Don Bosco

The Salesian response to social, cultural, economic and religious world processes

The Salesian response to
social, cultural, economic and religious world processes

Bruno Bordignon, sdb


The title of this report must be considered within the theme of the Congress, which is the "development of Don Bosco's charism". Therefore I must suppose it is the historical reconstruction of the social, cultural, economic and religious world processes, entrusted to prof. Belardinelli, that the historical treatment of the Salesian response to the social, cultural, economic and religious world processes: I intend to treat how in this response there took place a development of Don Bosco's charism and limiting me to the point of view of the central government of the Congregation. The historical study of the development of the Salesian response to the indicated world processes began in a systematic form as the opening of "a new phase of Salesian historiography", in 1991, by the Salesian Historical Institute.
Given the space that is granted to me and the complexity of the subject, I will not be able to advance a discussion on the various problems that have emerged in this regard. I will limit myself to developing three, deliberately chosen, because they cover the study period of this Congress in a different way. Obviously I do not enter into the pedagogical or spirituality issues, which are reserved for the next two days.
Therefore, I chose the social question, Catholic action (AC) and the liturgical movement.
The three chosen topics allow me to concentrate on different periods: the social question, especially until the First World War; AC and companies especially between the first and second world wars; the liturgical movement covers the entire period under consideration.

The development of Don Bosco's charism

We mean charisma in the meaning offered by Lumen Gentium, as a special permanent grace with which the faithful become fit and ready to take on various works or offices, useful for the renewal and development of the Church.
Of the charism of Don Bosco I would like to focus on these dimensions, which are particularly relevant to the problems I will deal with and which allow me to document what development has taken place:

  • educational relationship and entrepreneurship;
  • success of the action as proof of the validity of each proposal and of every theory;
  • abstention from any party alignment.
1. Educational report and entrepreneurship

The question I ask myself is the following: from the point of view of Don Bosco's charism, where did this development, which we deal with, and how was it implemented?
Don Bosco did not start with a defined project already written or present in the mind, which he later realized. I refer to how he went to meet young people and to what educational relationship he lived with them, demonstrating exceptional entrepreneurship in the commitment and activity carried out to bring them, in their realization, to develop their talents.

It is fundamental to consider, together with its important entrepreneurial capacity from an economic point of view, the progressive achievements that show its ability to read about life and the need to realize young people and its entrepreneurship, from an educational point of view, to come progressively meeting their needs and their expectations, until they find some that will stop with him to help him in his work. This entrepreneurship has matured in the educational relationship both from a religious and a civil point of view: helping children means welcoming them in the situation in which they find themselves and bringing them to their realization.
As Fr Filippo Rinaldi explains, Don Bosco does not intend to impose his mental schemes on the growth of young people, but to help them to fulfill themselves according to their aspirations.

2. Successful action and validity of a proposal

Don Bosco's originality indicates the fundamental attention to action, not to pure theory. Unlike various pedagogists of his time, who expressed various ideas similar to his own, Don Bosco did not stop at pedagogy but he was with young people and proposed what he did with them. He says this clearly from the first Regulations of the Oratory that he finished writing in October 1854: without success in action we would have had neither Don Bosco nor the Salesians.

3. Out of any party alignment

Don Bosco is convinced that he carries out a strongly and largely social work with his activity, inspired by his faith. What he is doing is in the aims of any government, which intends to contribute to the good of the people, to their development, to a civil coexistence based on personal conviction and guaranteed by law. He does not try to juggle, but to ask every government, regardless of the various political parties, to support it because it is pursuing the interests of all and strengthening civil coexistence and the development of society. Therefore, it is an action that has a broad social dimension, which everyone should support, and which must be open to the evolution of time and demand.
Don Bosco does not intend to exploit politics for his own purposes, and, while respecting civil authority, he does not want to enter politics or make party decisions, and the performance of his activity allows him to give a very strong contribution to civil coexistence and to the company reconstruction. Driven by evangelical charity and by the mission of the Church, he offered an exceptional contribution to what politics had to aim at. There was in him an authentic inner conviction, not a game for his own interests, although honest and healthy.

A starting point

Our fundamental question is this: how did the Salesians develop Don Bosco's charism in the period from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the last century?
The question is concretized, therefore, in these other three:

  • How did the Salesians develop entrepreneurship in the educational relationship with young people?
  • Have they committed to making or just making proposals or writing documents?
  • Have they stayed out of any political camp?

To respond to these, it is necessary to open up to two observations, which introduce us to the ways in which the Salesians relate to each other and with the Superiors, who are fundamental in Don Bosco's vision and practice:

  • the Salesians do not progressively know each other any more;
  • the Salesians do not know Don Bosco (Don Albera in 1920). 

Proposed problems

I now come to the three chosen problems.

