Writings and testimonies of don bosco on spiritual life

Panegyric in honour of St Philip Neri


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296. Panegyric in honour of St Philip Neri

ASC A2250704, original ms by don Bosco118 (cf. MB IX, 213-221).

[I. Opening]

Although the virtues and actions of the saints are all directed to the same end, which is the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls, there are different ways of achieving the sublime degree of holiness which God called them to. The reason seems to be this: in the wonderful dispensation of God's gifts and different ways and diverse paths he calls us to himself so that all the various virtues contributing to adorn and beautify our holy religion cover, so to speak, the holy Church with the mantle of variety that the face appear in the eyes of the heavenly bridegroom as a queen seated on the throne of glory and majesty. In fact, we admire the fervour of many individuals who are either distrustful of themselves in time of persecution or fear shipwreck in the world and abandoned home, relatives, friends, and anything they owned to go into barren and barely habitable deserts. Others, who were also courageous soldiers of the King of Heaven, faced every danger and disregarding sword, fire and death itself joyfully offered their lives, confessing Jesus Christ and sealing with their own blood the truths they so greatly proclaimed. Then there were groups driven by the desire to save souls who went to distant lands, while many others added splendour after splendour to the Church of Jesus Christ among us by study, preaching, and reserve, and practising other virtues. Then there were some made after God's heart who covered such a range of virtues, knowledge, courage and heroic actions which make it so very clear that God is wonderful in his saints: Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis (Ps. 66:36). Every era of the Church has been glorified by some hero of the Faith. Amongst others in the sixteenth century there was St Phlip Neri, whose virtues are the object of this respectable gathering and of our poor discourse.

But what could I possibly say about a saint whose actions collected only in a summary form take up huge volumes? Actions which alone are enough to give a perfect model of virtue to the simple Christian, the fervent monk, the most hard working clergyman? For these reasons I do not intend to widely expound all the actions and all the virtues of Philip, because you, better than I, have already read, meditated on and imitated them. I will simply give you a hint of what it is like the cornerstone around which are built so to speak, all the other virtues; his zeal for the salvation of souls! This is the zeal recommended by the divine Saviour when he said: "I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled, Ignem veni mittere in terram et quid volo nisi ut accendatur?” (Lk 12:49). Zeal that made the Apostle Paul exclaim that "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh, Optabam ego ipse anathema esse a Christo pro fratibus meis” (Rm 9:3).

But gentlemen, I have never put myself in such a critical position! I who could really be your pupil and am pretending now to be your teacher? It is true, and just to escape the accusation of being reckless I ask you first to kindly put up with me if the little I offer does not match your expectations. However, I hope in the Lord's grace and the protection of our saint.

[II. Philip in Rome]

As an introduction to the topic, listen to this interesting episode. It is about a young man just about twenty years of age who was moved by desire for the glory of God, and abandoned his parents. He was the only son and he renounced the substantial wealth of his father and of a rich uncle who wanted him to be the sole heir. Unbeknownst to anyone, without any means whatsoever, and depending only on Divine Providence he left Florence and went to Rome. Now look at him: he was taken in charitably by a fellow citizen (Caccia Galeotto). And there he was standing in one corner of the courtyard of the house, looking towards the city and caught up in deep thought. Let us go up to him and ask him.

“Young man, who are you and what are you so anxiously looking at?”

“I am a poor young foreigner. I am looking at this great city and one thought occupies my mind, but I fear that it is folly, and recklessness.”

“What's that?”

“Consecrating myself to the good of so many souls, so many poor boys who for want of religious instruction are on the road to perdition.”

“Do you have any learning?”

“I have hardly done primary school.”

“Do you have material means?”

“Nothing: I only have the load of bread that my master charitably gives me every day.”

“Do you have churches, houses?”

“All I have is a low, narrow room kindly given me to use. My wardrobe is a simple rope stretched from one wall, and from which I hang my clothes and all my gear.”

“How, then, without a name, no learning, no means and no place, can you undertake so huge an enterprise?”

