked and constantly recommended.

It represents a point of arrival for his pastoral experiences amongst boys at the early Oratory and is the basis for developments in his plans for youthful holiness. We find in it the content and model of Christian living which he offered the boys, his unmistakeable “horizons of youth spirituality”6. This was the author's intention, declared right from the preface, where he says he wants to teach “a method of Christian living which is cheerful and content at the same time”, “brief and easy, but sufficient” so young people can become “the consolation of their parents, an honour to their town, good citizens on earth to then be the fortunate inhabitants of heaven.”

From the point of view of its content the book is split into three parts plus an appendix with hymns. The first part has a series of instructions and reflections on God, his special relationship with the young, Christian duties, eternal truths and the example of St Aloysius Gonzaga.

The second part offers a range of “particular exercises of Christian piety” which are out of the 18th century devotional context but chosen and organised for the special kind of Christian life Don Bosco liked to offer and in tune with his personal sensitivities: morning and evening prayer; suggestions for assisting fruitfully at holy Mass and approaching the sacraments; prayer for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament and for spiritual communion; prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Sorrows and other devout practices; prayers for the exercise for a happy death; an instruction on choice of state (included much later, after 1878).

The third part of the Companion of Youth has the Office to Our Lady and prayers for Vespers throughout the year.

Here we include the complete first and second parts of the Companion of Youth, including prayers and devotional practices common to 19th century Catholicism. Even here Don Bosco's publishing work has an unmistakeable feel about it. It is very instructive for the reader to retrace the texts the boys at Valdocco used for prayer every day, full of devout affections and spiritual energy, fruitful practical resolutions and ethical responsibility, targeted at ascetic and virtuous activity.

Scholars have identified the authors Don Bosco referred to frequently, but have also noted his criteria for selection or exclusion, his emphases and the connotations which give the work an unmistakeable personal imprint7. For example, the comment on the traps the devils sets for the boys to distract them from giving themselves to God from their childhood and the statement of perfect harmony between religion and happiness. Especially his insistence on childhood as a favourable time for working on virtue, and on a complete baptismal way of life with good results throughout life. The age of youth, according to Don Bosco, is the “key to one's whole earthly existence”8, a responsible and constructive age, a happy occasion for entering into a special relationship with God and for undertaking a virtuous and happy journey to holiness (Servite Domino in laetitia).

Other issues arise, and will recur constantly in the Saint's magisterium: the need to always be ready, because death can come at any moment, by always keeping our eye on our fate; union with God in a loving and self-giving relationship through prayer, devotional practices, and brief thoughts about God, offering things up; Marian devotion; the exercise of specific virtues such as love and fear of God, obedience and purity, charity and service; the exact and joyful fulfilment of one's duties of state; seeing to meditation, listening to the word of God, catechetical education; the need to mortify the senses, flee bad companions and occasions of sin; the strategic centrality of the sacraments of confession and communion which are the pillars of the formation approach Don Bosco used.

The importance of the Companion of Youth emerges especially when read in the light of all of Don Bosco's teaching and “his entire system and lifestyle” by which he immerses young people at the Oratory in daily life9. The reader can see this by comparing with other texts in this collection, especially the lives of Dominic Savio, Michael Magone and Francis Besucco.

Critical ed. in [Giovanni Bosco], Il giovane provveduto per la pratica de’ suoi doveri degli esercizi di cristiana pietà per la recita dell’ufficio della beata Vergine e dei principali vespri dell’anno coll’aggiunta di una scelta di laudi sacre ecc. Torino, Tipografia Paravia e Comp. 1847, pp. 5-143

(OE II, 185-323).
To the young

There are two main snares by which the devil usually tempts young people away from virtue. The first is to convince them that the service of the Lord consists in living a life of melancholy, devoid of all pleasure and enjoyment. This is not the case, my dear friends. I would like to teach you a kind of Christian life that will make you happy and contented. I want to show you what true enjoyment and pleasure is, so that you may follow the advice of the holy prophet David: “Serve the Lord with gladness: servite Domino in laetitia.” This, then, is the purpose of the present book: to teach you how to serve God and to be always happy.