1. The social question

The government of the Congregation intervened soon: "After the publication of Rerum novarumon the workers' condition on May 15, 1891, the sixth General Chapter of 1892 enrolled in the topics to be discussed the study of the first social encyclical [...] The deliberations left by this Chapter actually record, for the first time in an official text of the Congregation, some new themes directly inspired by the encyclical. He was asked to give lectures on the great problems of society, such as capital, labor, goods, holiday rest, strikes, savings, property, but without entering into politics; to promote savings banks, and to put young people in contact with workers and Catholic societies ". However, the intervention of Fr Rua on this last point is important: he "had considered it useful to intervene, because he feared that joining these external companies could harm the direction of young interns. Education in Salesian professional schools, for example through the Compagnia di S. Giuseppe degli artigiani, was to be for young people only a "preparation" for these societies "(Morand Wirth). I propose three realizations: schools, vocational schools and agricultural schools.
Don Cerruti published in 1898 Elementary Notions of Moral and Political Economy: it is a text for the school, in which he hopes that "he may succeed in some usefulness to aspirants to the Normal License Examination, for whom in particular it was done, as in general to those who feel their duties as individuals and citizens in civil, political and social cohabitation ". The discussion that Don Cerruti proposes is very open: he strongly criticizes socialism, in full agreement with Leo XIII on the right to property, but it is open to the discourse of exchange and capital work and very critical of the intervention of the State.
It would be important to be able to document what was actually done in Salesian schools. But in the teaching programs for Salesian schools, found in the ASC, I found nothing on the subject.
However, we have documentation for vocational schools and speakers. With regard to the latter, two booklets exist in the ASC: a savings book for male recreation Don Ven Bosco of Mirabello Monferrato (1914) and an earlier book (1909) of the Valdocco Oratory. And it is fundamental for our topic what is explained in the latter in the preface To the lovers of youth:"The Oratory, in the concept of Don Bosco, was, is and must be the permanent work of the times; he must therefore walk with them, studying their aspirations for good channeling them and the needs to make them effective remedy. If in the past in many festive Oratories, it was aimed almost exclusively at religious instruction, and at entertainment as an attraction to that (things, after all, quite necessary and which can still be enough for youngsters from 8 to 12-14 years), if later they were introduced to the older children recreational and sports schools and lately also to circles of culture and study,now these means are no longer enough. New institutions impose themselves, if you wanted to do an effective and lasting work; institutions that may affect not one or more classes of young people, but all of them indistinctly and all of them useful and advantageous. This is why, in the festive Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in Turin - the first founded by Ven. D. Bosco, - we hopefully hopefully put our hands on various works of an economic-social nature; works partly new and partly transplanted there ».
For vocational schools since 1898 he has been Councilor of the Superior Chapter Fr. Giuseppe Bertello: after the inactivity of Fr. Giuseppe Lazzero, he, following the indications of the Superior Chapter and of the General Chapters, brought Salesian professional schools to a splendid development and disseminated the activity with international exhibitions.

I emphasize three things: Salesian entrepreneurship: the continuous renewal of machinery, the need for production by laboratories and the training of young people in entrepreneurship.
Such entrepreneurship is evidenced both by documents (Don Bertello), by exhibitions and by constant attention to industrial development.
The need for production by laboratories also emerges from the comparison with the 1902 law; training young people in entrepreneurship both from the constant need for young people to have both an education corresponding to the development of their profession and an efficient apprenticeship.
It is interesting on the subject what Giorgio Rossi writes about the Sacred Heart Salesian Society of Rome: «A second aspect to highlight was the weekly payment in cash of the students, used by the Salesians and other institutions. [...] Laboratories, within government regulations, such as those on child labor, were also productive. The gain of the craftsman depended on three coefficients: on the value of the works performed, on the skill and dexterity in performing them, on the application and diligence put by the boy in his work. Everything was regulated by precise "rules for the weekly remuneration of artisan students". From the 'mass and deposit' booklet the student could withdraw only a limited amount of money from the deposit, including the weekly tip of 5 to 15 cents. A craftsman, at the end of the professional course years, in 1910 he reached a sum that fluctuated around 200 lire, that is the equivalent of a year's pension. This custom, if present also in other institutions, at the Ospizio S. Cuore has been clarified and structured it seems better than others ».
An important evolution can be documented in the Salesians regarding the technical institutes, which, accepted in the first post-war period, stand out for their preparation for work (Istituto Pio XI of Rome, 1931).
Salesian agricultural schools have had a special development. "For the Catholics, as we know, this was a category at the center of attention of the protagonists of social action, as demonstrated by the many initiatives taken on the subject of cooperation, especially of credit, although it must be said that some very important issues for the dependent work, were analyzed in a surprisingly profound way "(Alberto Cova).
The activity of the Salesian Fr. Carlo M. Baratta was important from the point of view of both his accomplishments and a deepening of the issues in an economic and entrepreneurial perspective. He was exceptional both in the educational and entrepreneurial relationship, which not only deepened with publications on Rerum Novarum, but, with the activation of the Parma agricultural school, favored the "agrarian turning point" in the Congregation proposed by Fr Rua in 1992 , which led to the spread of Salesian agricultural schools in various parts of the world.
In summary, the Salesians have shown above all an educational and social entrepreneurship in response to the needs and expectations of young people, as they have known them in various parts of the world. The strength of development lies in past experience and achievements, which have achieved "those wonderful fruits of spiritual regeneration" (Don Albera).
However, in 1914 Fr Rinaldi pointed out the limits in the quality of our activity, starting with the educational relationship, which is not always open and entrepreneurial as Don Bosco wanted. Along with this limit, I recall that of the formation of Salesians in studentates, with the introduction of practical training, which was discussed in the General Chapters of 1898 (IX). It is worth exploring how the institutionalization of the offer to young people may have limited the educational entrepreneurship of the Salesians together with the studentates that have progressively overestimated the theoretical dimension of education. 