“That is true: it is precisely this lack of means and merit that are occupying my thoughts. God of course, who has given me the courage, God who raised up Abraham's children from the stones, this same God is the one who ...”

This poor young man, gentlemen, is Philip Neri who was thinking of reforming the Christians in Rome. He was looking at the city but alas! How does he see it! He sees that it has been the slave of foreigners for many years; he sees it horribly tormented by pestilence, misery; sees it after being besieged for three months, fought, conquered, plundered and destroyed, we can say. This city is the field where young Philip would harvest such abundant fruit. Let us see how he tackled the work.

With the usual aid of Divine Providence, he resumed his course of studies, did philosophy, theology, and following the advice of his director devoted himself to God in the priestly state. His ordination redoubled his zeal for the glory of God. Philip, by becoming a priest, agreed with St Ambrose that by zeal one acquires the faith and by zeal man is led to the possession of justice. “Zelo fides acquiritur, zelo iustitia possidetur” (sanctus Ambrosius, in Ps. 118).

Philip was convinced that no sacrifice was more pleasing to God than zeal for the salvation of souls. “Nullum Deo gratius sacrificum offerri potest quam zelus animarum.” (Greg. M. in Ezech.). Moved by these thoughts it seemed to him that crowds of Christians especially poor boys, were crying out against him in the words of the prophet: “Parvuli petierunt panem, et non erat qui frangerit eis.” (Lam 4:4). But when he was able to go to the public workshops, enter hospitals and prisons and saw people of every age and every condition given to fighting, cursing, theft and living enslaved by sin; when he began to think how many reviled God their Creator almost without knowing it, and did not observe the divine law because they were ignorant of it, then he remembered the sighs of Hosea (4:1-2), who says that because people do not know the things of eternal salvation the greatest, the most abominable crimes have flooded the earth. But how embittered was his innocent heart when he realised that most of those poor souls were lost only because they were not educated in the truths of the Faith. This people, he exclaimed with Isaiah, had no knowledge of the things of salvation, “Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure. The nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down, her throng and all who exult in her”, “Quia populus meus non habuit scientiam, propterea infernus aperuit os suum absque ullo termino; et descendunt fortes eius, et populus eius, et sublimes gloriosisque eius ad eum.” (Is 5:13-14).

At the sight of the ever-increasing evils Philip followed the example of the Divine Saviour who had nothing in the world when he began his preaching except the great fire of divine charity which prompted him to come down from heaven to earth; or the example of the apostles who were devoid of any human means when they were sent to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth all miserably engulfed in idolatry, in all kinds of vice or, according to the Bible: “were buried in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Philip became all things to all men in the streets, squares, public workshops. He entered public and private establishments and with his polite, kind, pleasant manner suggestive of his charity towards his neighbour, he began to talk about virtue and religion to those who did not want to know about either. Imagine the things that were being said about him! Some said he was stupid, others ignorant, others said he was drunk, and there was no lack of those who said he was mad.

Courageous Philip let them all say what they wanted; indeed the world's blame is assured for anyone who works for the glory of God, because what the world says is wisdom is foolishness for God. So he fearlessly continued his holy enterprise. And who can ever resist that terrible two-edged sword which is the Word of God? Or a priest who corresponds to the holiness of his ministry?

In a short time people of every age and condition, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, clergy and laity, from the highest class to apprentices, the scavengers, the ships boys, the youngest and the oldest bricklayers began to admire the zeal of the servant of God. They went to listen to him, knowledge of the Faith made its way into their hearts. Contempt became admiration, admiration became respect. So in Philip we see none other than the true friend of the people, a zealous minister of Jesus Christ won everyone over, conquered everything to the extent that it all fell fortunate victim to the charity of this new apostle. Rome changed; everyone wanted to be Philip's friend, they all praised Philip, spoke of Philip, wanted to see Philip. It was from this that wonderful conversions eventuated, sensational gains of so many obstinate sinners of which the author of the Saint's life speaks at length (see Bacci)119.

[III. Philip as the apostle of youth]

But God had sent Philip especially for the youth, therefore he addressed his special concerns to them.

