Don Bosco

Reflection on Don Bosco's "spirituality" and on Salesian asceticism in history

Reflection on Don Bosco's "spirituality" and on Salesian asceticism in history

Aldo Giraudo, sdb

Reflection on Don Bosco's spirituality has ancient roots and has developed over time in response to different sensitivities and concerns induced by the historical context, in an interesting variety of methodological approaches. Today I would like to present some of the most significant ones, from the time of Don Bosco to the 1950s.

1. During the life of Don Bosco

Living Don Bosco, together with the exaltation of his work, which appears prodigious, does not fail to indicate some spiritual characteristics"The physiognomy of this extraordinary man": "mystical and grandiose architect", as Albert Du Boys writes (1883). Above all, we celebrate his "simple and perfect, which consists in abandoning ourselves, without reservations or restrictions, to Divine Providence, not to look for other support and strength than in the motherhood of the Holy Virgin" (Charles d'Espiney). We are enthusiastic about the "numerous healings", the "reported graces" obtained through the intercession of Mary Help of Christians; to his foresight. The anecdotal and the marvelous, the extraordinary and the "supernatural" are aspects dear to the Catholicism of the late nineteenth century, which sees in Don Bosco and in other exceptional men, motives for encouragement in difficult times for the Church.

Contemporary publicists (Mendre, Spinola, Biginelli) move in the same direction, highlighting the modernity of the work and the charm of the person. Others seek deeper interpretative keys. Domenico Giordani illustrated Don Bosco's educational system in 1886, interpreting it in the light of the theological virtue of charity, showing its roots in Don Bosco's interior life and emphasizing his ascetic needs and virtuous implications.

2. After the death of Don Bosco

With the death of the Saint the journalism explicitly emphasizes his holiness. Archbishop Gaetano Alimonda, for example, at the mass of Trigesima, presents Don Bosco as the " divinizer of his own century ", the one who knew how to draw "the century to God" and, through charity, gave a Christian soul to pedagogy, training young people to enter the world of work to "deify" it.
Less rhetorical is Giacinto Ballesio, an ancient pupil of the Oratory, who does not insist on great works and triumphs, but emphasizes the intimate lifeof Don Bosco. He represents Don Bosco "as he seemed and was among us: the man who thinks, loves, fears and hopes, who speaks and works, who struggles and sacrifices himself for the children that heaven has given him". Don Bosco's "intimate life" is understood in an ascetic sense: "his continuous, calm, sweet, invincible and heroic sacrifice; his study and the great love for us his children; trust, esteem, great authority, the opinion of a saint, of a scholar, in which we were held, almost an ideal type of moral perfection ". It is Don Bosco immersed in the life of the Oratory, "still full of energy: with ingenuity, with great affection [he] was all for us, always with us [...]; he has no time for himself. " Ballesio insists on the basic dynamism: "the holy fear of God". "The piety of the good Director communicated to his subordinates and from these to all his children". It was a government exercised in a climate of love, of amiable persuasion, of edification and of good example, very effective. Don Bosco's holiness is outlined with reference to daily action, to the formative method, in the close relationship with the young, of which he knew how to shape hearts "with the powerful lever of Religion and love".
The main biographies published after the death of the Founder are the short and popular Life of Giovanni Battista Francesia and the Life in two volumes of Don Giovanni Battista Lemoyne. The first, which appeared in the Letture Cattoliche series (1902), had reprints until 1930. The second, more detailed and documented, enjoyed immense fortune (vol. I: 1911; vol. II: 1913; last reprint: 1983) , and provided a mainly hagiographic interpretative key to the complex figure and work of the Saint. Despite the historiographical limitations, this work paved the way for a spiritual hermeneutics of the experience of Don Bosco.

