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On John Bosco’s 200th Birthday, His ‘Society of Joy’ Remembered

Like Pope Francis, Salesian Founder Taught There Can Be No Such Thing as a Sad Christian

For instance, in establishing the Don Bosco Oratory, he founded the “Society of Joy,” with the intention of organizing games, holding conversations and reading books that contributed to everyone’s joy. Forbidden was anything that produced melancholy, especially disobedience to the Lord’s law. Whoever swore, used the name of God without respect, or engaged in bad speech had to leave the Society.

The Society was founded on three main rules: no action or talk that could offend a Christian; do one’s school duties; be joyful.

Don Bosco and his companions sought to live in joy, being committed to their duties of study and faith, delighting in joy in respect of God and of others.

The Salesian saint said that the “Society of Joy” gave him a certain celebrity. “In 1832 – he wrote – I was esteemed and obeyed as the captain of a small army. They sought me everywhere to organize entertainment, to help pupils in private homes, give repetitions,” in the meantime, “Divine Providence helped me by procuring the money for the school books, the clothes and other needs, without burdening my family.”

To get to know the “Society of Joy” better and to understand how much this approach influenced the program of education of young people, ZENIT interviewed Father Roberto Spataro, Secretary of the Pontifical Latinitatis Academy and docent at the Pontifical Salesian University.

ZENIT: It is said that Don Bosco was an optimist, always joyful, that he composed music, songs, prayers …

Father Spataro: Don Bosco was versatile. Nature furnished him with many intellectual gifts and many practical-manual abilities. He is a happy saint. In his very beautiful letter Gaudete in Domino, Pope Paul VI mentioned him among the “Saints of Christian joy.”

In thea little manual of Christian formation, written by Don Bosco, we read: “There are two main deceits with which the devil usually distances young people from virtue. The first is to make come to their mind that to serve the Lord consists in a melancholic life far from any amusement and pleasure. It’s not so, dear youths. I want to teach you a Christian method of life, which is at the same time joyful and happy, pointing you to what are the true amusements and the true pleasures. Such, in fact, is the purpose of this booklet, to serve the Lord and to be always joyful.”

Don Bosco’s optimism isn’t naive. He knew well the evil inclinations of human nature but he believed in the supernatural resources of Grace. Therefore he chose as his model Saint Francis of Sales, outstanding exponent of devout humanism, namely, of a realistically positive concept of man, open to the action of Grace.

Don Bosco was a musician and also a composer — especially in the first years of his ministry — of little religious songs. He had learned to play the organ when he was a student at Chieri. He believed very much in the educational value of music. “A Salesian House without music is a body without a soul,” he used to repeat.

In Don Bosco’s Oratory one plays, sings, prepares operettas, gets in the band. This tradition is always alive in Salesian environments, with forms that change with time and the taste of young people. Thinking of these expressive and communicative activities, which characterize the Salesian environment and are promoted by young people themselves, Humberto Eco had words of great appreciation thinking of this synthesis of education and communication, of youthful communication and leadership.

ZENIT: Is it true that Don Bosco used advanced techniques to teach, such as writing phrases and aphorisms on the walls?

Father Spataro: Certainly! Today one posts on Facebook but Don Bosco did no less because, as an educator, he knew the art of communication very well, to make use of the possibilities that exist: also today, one who visits Valdocco, Don Bosco’s ”Holy Land,” can read the maxims that Don Bosco posted on the walls. The boys passed by them and those teachings were imprinted on their minds, something they would never have forgotten.

ZENIT: What is the secret of the brilliance and communicative effectiveness of Don Bosco?

Father Spataro: Don Bosco loved. One who speaks, communicates, transmits a message ex abundantia cordis, is effective, finds the right language. One could apply to Don Bosco’s communicative style that maxim of Saint Francis of Sales, that functioned as the Cardinal’s motto of Blessed John Henry Newman. I like it a lot: Cor ad cor loquitur [heart speaks to heart]. Moreover, when Don Bosco was ordained a priest he asked for a grace: efficacy of the word. It was given to him abundantly.

ZENIT: How did he succeed in transmitting the Gospel and educating people that were not in the main schooled?

Father Spataro: If you allow me, I would like to modify your question. In reality, in his time, there was a growth in literacy and an increase of individuals gifted at least with elementary education. This enables us to touch on a point that perhaps is not very known. Don Bosco was a fecund writer.

His publications, including his copious Epistolario, occupy several shelves of a library. He wrote much to intercept the needs of a public that risked being neglected by the more specialized religious publishers. He addressed the popular classes.

Therefore, he started a very fortunate series of sapid booklets, the Catholic Readings. He wrote very much for the young, also school manuals such as the History of Italy.

And to meet the needs of education of the poorest he even composed and prepared a comedy on the “Decimal Metric System,” to avoid the introduction of the new system of measurement putting those not yet practiced in it at a disadvantage.

When he was presented for the first time to Blessed Pius IX, he described himself as the priest that takes care of the Oratories and of the “Catholic Readings.” In sum, Don Bosco, a modern Saint, used the most advanced means of communication of his time, to reach the largest number of people. And he wanted to do things well: in 1884 he won the second prize at the Universal Exposition of Turin for the efficiency of his printing office. Among other things, he wasn’t happy as he expected the first prize.

Look, these are only a few brush strokes on Don Bosco. I would like to take my leave repeating the triple title with which Saint John Paul II decided to honor him in the Church: “Father and Teacher of Youth.”

ZENIT: What would Don Bosco say to a youth today?

Father Spataro: In a thousand languages, with a thousand different tones, Don Bosco would tell him what he wrote at the beginning of his “programmatic manifesto,” a sort of synthesis of Don Bosco pedagogy, in a narrative-epistolary form, the famous Letter from Rome of 1884. Here are his beautiful words: “I have only one desire, that of seeing you happy in time and in eternity.” Don Bosco repeats this word to every youth.

[Translation by ZENIT]

About Antonio Gaspari

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