He looked at human kind as a great field to be cultivated. If good grain is sown in time it will have an abundant harvest; but of the sowing is out of season, all you get is straw and husks120. He also knew that in this mystical field there is a great hidden treasure, meaning the souls of so many young people most of them innocent and often corrupted without their knowing it. This treasure, Philip said in his heart, is totally entrusted to the priests and their salvation or damnation depends mostly on them.

Philip did not ignore that fact that it is up to the parents to look after their children; and up to employers to look after their workers, but when these cannot or are not able to or do not want to, should these souls be allowed to go to perdition? Especially since the priest's lips should be the guardian of knowledge and people have the right to seek from his mouth and not from someone else's?

One thing at first sight seemed to discourage Philip in educating poor boys, and it was their fickleness and the effects of this in doing bad things or worse. But he recovered from his panic and fear by considering that many were persevering in good, that repeat offenders were not overwhelming in number and that they themselves with patience, love and with the grace of the Lord, for the most part they ended up on the right track and therefore the Word of God was a seed which sooner or later produced the longed-for fruit.

So following the example of the Saviour who taught his people every day: “erat quotidie docens in templo” (Lk 19:47), and was careful to call the wildest ones to himself, he went around everywhere saying: "Come to me, boys, and I will show you how to become rich but with real wealth that will never fail. I will teach you the holy fear of God”, “Venite, filii, audite me: timorem Domini docebo vos.” (Ps. 33:11). These words, accompanied by his great charity and a life that was a compendium of all virtue, meant that crowds of boys flocked to the Saint from all over. He would speak to one and to another: he taught literature to the student, smithing to the blacksmith, made a master builder out of the carpenter, a real barber out of the barber, a master mason out of the bricklayer, a master cobbler of the cobbler. By being all things to all men he won over everyone for Jesus Christ. A result that the youngsters, enticed by his charitable ways, his edifying discourses, allowed themselves to be taken where Philip wanted. This happened to the unheard of extent that in the streets, squares, churches, the sacristy, his very room, at table and during prayer time he was preceded or followed by youngsters who hung from his every word, listened to the examples he recounted, the principles of the catechism he was explaining.

And then? Listen. That mob of unruly and ignorant boys little by little were instructed in the catechism, asked to approach the sacrament of confession and communion. They sought to hear Mass, listen to sermons and gradually ceased swearing, lack of obedience and finally abandoned their vices, improved their morals. Thousands of hapless children who were already beating the path of disgrace and who might have ended their lives in prison or in shackles, to their eternal loss, were returned to their families because of Philip's zeal as docile, obedient, good Christians, on the way to heaven. Oh holy catholic Religion! Oh wonders of God's Word! What wonders do you not work through the minister who knows and performs the duties of his calling!

Someone will say: “Philip performed these wonders because he was a saint.” I would put it differently: “Philip performed these wonders because he was a priest who corresponded to the spirit of his vocation.” I believe that if we are animated by the spirit of zeal, confidence in God, we could imitate this saint as well and certainly get great results in gaining souls. Who among us can not muster some children, give them a little catechism at home or in church, and if needs be also in some corner of a square or a street and instruct them in the Faith, and encourage them to go to confession. and when they need it, hear their confession? Could we not say with St Philip: “Boys, come to confession every week and go to communion following the advice of your confessor?” How come dissolute boys who like eating, drinking and playing can turn to matters of church and piety?

Philip found this secret. Listen. By imitating the kindness and meekness of the Saviour, Philip led them to be good, caressed them, gave some a sweet, others a medal, a holy picture, a book or similar. For the wilder and more ignorant ones who were unable to enjoy these sublime expressions of fatherly kindness, he prepared something more suited to them. As soon as he could get them around him he immediately began telling them interesting stories, invited them to sing, play, put on plays, jump, use games equipment of all kinds.