3. The theological essay of Msgr. Abrahán Aguilera

The first attempt at theological-spiritual interpretation is that of the Salesian Msgr. Abrahán Aguilera Bravo, who in 1915 tried to explain "what is Christian holiness in general and what is the holiness of Don Bosco in particular". Graduated in theology at the Gregorian, he referred to the Summa of St. Thomas, the de Ecclesia by Louis Billot and the meditations on the Holy Spirit by Moritz Meschler, his professors.
He starts from the Thomistic definition of holiness, which consists in union with God, the supreme rule of every rectitude, and involves, on the one hand, detachment from creatures and, on the other, a firm adhesion to God through love and virtuous works. This union operated by grace elevates man to a higher state, in which his acts acquire efficacy and infinite relevance. The "consummated" sanctity, which will be achieved only in the beatific union, requires a beginning on earth through the exercise of faith and love, up to heroism, in separation from creatures and in indissoluble union with God. Holiness Don Bosco's features are negative traits, those that allowed him to be all of God (the detachment from self and creatures, external and internal self-denial, humility) and positive attitudes, those who, starting from the perfect voluntary annihilation of human nature, they enabled him to actively collaborate with the action of sanctifying grace, of the infused virtues and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, making him an absolutely docile instrument to the vivifying action of God. His intelligence, flooded by the light of grace, she was made capable of contemplating and her willingness to act with heroism; the body itself was gratified by extraordinary gifts. Don Bosco's unconditional adherence left a clear field to God: grace flooded him with "a continuous and superabundant torrent of extraordinary light and heavenly favors". We are in the regions of mysticism, of habitual union with God through faith and charity, in a sort of continuous "ecstatic rapture even in the midst of the most diverse occupations"; constantly penetrated by the thought of God, by the desire to give him praise; always serene and lovable; perpetually striving to lead souls to God; docile in everything to the Holy Spirit; incomparably and genuinely devoted; unlimited confidence in Providence. All his work springs from this charity, "from the very love of God that works in him and through him as an instrument", inflaming him with zeal for the salvation of souls, suggesting to him a thousand educational and missionary enterprises, giving him the efficacy of the word , inspiring the same Preventive System. In this way also his incessant, immense work was transformed into a positive means of union with God and holiness, since everything in him was placed at the service of the Lord and the spread of his Kingdom. perpetually striving to lead souls to God; docile in everything to the Holy Spirit; incomparably and genuinely devoted; unlimited confidence in Providence. All his work springs from this charity, "from the very love of God that works in him and through him as an instrument", inflaming him with zeal for the salvation of souls, suggesting to him a thousand educational and missionary enterprises, giving him the efficacy of the word , inspiring the same Preventive System. In this way also his incessant, immense work was transformed into a positive means of union with God and holiness, since everything in him was placed at the service of the Lord and the spread of his Kingdom. perpetually striving to lead souls to God; docile in everything to the Holy Spirit; incomparably and genuinely devoted; unlimited confidence in Providence. All his work springs from this charity, "from the very love of God that works in him and through him as an instrument", inflaming him with zeal for the salvation of souls, suggesting to him a thousand educational and missionary enterprises, giving him the efficacy of the word , inspiring the same Preventive System. In this way also his incessant, immense work was transformed into a positive means of union with God and holiness, since everything in him was placed at the service of the Lord and the spread of his Kingdom. All his work springs from this charity, "from the very love of God that works in him and through him as an instrument", inflaming him with zeal for the salvation of souls, suggesting to him a thousand educational and missionary enterprises, giving him the efficacy of the word , inspiring the same Preventive System. In this way also his incessant, immense work was transformed into a positive means of union with God and holiness, since everything in him was placed at the service of the Lord and the spread of his Kingdom. All his work springs from this charity, "from the very love of God that works in him and through him as an instrument", inflaming him with zeal for the salvation of souls, suggesting to him a thousand educational and missionary enterprises, giving him the efficacy of the word , inspiring the same Preventive System. In this way also his incessant, immense work was transformed into a positive means of union with God and holiness, since everything in him was placed at the service of the Lord and the spread of his Kingdom.

The essay, by Msgr. Aguilera, printed in Punta Arenas in 1918, did not spread. The beatification must be reached to find authors more attentive to the interiority and spiritual teaching of Don Bosco.