2. Catholic action and fascism

The change made by the Piedmontese Statute of 1848 with the consequent implementing laws led to the absence of the Church from the juridical point of view in society and to the excessive power of the State, which certainly did not develop a liberal but often anticlerical policy.

From the legal point of view, even the clergy and religious are on the same level as every citizen. This new constitutional approach gave rise to the need for the presence of the laity in society and in September 1867 the Catholic Youth Society (SGC) originated for the meeting and action of two young men: Mario Fani of Viterbo and Giovanni Acquaderni.
But Don Bosco had perceived this social commitment as fundamental in the education of youth; his brilliant intuition led him to develop his activity as a social action in compliance with civil laws, without entering into politics in any way. Among other things, he will define his Salesian citizens before the State and religious in front of the Church. And with the development of the Association of Cooperators, it will also introduce the laity engaged in civil society.
This choice makes us understand the behavior of Don Bosco and the Salesians in the development of Catholic Action and of the Catholic Movement in Italy until 1904, when the non expedit will be attenuated(removed in 1908), but the Work of Congresses will be suppressed and space will be opened for the political insertion of Catholics both in the attempts to found a party and in the trade unions (white union).
Given the existing documentation relating to Salesians and Catholic Action, I consider it important to deepen the position of the Salesians in an extremely difficult period in carrying out their educational mission, that is, during fascism.
As we can see, we are facing a true and progressive overlap, supported by Pius XI's statement: "The four Companies of Colleges and Oratories will continue to carry out their traditional activities and will be" the most precious auxiliaries of Catholic Action "With the addition:" and the nursery of its best elements ".
The government of the Salesian Congregation has always maintained that companies are associations of young people to collaborate in the realization of their companions within the Salesian environment: the collaboration of young people in the good progress of the Salesian educational environment and in the education of their own companions is a characteristic of the Salesian charism and source of vocations.
It is interesting to note that Catholic Action has favored a theology of the laity, which found expression in the Second Vatican Council. And it must be borne in mind that Don Bosco with the lay religious and the Cooperators gave a strong impulse to the commitment of the laity in the action of the Church.
With fascism and dictatorships the social dimension of the civil commitment of the Church is suffocated.
Pius XI is committed to saving the educational dimension of the Church's action, putting Don Bosco forward. Pius XI's commitment to education is safeguarded through Catholic Action. The Salesians, while on the one hand obey the Pope, on the other do not intend to give in on the Companies, because they are part of their identity and of Don Bosco's charisma. The Companies have a direct link with the development of piety and the birth and growth of vocations in the Salesian House: they engaged young people to be educators of their companions and to contribute to the positive development of the Salesian educational environment.
In 1947 with Pius XII we reached the point of a real overlap between the Companies and the Salesian Youth Association of Catholic Action. It would be interesting to have time to document the whole process of relations between the Holy See and the Salesian Congregation on this topic.
I conclude with the words that Fr Ricaldone addressed to the XV General Chapter (1938): "In the papal documents we find wise provisions. Beware therefore not to think that the CA should destroy the past good operated eg. from the already existing Companies and Associations: the Pope has defined them as the best auxiliary forces of the CA Do not destroy them, therefore; but perfecting them ».

In the 60s of the last century the companies have disappeared and a charismatic dimension of Salesian education has vanished: the associative collaboration of young people for the realization of the educational environment of a Salesian house.

