Many Catholic schools operate in the Salesian tradition, and on January 31, we celebrate the feast day of the founder of this order: Saint John Bosco.
Long before we had the Catholic school systems of today, we had saints who saw young people in need of care and education and stepped up to help them. Many of those saints’ names have been lost to history. One who continues to be a model for educators is Saint John Bosco, who lived in Italy in the mid-1800’s.
What can this man, who lived and worked as an educator hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away, have to teach us in twenty-first century Canada?
History of Saint John Bosco
Saint John Bosco, or Don Bosco, as he was known to his students, is known primarily for founding the Salesian Order, modelled after the life of Saint Francis de Sales. However, Bosco’s day-to-day life was spent teaching the young people of Turin. Many of his students were the product of a rapidly industrialising and urbanising age which saw them orphaned or neglected.
Don Bosco gathered these young street boys, cared for them, and taught them. He was known to walk the streets, juggling and doing tricks in order to gain their attention and their trust, and then invite them to Church. He founded a shelter and school for these young men, which he called the Oratorio. Before long Maria Domenica Mazzarello joined him in founding a religious order for women, the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco, to similarly care for and educate young women.
By the end of his life, Bosco and the Salesians were sheltering and educating over a thousand poor, delinquent, and orphaned children.
As he embraced the task of education, Saint John Bosco identified three central principles of his educational philosophy: reason, religion, and kindness. In an age where many began to be critical of punitive methods of education, Bosco avoided punishments. Instead, he pioneered an alternative approach which he called the preventative method: each young person was treated with respect and kindness, as a good father treats a beloved child, and the child was prompted to respond out of respect and love.
Bosco’s First Principle: Reason
Most educators can look back in their lives to teachers, mentors, administrators, coaches, or directors who inspired and encouraged them and which led to personal, academic, or spiritual growth. This was exactly what Don Bosco was to his students. He was a beloved figure who motivated his students with love, rather than arbitrary or corporal punishments. Bosco believed reasonable consequences to students’ actions, in the context of a caring relationship, would bring about the best outcomes.
Saint John Bosco’s preventative system consisted, not in punishing students after rules have been broken, but in ongoing relationship, guidance, and kind direction from teachers so the students have fewer opportunities to commit faults. Of course, severe punishment is often easier for the educator, as Bosco himself acknowledged. “[Punishing and menacing] is easier [and] less troublesome,” but less effective for young people, who are still being formed in the ways of goodness.
For this reason, the teachers must not be stern or bitter in their discipline, since “the young do not easily forget the punishments they have received, and for the most part foster bitter feelings, along with the desire to throw off the yoke and even seek revenge,” (Constitutions and Regulations of the Society of St. Francis of Sales, St. John Bosco).
The loving relationship between mentor and student was the heart of Don Bosco’s reasonable approach. “The educator was both father and teacher; pupils were his sons. And this, in Bosco’s view, was both reasonable and desirable. The father-teacher inspired them by his example, encouraged them by his concern for their welfare; they, who were sons, responded to example and love,” (The Educational Philosophy of St. John Bosco, Morrison, page 83).
Using the principle of Reason in today’s schools:
- How can you foster a relationship of care, love, and concern for your students?
- If a student misbehaves, do they face the natural, logical consequences of their actions, or is there an arbitrary punishment? How can your discipline become more “reasonable”?
Bosco’s Second Principle: Religion
The second key to Don Bosco’s system was religion. Beyond simply encouraging and motivating students to behave well, Don Bosco consistently directed them to the source of mercy and grace which they would need in order to grow in virtue and atone for their faults.
Bosco’s pedagogy included “encouragement in the use of available means to grace: confession, communion, penance, and mortification.” (Morrison, 111.) This also took the form of small reminders of various points of Catholic teaching throughout the day, as applicable, and frequent exhortations that the students offer up their suffering and build virtue in their everyday interactions.
Don Bosco firmly believed that Catholic practices of piety would only benefit his students, but he never forced them. “Never force the boys to frequent the sacraments, but encourage them to do so, and give them every opportunity. Let the beauty, grandeur, and holiness of the Catholic religion be dwelt upon, for in the sacraments it offers to all of us a very easy and useful means to attain our salvation and peace of heart.” (Constitutions and Regulations, Bosco). “Perseverance in right living” was the goal, such that the foundation of moral conduct laid at his oratorios to be lived out in virtue, duty, and holiness that lasted all one’s life (Morrison, 114).
Above all, the example of the formator was key in instilling religious values in students. Don Bosco, for example, went to confession every week, “not privately… but in view of all the people” (Morrison, 115). He turned down positions of honour in the Church so that he could live among his students. Bosco’s honesty, simplicity and joy were well known in the community.
Bosco exemplified the adage of Pope Paul VI: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses,” (Evangelii nuntiandii, par. 41).
Using the principle of Religion in today’s schools:
- How can you be an example of Catholic virtue, morality, and piety, as Saint John Bosco was?
- What does it mean to you to “let the beauty, grandeur, and holiness of the Catholic religion be dwelt upon” in a Catholic school setting?
Bosco’s Third Principle: Kindness
Finally, at the heart of Saint John Bosco’s preventive method was kindness. All things were done in love. This was not for the sake of winning hearts to the teacher, or for the sake of growing in intellectual knowledge, but winning them over to Christ . The kindness of the teacher was to be a window into the kindness of God for each young person.
This focus on kindness had psychological benefits to the students, as well. Having kindness toward their pupils went hand-in-hand with a pervasive sense of hope, optimism, and cheerfulness among the students.
Don Bosco’s system prioritised opportunities for play, fun, and recreation. During these times, students should “have full liberty to jump, run and make as much noise as they please,” (Constitutions and Regulations). However, Don Bosco was clear that recreation should be permeated by kindness. “Let care be taken, however, that the games, the persons playing them as well as the conversation are not reprehensible. ‘Do anything you like,’ the great friend of youth, St. Philip [Neri], used to say, ‘as long as you do not sin.’” (Constitutions and Regulations).
He saw to it that his students practised charity at every opportunity. For example, during a cholera outbreak in Turin in 1854, Saint John Bosco and forty older students volunteered as nurses. Thousands had died in the epidemic and many local doctors had abandoned their posts and fled from the disease. This unselfishness and charity in Bosco’s young people was evidence that their moral formation went to the heart.
Beyond all this, “Bosco learned through experience that kindness, tempered with patience, was an attractive trait. His educative mission depended, to a large extent, on his being able to attract both teachers and students to his ways,” (Morrison, 123).
Therefore, genuine friendliness had an eminently practical purpose in the growth of his schools as well. In a similar way, our Catholic schools must win over and draw in students and families to a unique experience of education. We must be centred on true kindness in order to remain strong in the twenty-first century.
Using the principle of Kindness in today’s schools:
- How do you draw new students and families to your school? Is your recruitment approach marked with kindness?
- Do your students have the opportunity to practise charity toward those in need on a regular basis?
Constitutions and Regulations of the Society of St. Francis of Sales, by John Bosco. Published 1874.
The Educational Philosophy of St. John Bosco, by Dr. John Morrison. Published by Salesiana Publishers, New Rochelle, NY, 2010.
Evangelii nuntiandii, Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Paul VI. Published December 8, 1975.
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