The second snare is the hope of a long life, with the expectation of conversion in old age or when death threatens. Be careful, my dear boys, because many have been deceived in this manner. What assurance have we got that we shall ever reach old age? We cannot expect death to await our convenience at old age, since life and death are in God’s hands, and he apportions them as he sees fit. If God, however, grants you a long life, listen to the serious warning that he has uttered: A young man according to his way—even when he is old, he will not depart from it. Adolescens iuxta viam suam etiam cum senuerit non recedet ab ea. In other words, if we lead a good life when we are young, we shall be good when we are old, and our death will be happy, the beginning of eternal bliss. On the other hand, if vice takes hold of us in youth, it will gradually grow in the course of the different stages of our life until death, which will be the terrible herald of a most unhappy eternity. That this misfortune may not befall you, I have drawn up a scheme of life, brief and easy enough, which will enable you to be a joy to your parents, and a glory to your country, making you good citizens upon earth, and one day blessed inhabitants of Heaven …

My friends, I love you with all my heart, and your being young is reason enough for me to love you very much. You will certainly find books written by persons much more virtuous and much more learned than myself; but, I assure you, you would be hard put to find anyone who loves you more than I do in Jesus Christ, or who care more about your true happiness than I do. May God be always with you, and grant that by the practice of these few suggestions you may save your souls, and thereby increase His glory. That is the sole purpose of the writer of these pages.

Live happily and may the Lord be with you.

Affectionately yours in Jesus Christ,

Fr John Bosco

Part one: Things needed for a young person to become virtuous

Article 1 - An understanding of God

Look around you, my dear children, and see the wonders in the heavens and upon earth. The sun, moon, stars, air, water and fire are things that at one time did not exist. They could not have come into existence of themselves. God in his omnipotence made them out of nothing; hence he is called the “Creator”. When God, who always was and ever will be, had created what we see in this world of ours, he gave existence to man, who of all visible creation is the most perfect. Therefore our eyes, ears, tongue, hands, and feet are all gifts of God.

Man is distinguished from all other animals in a special manner, for he is endowed with a soul that thinks and reasons, and desires what is good, and judges what is good or what is evil. The soul, since it is a spirit, cannot die with the body; for when the body has been carried to the grave, the soul enters on another life that will never cease. If during its time on earth it has done good, it will be ever happy with God in Paradise, where it will enjoy happiness for all eternity. But if it has done evil, it will be punished with terrible pain in hell, where it will undergo the torments of fire and loss forever.

Bear in mind, my dear children, that we were created for Heaven. God, who is our loving Father, will condemn to Hell only those who deserve it on account of their sins. Oh! How much God loves us! How much God desires that we perform good works, so that we may share in that great joy which he has prepared for all of us in the eternity of Heaven.

Article 2 - God loves the young exceedingly

Since we are persuaded, my dear children, that we are created for Heaven, we should direct all our actions to this great end. The reward that God promises, and the punishment with which He threatens us should move us to act accordingly. Though He loves all people, since they are the work of His hands, still He has a particular love for the young, and tells us that He finds pleasure in their company: Deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum. So then you are the delight and the love of the God who created you. God loves you, and He expects many good works of you; He loves you, because you are natural, humble and innocent; in a word, because you have not yet fallen a victim to the snares of the devil.

Our Divine Saviour also shows a special kindliness towards you. He assures us that he considers all favours done to you as done to him. He threatens terribly those who give you scandal. Here are his own words: “But he that shall scandalise one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a mill-stone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.” He wished children to follow him: he called them to himself, he embraced them and gave them his blessing.