Finally the most reluctant, the most frivolous were as it were dragged into the recreation area by musical instruments, bowls, stilts, quoits, with offerings of fruit and small school lunches, breakfasts, snacks. Any expense, said Philip, any effort, disturbance, sacrifice is slight when it is a case of winning souls for God. So Phillip's room had almost become a shop, a place for public performances, but at the same time a holy house of prayer and place of sanctification. So Rome saw a man without titles, means or authority, armed only with charity combat fraud, deceit, licentiousness and every sort of vice, and overcome everything and everyone so that many whom the public called wolves became meek lambs. These serious efforts, these noises and disturbances which perhaps for us seem to be bearable for just a few minutes were the work and the delight of St Philip over more than sixty years, during his whole priestly life until extreme old age, until such time as God called him to enjoy the fruit of so many and such prolonged labours.

[IV. A plea: we must save souls]

Respectable gentlemen, is there something in this faithful servant that we can imitate? There certainly is. Each of us in his situation is educated enough, rich enough to imitate him if not in everything, at least in part. Let us not be deceived by the vain pretext that we sometimes happen to hear: “It is not my problem, let the one who has to think about it do it.” When they told Philip that since he did not have to take care of souls he did not need to do that work he replied: “Did my good Jesus have any obligation to shed his Blood for me? He died on the cross to save souls so should I as a minister refuse to put up with a little bother, some effort to correspond to that?”

Reverend gentlemen, let's get to work. Souls are in danger and we have to save them. We are obliged even as simple Christians whom God has commanded to look after our neighbour: “Unicuisque Deus mandavit de proximo suo” (Eccles. 17:12). We are obliged since these are the souls of our brothers. We are all children of the same heavenly Father. We also should feel motivated to work in an exceptional way to save souls, because this is the holiest of holy actions: “Divinarum divinissimum est cooperari Deo in salutem animarum.” (The Areopagite). But what should absolutely urge us to fulfil this task zealously is the strict account that we as ministers of Jesus Christ, will have to render to the Divine Judgement for the souls entrusted to us. Ah that great and terrible account that parents, employers, directors and all priests in general must render to Jesus Christ our Judge for all the souls entrusted to us! That supreme moment will come for all Christians, but let us not deceive ourselves, it will also come for us priests. As soon as we have been freed from the bonds of the body and stand before the divine judge we will see clearly what were the obligations of our state and what has been negligence. Before our eyes will appear the immense glory of God prepared for his faithful and we will see the souls ... Yes so many souls that were to go there to enjoy and because of our negligence in instructing them in the Faith, were lost!

Gentlemen, what will we say to our Divine Saviour when he tells us that to save souls he left the right hand of the Father to come down to earth; “erat quotidie docens in templo.” [Lk 19:47]: that he paid no attention to the labours, the sweat, the hardships, humiliations, contradictions, to the distress, sufferings of all kinds, and finally that he shed the last drop of his blood to save souls? What we can we answer if we enjoyed quiet rest and perhaps hobbies and perhaps worse?

What a terrible position it would be for a priest when he appears before the divine judge who tells him: “Look down on the world: how many souls walk the way of iniquity and take the road to perdition. They are there because of you; you did nothing to get them to hear the voice of duty, you did not seek them out, you did not save them. Others have gone from sin to sin by walking in ignorance and now they are cast into hell. Oh! See how many they are. These souls are crying out for vengeance against you. And now, unfaithful servant, serve nequam, render account for this. Render account for the precious treasure I entrusted to you, the treasure that cost me my passion, my blood, my death. Give me your souls for the soul of the one who was lost through your fault: Erit anima tua pro anima illius.

But no, my good Jesus, we hope in your grace and your infinite mercy that this reprimand will never be ours. We are deeply convinced of the great duty that binds us to educate souls, so that they are not lost through our fault. So for the future, for all the days of our mortal life, we will take the greatest care to ensure that no soul has to be lost through our fault. Will we have to bear toil, hardship, poverty, sorrow, persecution and even death? We will gladly do so because of the shining example you gave us. But you, O God of goodness and mercy, infuse into our hearts the true priestly zeal and see that we are consistent followers of the Saint whom we choose today as our model, and when the great day comes when we present ourselves to your divine tribunal to be judged may we not hear blame and reproach but a word of comfort and consolation.