4. The interpretative keys highlighted by Pius XI and Eugenio Ceria

The abundant journalistic flourished between beatification and canonization, is indebted - in addition to the work of Lemoyne - above all to the interpretative keys provided in the speeches of Pius XI and in the Don Bosco with God by Eugenio Ceria.

4.1.

Achille Ratti as a young priest had been a guest of the Saint and was deeply impressed by his interiority. In the speeches he presents a markedly spiritual interpretation of his figure, highlighting the fundamental dynamics: the apostolic ardor, the "generosity of his feelings", the "perennial vivacity of his addresses and his methods, and above all of his examples", the his "heroic loyalty to duty at all times, [...] always ready to dedicate himself to everything and everyone, as if everyone and everything were the only thing and the only person". So much zeal flowed from the continuing aspiration to Godthat animated him, from the unconditional surrender to Him and from the passion for souls and pushed him to "dedication, indeed to the whole abdication of everything that concerned his own person to everything that could contribute to the good".

According to Pius XI, Don Bosco's saving ardor is the fruit of his profound understanding of the mystery of Redemption and of his love for Jesus Christ: a love nourished "in continuous, uninterrupted meditation of what souls are, not considered in themselves , but in what I am in thought, in work, in blood, in the death of the Divine Redeemer ”. "So that there was no sacrifice or undertaking that he did not dare to face in order to win so intensely loved souls". This is the polarizing element of his whole life: "A colossal life of work that gave the impression of oppression even if only to see it; a life of unaltered, inexhaustible patience, of true charity, so that He always has a rest of his person, of his mind, of his heart, for the last comer and at whatever time he arrived and after any work; a true and continuous martyrdom in the harshness of the mortified life ".

Pius XI emphasizes above all the admirable balance between operative fervor and union with God, the dynamic secret of Don Bosco's fruitfulness: "An incessant, devouring ardor of apostolic action, of missionary action [...]; and with this ardor a truly admirable spirit, of recollection, of tranquility, of calm, which was not the only calm of silence, but that which always accompanied a true spirit of union with God, so as to allow a glimpse of a continuous attention to some what his soul saw, with which his heart entertained: the presence of God, the union with God ”. In this "magnificent mystery", in the "perennial aspiration, indeed continuous prayer to God", consists "the true key" of all the "miracle of work" of Don Bosco and of the extraordinary expansion of his work. His daily life "was a continuous immolation of charity, a continuous gathering of prayer [...]. He felt everything, he grasped everything, he answered everything and always in a high concentration ". Furthermore, Don Bosco's apostolic industry and his union with God were united with "the careful cultivation of the spirit", with a "Christian life abundantly, abundantly lived".

4.2.

Like the speeches of Pius XI, Don Bosco with God by Eugenio Ceria had a lasting ascendancy on spirituality , published on the occasion of the beatification, republished with the addition of five chapters after World War II (1947). Ceria wants to illustrate "a side" of Don Bosco generally neglected, "his spirit of prayer and meditation", to understand "his intimate and habitual motives". He does not follow a theological, but descriptive historical method to show that the life of the Saint, aged in age, was a continuous ascension of inner communion with God and virtuous exercise.
The introduction of the book offers the interpretative key: extraordinary gifts are not essential to Christian holiness. Don Bosco is holy because he lived "entirely for God", in him he sought the beginning and set the goal "of all his thoughts, of all his affections, of all his actions". He "fully fulfilled the supernatural life", in the "affectionate thrust of the soul towards God, without anything in the world to distract him from that supreme object of his love". Don Bosco, "in the perfect love of God", fulfilling "a mission of good in a given historical period", has shown "that holiness is not given without an interior life, nor will an interior life be given without a spirit of prayer". He taught that "action and prayer" must be "merged, interpenetrated, indivisible", and that "the spirit of prayer", infused by the Holy Spirit, it also requires a continuous ascetic commitment to eliminate the works of the flesh and to welcome the fruits of the Spirit. In this way Don Bosco was able to "live in the Spirit", "filled with all the fullness of God" and be the most fruitful apostle of the young.