Since Our Lord loves you so much as the young people you are, you should form the sincere resolution to act in response to his love by doing whatever pleases him, and by avoiding whatever might offend him?

Article 3 - The salvation of the soul depends greatly upon the time of our youth

Two places have been prepared for us in our future life. Hell for the wicked where they will suffer every pain. Heaven for the good where they will enjoy all sorts of good things. Our Lord also wants you to know that if you practise virtue in your youth, you will be confirmed in it for the remainder of your days, which will be followed by an eternity of glory. On the other hand, if you begin badly in your youth, you will surely continue so until death, and inevitably secure hell for yourself. Therefore, when you see people addicted to the vices of drunkenness, gambling or swearing, you can be sure that these vices began in their youth: Adolescens juxta viam suam, etiam cum senuerit non recedet ab ea (Pr 22:6). Ah! “Remember your Creator,” we are admonished, “in the days of your youth”; Indeed, elsewhere he declares that the man who began to observe the commandments from his youth is a happy man.” This truth was well known to the saints, especially to St Rose of Lima and St Aloysius Gonzaga, who very early on began to serve the Lord fervently, and later found no satisfaction save in what pertained to him, and thereby became great saints. The same can be said of the son of Tobias, who from the earliest days of his childhood was always obedient and submissive to his parents. When they died, he continued to live most virtuously until his death.

But some of you may object: if we begin to serve God now, we shall become sad and depressed. This is not true. He who serves the devil is miserable, even if he pretends to be happy, because in his heart he never ceases to hear the reproach: You are unhappy because you are the enemy of God. Who was more affable or more cheerful than St Aloysius Gonzaga? Who was more happy and joyful than St Philip Neri? And yet we know that their lives were entirely spent in the practice of every virtue. Courage then, my dear friends; employ your time virtuously, and I assure you that your heart will always be happy and contented. As a consequence you will experience how sweet and pleasing it is to serve the Lord.
Article 4 - The first virtue of youth is obedience to parents and superiors

A tender plant, though planted in good soil in the garden, will put down weak roots and finally wither away unless cultivated carefully until it gains strength. So you, my dear children, will surely yield to evil if you do not allow yourselves to be guided by those who have responsibility for guiding you. This guidance is the responsibility of your parents and those who take their place; to them you owe willing obedience. “Honour your father and your mother,” says Our Lord, “that you may have long life upon the land.” But in what does this honour consist? It consists in obeying, respecting, and assisting them. As for obedience, when they give a command you should carry it out promptly, without any show of opposition. Do not act like those who murmur, shrug their shoulders, shake their heads, or worse still answer back insolently. Such children give great offence to their parents and to God himself, for the Will of God is expressed through the commands of our parents. Our Saviour, although all-powerful, submitted himself to the Blessed Virgin and to St Joseph, the humble carpenter, becoming obedient to his Heavenly Father unto death, even to the death of the cross.

You should likewise show great respect to your father and mother, and never undertake anything without their permission. Never show impatience in their presence, and never reveal their faults. St Aloysius always first sought his parents’ permission, or, if they were absent, he even asked leave of the servants. Young Louis Comollo was obliged one day to stay away from home longer than his parents had allowed, but when he returned he humbly and sorrowfully asked pardon for his involuntary disobedience.

You must also be ready to wait on your parents, and assist them when they are in need, both for the domestic services you are capable of doing but even more by giving them any money, gift, clothing you might receive and other such ways that are open to you. Pray to God for them morning and evening, asking him to grant them every spiritual and temporal good.

What I have said to you about obedience and respect for parents, you should also practise towards your superiors, be they ecclesiastics or lay. Likewise you should obey your teachers with respectful humility and willingly accept instruction, counsel and correction. Be assured that whatever they do is to improve you. Be convinced also that obedience shown to your superiors is, as if it were, shown to Jesus Christ himself and to Mary most holy and to St Aloysius.