And you, O glorious St Philip, deign to intercede for me, your unworthy devotee, intercede for all of these zealous priests who had the goodness to listen to me and see that at the end of our life we can all hear those consoling words: You saved a soul, you have saved your own: Animam salvasti, animam tuam praedestinasti.

The sixth part contains most of what, in Salesian tradition, is known as the “Spiritual Testament”. It is a handwritten notebook entitled Memories from 1841 to 1884-5-6 by Fr John Bosco to his Salesian sons121, where the saint, on different occasions, especially in the final years of his life, wrote exhortations and reminders for his disciples, friends, benefactors and Cooperators.

In the early pages of the notebook are resolutions which Don Bosco wrote down for his priestly ordination (5 June 1841)and during the retreat in summer 1842 (no. 298): this is a rare and interesting document of the initial steps the young priest took before choosing his definite field of action.

Seven texts follow of notable significance (nos. 299-305), where we can catch an overall view of the vocation and mission of the Salesian, together with an indication of the prospects deemed relevant for a dynamic fidelity: the determination to stand firm in one's vocation until death; the importance of the exact observance of the Constitutions; avoiding triumphalism in the knowledge that every success is a gift from God; the link between the Salesian mission and Marian devotion, with a commitment to cultivate and spread this devotion; the care of vocations, forming young people to the desire "to consecrate themselves to the Lord in their youth" and detachment from the world and its allurements ; the mission of the Salesian Rector as model and soul of the community with a primarily formative function; seeing to fraternal charity; avoiding “comfort” and “ease” as they are lethal dangers to the survival of the Congregation; attention to the privileged “children who are poorest most at risk in society”; the wise administration of Houses and goods; the primacy of working for the salvation of souls; the sense of gratitude to benefactors, the “Cooperators and collaborators without whose charity we could do nothing, but with whose collaboration the Salesian work will be secure in history.”

297. Resolution of the young Don Bosco on the occasion of the


Critical ed. in Giovanni Bosco, Memorie dal 1841 al 1884-5-6 a’ suoi figliuoli Salesiani.

By Francesco Motto, in DBE, Scritti, pp. 399-401.
I began the Retreat at the House of the Mission on 26 May, Feast of St Philip Neri, 1841.

Priestly ordination was conferred by Luigi Fransoni our archbishop, in his church on 5 June that year.

The first Mass was celebrated at St Francis of Assisi assisted by my well known benefactor and director Fr Joseph Cafasso from Castelnuovo d’Asti on 6 June Trinity Sunday.

The conclusion I drew at the end of the retreat in preparation for my first Mass was: The priest does not go either to heaven or hell alone. If he does well he goes to heaven with the souls he has saved through his good example; if he does badly, gives scandal he goes to perdition with the souls damned through his scandal.


1. Never go for walks unless seriously necessary: visit the sick etc.

2. Use time well.

3. Suffer, act and accept humiliations in everything and always if it is a case of saving souls.

4. The charity and kindness of St Francis de Sales will guide me in everything.

5. I will always be happy with the food that is put in front of me unless it is harmful to my health.

6. I will water down my wine and drink it only as a remedy: meaning only when and as much as is needed for my health.

7. Work is a powerful weapon against the soul’s enemies, therefore I will not give my body more than five hours of sleep every night. During the especially after lunch, I will not take a rest. I will make some exception if ill.

8. Every day I will give some time to meditation and spiritual reading. During the day I will make a brief visit or at least a prayer to the Blessed Sacrament. I will give at least a quarter of an hour to preparation and another quarter of an hour of thanksgiving to Holy Mass.

9. I will not engage in conversations with women outside of confession or some other spiritual need.

These memoirs were written in 1841.
1842 - Breviary and confession

I will try to say the Breviary devoutly and preferably in church so that it becomes a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

I will approach the Sacrament of Penance each week and will try to put into practice the resolutions I make in confession each time.

When I am asked to hear the confessions of the faithful, if there is a need I will interrupt the Office and also shorten preparation and thanksgiving at Mass so I can exercise this sacred ministry.

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