Tribute to Don Bosco: True friend of youth

By Barnes Mawrie

This year 2015, all over the world the Salesian Family celebrates the 200th anniversary of Don Bosco’s birth, a saint known for his dedication to the education of poor and marginalized youth. The Salesian Family of Shillong-Silchar Province will celebrate the bicentenary from 23-26 April at St. Anthony’s HS School, Shillong. Over 1500 young delegates from the States of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Assam and Tripura are expected to participate in the three-day mega festival. The Chief Minister and many other eminent persons of the State will grace the occasion. For the benefit of our readers, here below is a little life sketch of this great apostle of the youth and the educational legacy that he has left behind for the world.

John Melchior Bosco was born on 16th August 1815 in Becchi (Castelnuovo d’Asti), Italy. His father Francis Bosco died when John was only two years old. His mother Mamma Margaret was left alone to bring up her three sons. John was the youngest of the three. They belonged to a farming family and Anthony the eldest and Joseph the second worked in the field together with their mother to provide for the family. Although John nurtured a desire to study and become a priest, yet the condition of his family was not favourable for he had also to work to share the family’s burden. But John was a determined boy and did a lot of study by himself while he was pasturing the sheep. He thought that fortune favoured him when in November 1829, he met Father Calosso who opted to help him in his education. But this happy dream had an abrupt end when the old priest died and John had to leave the presbytery and start fending for himself. Through his mother’s help and encouragement John finally succeeded to join the seminary and on June 5th, 1841 was ordained a priest.

            As a young priest, Don Bosco witnessed the pitiful plight of the youth in the city of Turin. It was the age of Industrial Revolution and Turin being Italy’s industrial city, attracted a lot of young migrants from the rural areas of Italy. Many of these youth came to the city with great hope of finding a job and earning some money, yet they soon realized that reality was far from what they imagined. Many of them who were jobless got into bad company and turned into thieves and robbers or were involved in anti-social elements. As a consequence it was said that the prisons of Turin in those days were filled with young criminals. There were other youth who loitered the streets of Turin trying to survive anyhow. Don Bosco used to visit these prisons and seeing the misfortune of these youth, was moved with compassion for them. He would often take them out for picnics with due permission of the city authority. His love for them won for him loyalty from their part and unbelievably not even a single prisoner would escape during those outings.

            It was the miserable condition of these youth that finally inspired him to found an oratory where such youth could gather together to have fun and to be educated. At first he had to use a public playground but gradually Don Bosco realized the need for a permanent place to educate these youth. By God’s providence in 1846 a stranger by the name Mr. Pinardi offered him an old farm house at a very affordable price. Don Bosco immediately jumped at the offer and saw it as a God-sent gift. The Pinardi house was soon transformed into a lively place where hundreds of street boys would come to play, sing, jump about and be intellectually equipped. Don Bosco who himself had learned many trades, became the trainer of these lads in trades like shoe-making, tailoring, carpentry, printing etc. The oratory gradually became a full-fledged educational centre for the poor youth and it was thenceforth known as Valdocco.

            Don Bosco’s experience with these poor and marginalized youth gave him a lot of educational insights into their character and behaviour. Soon he would develop a well know pedagogical system known as “the Preventive System”. This is the most important and valuable contribution of Don Bosco to the world of education. His Preventive system is based on three pillars: Reason, religion and loving kindness. Don Bosco was very much convinced of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales whose famous saying was “a spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel of vinegar”. Based on this axiom, he formulated an educational system that excludes all forms of physical punishments and which is animated by respect, love and care. For Don Bosco, “reason” is the ability to judge a situation before taking an action. It implies being guided by one’s intellect rather than by sentiments. As an educator, he was aware that boys often committed mistakes not because they were inherently evil but because of negative circumstances. Thus an educator needs to understand such circumstances and be able to tackle the root cause of mischief rather than respond to them with immediate physical castigations which do not have any formative value in them. “Religion” is the second pillar of Don Bosco’s preventive system. Basically it means belief in God and in values of religion. Education through atheism is no education at all for him. Don Bosco was convinced that education in order to be holistic and effective, has to address not only the intellectual faculty but the spiritual faculty as well. Therefore religion and the inculcation of religious values should occupy an important place in any good education. Through this dimension of education, the “image of God” in every person would be unwrapped. Finally, the most important pillar of Don Bosco’s Preventive System is “loving kindness”. Don Bosco knew that love alone has a transforming power in the life of youth. Much before other educationists would say, he was already aware that “no learning takes place in an environment of fear”. Ideas and knowledge are assimilated and formation itself takes place in an environment of love and familiarity. According to Don Bosco, if true education is to take place, an educator must make himself/herself loved by the youth. To achieve this, the educator himself/herself must take the first step to love and care for the youth.

The Preventive System is definitely the most notable contribution of Don Bosco to the world of education and youth ministry. Today the Salesian educational institutions all over the globe follow his educational system with great efficacy. Don Bosco is often considered a man for all seasons because his pedagogical insights defy time and territory and the relevance of his ministry will never wane away.

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