The concluding chapter of the first edition ( Gift of prayer ) constitutes the theological-spiritual synthesis of the book. Ceria concludes: Don Bosco was a true contemplative, even though the usual "experimental perception of spiritual life" and the extraordinary phenomena of which he was gratified did not entail in him "loss in the lower powers" and in the senses. He, as the witnesses say, "habitually possessed that grace of prayer, called by the whole union of St. Teresa " and by others (St. Alphonsus), " simple union", Characterized by two characteristics: 1) the total absorption of the soul in the divine object, without distractions; 2) while the senses continue to act and communicate with the external world. The simple union was a typical gift of Don Bosco, who, despite the whirling and absorbing activity, did not let himself "never distract from the loving thought of God". In this state there was nothing left for him to do but cooperate in grace "by his simple consent". For this reason in his very active existence, enlightened and guided by contemplation, one can grasp "a saturation of grace in union with God" and, together, "a saturation of love and a spirit of sacrifice". Thanks to these gifts he was able to face every kind of trial without upsetting, "practicing heroically, among the crosses sent to him, every virtue from the beginning to the end of his mortal career ". From this point of view, "therefore - concludes Ceria - even Don Bosco was a mystic".

5. The main studies in the years of beatification and canonization

Many publications emerged between beatification and canonization, reflecting the enthusiasm that the Holy Educator aroused everywhere. In the perspective of spiritual theology four authors deserve attention.

5.1. Angelo Portaluppi: The spirituality of Blessed Don Bosco (1930)

With an essay, published in the magazine "La Scuola Cattolica", of the Milanese theological faculty, Father Angelo Portaluppi intends to demonstrate why Don Bosco is "the emblem of the modern saint". His speech is structured around three main areas: 1) Exaltation of operations . Every saint receives special gifts for a mission and "the mission of Don Bosco was totally social". Man "all concreteness, practicality, adhering to the demands of" modern life, "more than absorbing the collection of prayer, he possessed the ecstasy of action ", nourished by "a blazing heart of love of souls". It was this stimulus that "led him to dilate the works". 2) The unifying sense of God's presence and dedication to his glory. Don Bosco had the "living, immediate, urgent" sense of God's presence and in him this perception "constituted the structure of his personality". He was "an operative contemplative", who, "having reached the present and persistent presence of the interior God, had shaped thought and occupations in this atmosphere". This is why, despite the frenetic vivacity of the action, he managed to be "a spirit supremely collected and sensitive to the most interior stimuli of the spiritual life". 3) The form of his piety , peculiar and modern, revealing "a perfect unification of action and contemplation made synchronous and homogeneous motion of the spirit". He "lives in God and for God", in an "effective vivifying union". His soul "remains in stateof adoration and prayer "," of mystical contemplation "; therefore all his activity and the most distracting solicitude, are "fused by the ardor of permanent adoration", also entering "to serve food to his mystical flame". These three peculiar connotations, according to Portaluppi, make Don Bosco a significant spiritual master for the apostles of modern times.

5.2. Ceslao Pera: Don Bosco's charismatic gifts in the light of Thomist theology (1930)

Theologian, qualified commentator of St. Thomas, Father Pera approaches Don Bosco in the perspective of the gifts of the Holy Spirit . His beautiful volume - the only study of spiritual theology of Don Bosco's inner experience - is introduced by a chapter summarizing Thomistic pneumatology: how the Holy Spirit works in the order of nature and grace; what is the function of his gifts with regard to Christian perfection; how charity leads them to gradual development. In the following chapters the presence of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in the soul of Don Bosco is documented with testimonies drawn from Life . The final chapter accentuates his characteristic gift: the wisdom of the interior life. Don Bosco is "the most wise educator" of young people "to the divine life of grace and charity". In him we see "a splendor of wisdom, which makes his priesthood healthy and active: the gift of wisdom has given his priestly apostolate a characteristic sense that distinguishes it from all others: that of paternity". Thanks to this gift “he knew how to awaken in his hearts a divine sympathy for ultra-earthly realities; he was able to give a taste for the things of God and of God himself; he communicated to the spirits the burning flame of his great heart as a priest , an apostle , an educator , a passionate lover of Christian adolescence ".