3. The liturgical movement

Beginning with the statements of two Major Rectors. In 1939, Fr Ricaldone wrote about the liturgical movement: "It is therefore necessary, both out of respect for the wishes of the Supreme Pontiffs, and for the factual necessity, that our homes and institutions appear in the front row also in this movement". Don Egidio Viganò in 1983: «In the liturgical field, which should be for us as the moment of synthesis of our popular pedagogy, an inspired genius was lacking capable of enhancing, for the benefit of children and the people, the richness of the sacred signs. The music, the band, the singing do not have the importance of other times in the life of the Congregation ».
The statement by Stephen Kuncherakatt, proposed in a somewhat attenuated form by Desramaut, that with 1916 begins the suffocation of the liturgical movement in the Salesian Congregation, if we consider that Fr Ricaldone proposes in 1939, as a specific point in the visit to the house, seems difficult to accept. the liturgical movement:
«1. It is good that the Visitor gives special importance to this point. In fact it is known how this movement was promoted and inculcated by Pius X, by Benedict XV and by HH Pius XI.
2. It is now widespread all over the world, and although it has not yet penetrated into the masses of the people what is necessary and what the Supreme Pontiffs have shown to desire and to want, however it is on a large scale implemented and followed not only in the Seminaries and Institutes, but also in the ranks of the Catholic Action Associations ".
It is interesting to note that the reconstruction of Don Bosco's contributions proposed by Don Ricaldone is in agreement with what Stella, Desramaut, Valentini and José Aldazàbal say.
Eugenio Valentini wrote in 1977: "Don Giovanni Battista Grosso [...] remains unquestionably among the great pioneers of the" Italian Liturgical Movement ", and the founder and creator of this" Movement "within the Salesian Congregation". And of Don Eusebio Vismara: "he was not only a pioneer of the" liturgical movement ", but he was also a prophet of the liturgical reform, implemented by Vatican II". Manlio Sodi makes it clear that the Liturgical Congress of Lombriasco, created by Don Grosso in 1905, "can, indeed must be considered " the first manifestation of the Italian liturgical movement "and certainly" the beginning of the liturgical movement within the Salesian Congregation "" .
The support of the Superiors has been constant. "In Italy at the beginning of the century few understood the Gregorian reform, and many openly opposed the interpretation of Solesmes. Only Blessed Fr Rua understood Don Grosso and supported him in this task "(Valentini). Equally, Don Rinaldi, both as General Prefect of the Congregation at the time of the Rectorate of Don Paolo Albera, and as Rector Major.
Through the activity and the writings of don Grosso and don Vismara the ceciliano movement (Josip Gregur treated Don Bosco und dasCeciliano Movement) and the liturgical movement were born and developed in Italy starting first from France. In Italy their activity from France takes place in Piedmont and above all in Turin, but through the formation of Salesian personnel it has progressively spread in the Salesian world. After their death again in the XVI General Chapter of 1947, the discourse is deepened and engaged.
It remains to explain what Eugenio Valentini says about the involution of the liturgical movement in the Congregation with the beginning of the forties. This is probably due to the death of Don Grosso (21 November 1944) and of Fr Vismara (3 January 1945): there were no continuators at that level.

Perhaps we must rediscover Don Bosco: he had put the rosary during Holy Mass because, being celebrated in Latin, were the young people unable to understand the texts of both the scriptures and the missal? In fact he wanted the young people to be always active. However he had them instructed on the value and meaning of liturgical actions so that they actively participated in it, until they learned in part the Latin of the Holy Mass. Certainly he wanted the active participation of young people and, with the liturgy in spoken language he could strongly develop the participation of young people, as the Council wanted. This is a dimension of the educational relationship created by Don Bosco.


The described perspectives presented allow us to document how the Salesian Congregation, from the point of view of the central government, tried to respond to the problems that emerged from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the last century.
Social commitment touches on a fundamental dimension of the Congregation, committed to forming honest citizens. The relationship with Catholic Action documents the commitment to safeguard the identity of the Salesian educational environment, in which young people are committed to growing in their vocation open to the Transcendent, committing themselves to help their own comrades grow and to collaborate, associating themselves with a continuous improvement of the educational environment itself. Unfortunately the companies have disappeared. The commitment of piety and vocations, often emphasized by the Salesians with regard to companies, implies that these were a fundamental contribution precisely in soliciting the vocation to education of the young beginning with their own companions.

The liturgical movement reaches Christian education at a deep level, leading young people to understand and live, by participating, in liturgical action. The problem of language will be overcome above all with Vatican II, but seeing Don Bosco already committed to making the liturgy live with an authentic understanding is a fundamental fact.
The problem of educational entrepreneurship of Don Bosco and the first many first Salesians is open on all three fronts.

Institutionalization has stifled the originality, creativity and salesian entrepreneurship of the origins, evidently passing through difficult times. But we cannot say that the times of Don Bosco were easy. I believe it is important for us to develop the educational creativity and entrepreneurship of Don Bosco and of many Salesians of the early times, returning among the young, constantly talking with them to understand them, discover their attitudes and aspirations and help them to realize them in a life project open to the transcendent call in an educational environment that is effectively a home, from which young people come to be with Don Bosco.