BOOKS – A DIVINE MEANS
Don Bosco was profoundly convinced that the means of social communication, available in his own times, could help him with his mission as an evangelizer and educator.
Certainly in terms of the reality before him, the means available to him were not many, but he choose them all and knew how to appreciate their value for spreading the Gospel, for the formation of youth, for service to the Church and the People of God. We are certain that had he the chance to know of the new media, the technological latest of our generation, he would have wanted them to make his apostolate more functional, effective and real.
We can draw such conclusions from a letter dated 19th March 1885, in which Don Bosco spoke of his convictions and motivations regarding the importance and alue of good books, something he wanted to pass on to his first Salesians. He would have reserved the same strength of conviction, the same passion, (‘I want to warmly recommend to you..”) for all media, and would have communicated this to Salesians of every period. Each instrument, and in his case the book, is useful in promoting the good and the dignity of human beings, and is a richness and an investment for humanity and its future.
Don Bosco’s Circular Letter on the ‘spreading of good books’
“I want to see you grow in zeal and in merit before God, every ay, and so I will not hesitate to suggest to you from time to time various means which I believe to be an improvement, so that your ministry will be more fruitful.
Amongst these, one that I want to warmly recommend to you, for the glory of God and the good of souls, is the spreading of good books.
I don’t hesitate to call this means ‘Divine’, since God Himself used it to rejuvenate human beings. There were books inspired by Him that have brought correct teaching to all the world.
He wished that throughout all the cities and villages of Palestine there would be copies and that each Sabbath there would be reading in the religious assemblies. At the beginning these books were the sole patrimony of the Hebrew people but, once the tribes were taken into captivity in Assyria and amongst the Chaldeans, the Sacred Scriptures were translated into the Syro-chaldean language, and all of central Asia had them in their own languages. Once Grece was in the ascendancy, the Hebrews brought their colonies to every corner of the world and with them the Sacred Books were multiplied ‘ad infinitum’; and they even enriched the libraries of pagan peoples through their version of the Septuagint. Orators. Poets and philosophers of those times drew not a few truths from the Bible. God, principally through his inspired writings, prepared the world for the coming of the Saviour.
It behoves us, then, to imitate the work of the Heavenly Father. Good books, spread amongst the people, are one of the active ways to preserve the kingdom of the Saviour in so many souls. The thoughts, principles, the morals of a Catholic book have substance drawn from the Apostolic books and tradition. They are so much more necessary today in the face of the army of impiety and immorality wreaking havoc in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ, leading on and dragging down to perdition those who are careless and disobedient. It is necessary to fight arms with arms.
You can add that the book, even if on the one hand it does not have the power of the living word, on the other hand offers even greater advantages in certain circumstances. The good book can enter a house where the priest cannot, it is even tolerated by bad people as a gift or remembrance. No need to blush, offering it, no need to worry if it is neglected; when read it teaches truths calmly, if you don’t like it it doesn’t have to leave you bored, yet it leaves feelings of misgiving that sometimes spark a desire to know the truth. Meanwhile it is always ready to teach.
Sometimes it remains gathering dust on the table or in the library. No-one gives it a second thought. But come the hour of solitude, or sadness, or boredom or a need to escape, or of anxiety about the future, and this faithful friend shakes off its dust, opens its pages and there we find again the wonderful conversions of St. Augustine, of Blessed Columbine and St. Ignatius. Polite in dealing with those who are fearful through human respect, it arouses suspicion in no-one. Familiar with those who are good, it is always ready to talk things over; it goes with them at every moment, everywhere. How many the souls saved by good books, how many preserved from error, how many encouraged in doing good. The one who gives a good book might have no other merit than to awaken some thought of God, but has already gained an incomparable merit before God. And yet how much more is gained. A book in a family, if not read by the one to whom it was given or intended, is read by a son or daughter, by a friend or neighbour.
A book in a village then passes into the hands of a hundred eople. God alone knows the good that a book produces in a city, in a travelling library, in a worker’s club, in a hospital, given as a mark of friendship. Should one be afraid that a book would be refused by someone just because it is good? On the contrary. A confrere of ours, each time he went to the grand constructions in that port, took with him his store of good books to give to the porters, the workers, the sailors. These books were always welcomed with joy and gratitude and then immediately read with lively curisoity”.
About to depart for France, Don Bosco sent the Colleges this Circular on being enthusiastic in spreading wholesome books.