I recommend two things to you with all my heart. The first is that you be sincere with your elders, not covering up your failings by pretending, much less denying them. Always tell the truth frankly; as well as offending God, lies make you a child of the devil, prince of lies, and when the truth will out you will then have a reputation as a liar and will not be trusted either by superiors or friends. Secondly, let the advice and warnings of your superiors be your rule of life and work. Blessed are you if you do this; your days will be happy; everything you do will be properly ordered and will edify everyone. So let me conclude by saying to you: give me an obedient child and he will be a saint. Otherwise he will be lacking in every virtue.

Article 5 - The respect due to churches and other things belonging to religion

Obedience to and respect for your superiors needs to be joined by respect for churches and all other things belonging to religion. We are Christians, therefore we should respect everything regarding this state and especially the church which is called the Lord's temple, a place of holiness, a house of prayer where anything we ask God for will be given us. In ea omnis qui petit accipit [Lk 11:10]. Ah my dear boys! What great pleasure you give Jesus Christ, what good example you give to the people if you are there devoutly and recollectedly! When Saint Aloysius went to church the people ran there to see him and they were all edified by his modesty and behaviour. When you come into church, without running or making a noise to the holy water and then kneel and adore the Blessed trinity with three Glory be to the Fathers etc.

In case it is not yet time for the sacred functions you can recite the joys of Mary or some other exercise of piety. See that you do not laugh in church, or speak without necessity, because just one word or smile is enough to cause scandal and disturb those present at the sacred functions. Saint Stanislaus Kostka was so devout when he was in church that often he did not hear people call him nor felt them when they pushed him as his servants used do when they wanted him to return home.

I recommend the highest respect for priests and religious. Accept with respect whatever they suggest to you; take off your cap as a sign of reverence when you are speaking with them or you meet them on the street. But mainly do not show disrespect for them in words or deeds, because when some young men mocked the Prophet Elisha by calling him names, God punished them by letting bears come out from the forest and mauling forty of them. Whoever does not respect the sacred ministers must fear that the Lord will do something bad to them. Whenever you speak about them imitate young Louis Comollo who used say: “Either speak well of priests or keep quiet.” I should also warn you never to be ashamed of being Christians outside of Church. When you go past a church or statue or picture of Mary, do not fail to take off your cap as a mark of reverence. Thus you will show that you are true Christians and the Lord will fill you with blessings for the good example you have shown to your neighbour.

Article 6 - Reading and the Word of God

As well as the usual morning and evening prayers I also urge you to spend some time reading some books dealing with spiritual matters, like the Imitation of Christ, the Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, the Preparation for Death by St Alphonsus, Jesus at the Heart of the Young10.

If you read some parts of these books indicated above you will find they are of great advantage to your souls. You will have twice the merit before God if you recount what you have read to others, or you read it in their presence, especially if someone cannot read.

A body without food gets sick and dies, and the same thing happens to our soul if we do not give it its food. The Word of God is food, nourishment for the soul, meaning sermons, explanations of the Gospel, and the catechism. So make every effort to be in church when you should be, pay close attention while there and then try to apply the things they offer you to your state in life. It is very important that you attend catechism lessons; it is no good your saying: “I have already been promoted for holy communion” because even then the soul needs food just like the body needs food; and if you deny the soul this food you put yourselves at risk of very serious harm.

I recommend that you make every possible effort to go to your parishes and fulfil these duties of yours. God has given your parish priest the special task of looking after your souls. Be careful too of the snares of the devil when he suggests to you: he is doing this for my friend Peter, or yes, that would be good for Paul. No, my dear friends, the preacher is speaking to you. All the truths he is telling you are intended for you to apply to yourselves. And on the other hand what is not helpful for correcting you will help to keep you away from certain sins.

When you listen to a sermon, try to remember it throughout the day, and in the evening, especially before going to bed, pause a moment to reflect on what you have heard. If you do this it will be of great advantage to your soul.

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