5.3. Pietro Scotti: the "spiritual doctrine" of Don Bosco (1932)

In an essay published in "The Catholic School" (1932) - later developed into a volume - the Salesian Pietro Scotti shows that Don Bosco's spiritual teaching has its own physiognomy. Even if the data on his education are scarce, it is possible to see the decisive influence of some factors, which explain "certain characteristics of Don Bosco's asceticism": maternal education; the extraordinary graces; the formation of the seminary and ecclesiastical boarding school; the figure and works of St. Francis de Sales; youth education experiences. To understand it fully, we must also "study his spirit through the rules, the means he established for the youngsters". A first characteristic trait emerges, his piety, called "sacramental piety", but rich in many other solid elements, which are transfused into the rhythm of life of a Salesian college. He encouraged the young to internalize spiritual values; above all it gave to piety "a trend of simplicity, spontaneity, sensitivity", inspired by Francis de Sales. Other peculiar elements are captured in his method of " formation of Salesian disciples in religious life". He wanted them to live "a life very close to that of the young", with something more: every day community meditation, mass, communion, rosary, examination of conscience; confession every week; every month the exercise of a good death; spiritual exercises every year. The Salesian religious is also unmistakable for his vital prayer, sanctified work, temperance in the broad sense (he includes "chastity, humility, gentleness or meekness, affability and eutrapelia, beyond abstinence and sobriety" ). The picture is completed by the "more external, more apostolic, or if it pleases, more pedagogical and, in part, even technical" part of his spirituality. It is an apostolate marked by “cordial, family charity, all meekness and sweetness to the incredible. In spiritual doctrineof Don Bosco, therefore, nova et vetera are found , but other specific characteristics also stand out which make it a well-defined current of spirituality: 1) Simple and spontaneous piety which gives maximum development to union with God; 2) Spirit of work as an expression of apostolic zeal in education; 3) Temperance that harmonizes the body and the spirit; 4) Benign charity of a Salesian character; 5) Enhancement of science as a means of apostolate; 6) Direct formation of Salesians among young people under the guidance of obedience.

5.4. Alberto Caviglia: the historical approach to the sanctity of Don Bosco

In 1934 the second recast edition of the Historical Profile of Alberto Caviglia appears , enriched with a summary chapter on Don Bosco man and saint. The approach is historical, and this angle reveals in the Saint a singular fusion of human and supernatural. Even the layman, if he wants to understand Don Bosco, must consider - along with his exceptional temperament, his iron will, his self-discipline, his moral sensibility, visions of the future, goodness and great genius - the spiritual personality and the profound motives of the his action: love of souls, trust in God, permanent thought of God. In short, an approach conducted with the methods proper to historiography is necessary to highlight characteristics of the sanctity of Don Bosco that would escape the eyes of the theologian.

In this context, Caviglia will also approach the study of the Life of Dominic Savio, showing that it is not historical biography, but hagiography and explicit proposal of sanctity: it is "the true document of holiness in Don Bosco's mind and direction: the a document that reveals the character and character of the sanctity taught by St. John Bosco: we could say of Salesian holiness "," the same that was lived by the Master himself ".

6. Other contributions up to the 1950s

6.1.

On the occasion of the canonization the publications, almost all of them celebrated, flourished. Among the few of a spiritual nature, three deserve attention for the emphasis placed on Don Bosco's interiority, as if to counterbalance the prevailing emphatic readings.

The first, which appeared in "La Civiltà Cattolica" (1934), is by Enrico Rosa sj Don Bosco, he says, is not "the modern saint" by many acclaimed. His holiness does not consist "in the external greatness of the work" and in the modernity of educational methods, but in the "interior life of the spirit", in his daily exercise of the virtues of his state. Above all faith, from which "prayer, contemplation, mystical union with God" always flourished, never "separated from action". A faith culminating in Eucharistic and Marian devotion, which resulted in apostolic and apologetic zeal, in love of neighbor, "in the ardent thirst of the health of souls". But it should not be forgotten that "the internal and supernatural life that kept the sanctity and the whole work of the humble priest of Turin was obtained at the price of mystical death: humiliation and suffering, mortification and constant work; on the ruins, that is, of matter and flesh for the triumph of the spirit: sacrifice of all that pleases nature and the world ”.

Don Eusebio Vismara, on the other hand, in the magazine "Dei Vebum" (1934), explains in what sense Don Bosco is a teacher and spiritual guide of modern times. "The Christian conscience of our times" feels closer to herself Teresa of Lisieux and Don Bosco because they trace "a new way of holiness", following the path of tradition. Their inspiration is Salesian: "the current of love and sweetness, of amiability and gentleness, of simplicity and ease in all that concerns the practice of virtues and the acquisition of perfection and holiness". It "is summed up entirely in the ascension towards God and in the fulfillment of his wishes, that is, in the law of love and imitation of Jesus Christ", but without exceptional works and external mortifications. The aspect that makes Don Bosco the "Teacher and Guide of contemporaries" consists in his way of perfectly embodying "the kindness of Jesus, to bring everyone to Him".

The study by Pierre Cras, which appeared in "La Vie Spirituelle": La spiritualité d'un homme d'action (1938) is part of the spiritual theology. Don Bosco's life is a "surprising phenomenon" impossible to enclose in simplifying formulas. He offers four fundamental spiritual lessons: 1) the ready and joyful zeal for his own sanctification and for the salvation of souls that makes him put aside all fear and gives him boldness; 2) the regulatory prudence of zeal, which makes him start from the little, always willing to face vast enterprises "when a great need indicates the will of God"; 3) the two grounds on which he bases his zeal: the ' self-denial anda clear conscience that guarantees freedom and total availability; 4) his zeal transforms action into an asceticism aimed at union with God, to the point that in him " the interior life is entirely centered on the external life and, one might even say, reinforced by the external life. Precisely the acts of this life, the most varied and simple, but accomplished with the perfection of charity, become as many gestures of perfection ".

6.2.

With prevailing formative concern, other Salesian authors move, without claiming to be scientific. I mention three of the most representative. Luigi Terrone collects an anthology of texts divided into thirty titles that seem to summarize the characteristics of the spirit of St. John Bosco (1934). Augustin Auffray ( En cordée derrière un guide sûr , 1948) illustrates the leading lines of Don Bosco's spiritual teaching in a series of sparkling meditations, centered on zeal for Christian education and the combination of Work and temperance . Henri Bouquier elaborates an organic presentation of Salesian spirituality in a formative function ( Les pas dans les pas de don Bosco ou Spiritualité Salésienne, 1953): with his way of being and acting, Don Bosco represents the perfection of the Gospel "in its practical application to the specific problem of education"; everything is concentrated in the practice of the preventive system that requires: 1) the love of ' assistance vigilant, active and continuous; 2) the exercise of loving kindness "with a proper discipline of the senses and of the heart"; 3) the effort to create a family environment in a regime of mutual confidence, amiable familiarity, serenity and goodness; 4) attention to raising the young on a higher plane "in which God is the center towards which everything converges"; 5) the loyalty of obedienceto the superior, father of the community; 6) entrustment to the Lord's grace through constant prayer , Marian devotion , sanctified work
Others, such as Eugenio Valentini ( Don Bosco's spirituality , 1951) limit themselves to presenting rather generic lists of characteristics, supporting them with quotations from biographical memoirs : Don Bosco's spirituality is apostolic , popular , family , youthful , but also modern for the importance attributed to the active and lay apostolate and to the preference of the small way. We are now in the line of repetitiveness to which, a little later, some young scholars will react, provided with intelligence and suitable instruments for research and innovative studies. That historical-critical vein will begin, with Francis Desramaut and Pietro Stella as its main representatives.