Having said all that, and leaving aside much of what you already know, I want to point out why, not only as Catholics but especially as Salesians, you should be enthusiastic and spare no effort or means to spread wholesome books.
This was amongst the main tasks Divine Providence entrusted to me, and you know how much effort I spent on it, not withstanding my thousand and one other occupations. The raging hatred of the enemies of what is good, and the persecutions against my own person show how error sees in these books a formidable opponent, and how, for exactly the opposite reason, they are an undertaking blessed by God.
In fact, the marvellous distribution these books have had is an argument that proves God's special assistance. In less than 30 years, the total number of publications and books we have spread among ordinary people amounts to about twenty million. If some of them have been ignored, others have had hundreds of readers, and thus we can certainly reckon that the number of people who have benefitted from our books is much greater than the number of books we have published.
This spreading of wholesome literature is one of the principal ends of our Congregation. Article 7 of the first paragraph of our Regulations says of the Salesians: "They shall devote themselves to spreading good books among the people, using all the means which Christian charity inspires. By word and writing they will seek to counteract the godlessness and heresy that is trying in so many guises to creep in amongst the uncultured and unlearned. To this end they should direct the sermons they preach from time to time, triduums, novenas and the spreading of good books."
Amongst the books to be spread I propose that we stick to those that have a reputation for being good, moral and religious, and we should give preference to those produced by our own presses. The reason is that the material benefit that results, becomes charity through the support it provides for the many poor young people we have, and because our publications tend to form an orderly system, that embraces on a vast scale all the classes that make up human society. I won't dwell on this point; rather I am pleased to look at just one class, that of young people, to whom I have always striven to do good not only with the spoken but also with the printed word. With the Catholic Readings, while I tried to instruct all the people, its purpose was to get into the houses, to let people know about the spirit in our Colleges, and draw young people to virtue, especially with the biographies of Savio, Besucco and others. With the Companion of Youth, my aim was to draw them into church, instil in them the spirit of piety and lead them to love frequenting the sacraments. With the collection of edited Italian and Latin classics and with the History of Italy and the other historical or literary books, I wanted to be at their side in school and preserve them from so many errors and passions, that would be fatal for them in time and eternity. I wanted, as in the old days, to be their companion in the hours of recreation, and I thought of arranging a series of enjoyable books, which I hope will not be long in coming to the light. Finally with the Salesian Bulletin, amongst my many aims, I also had this one: to keep alive in boys who have returned to their families the spirit of St Francis de Sales and his mottos, and to make them the saviours of other young people. I will not tell you I have reached my ideal of perfection; on the contrary, I am telling you that it is up to you to co-ordinate it in such a way that it will be complete in all its parts.
I ask and beseech you then not to neglect this most important part of our mission. Work at it not only amongst the young people Providence has confided to you, but with your words and example, make them so many other apostles in the spreading of good books.
At the start of the year the pupils, especially the new ones, are alight with enthusiasm at the offer of our associations, even more so when it costs so little. But make sure that they join spontaneously and are not in anyway forced to belong. With well reasoned exhortations lead the young people to join, not just for the good the books will do them, but also for the good they can do to others, sending them home as soon as they are published, to their father, mother, brothers, benefactors.
Besides, parents who practice their religion little, are moved by this thoughtfulness of a son, or brother who is away from home, and they are easily lead to read the book out of curiosity, if for no other reason. Let them be careful though that what they send never looks like preaching or talking at their relatives, but is always and only a thoughtful gift and an affectionate memento. When they return home, they should strive to increase the merits of their good works, by giving them as presents to their friends, loaning them to relatives, giving them as thanks for a favour done, passing them on to their parish priest, asking him to distribute them and get more members.
Be persuaded, my dear sons, that such industriousness will draw down on you and on our young people the Lord's choicest blessings.
I finish: draw the conclusion to this letter yourselves by seeing that our young people get hold of moral and Christian principles especially by means of our productions, without despising other publishers' books. I must tell you, however, that I was cut to the quick, when I got to know that, in some of our houses, the books we printed were at times not known or held in no regard. Do not love, nor lead others to love, that science, which the Apostle says inflat (pumps up). And remind yourselves that, even though St Augustine was an eminent teacher of fine letters and an eloquent orator, after he became a bishop, he preferred the incorrect use of language and the absence of stylish elegance, rather than run the risk of not being understood by the people.
The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always. Pray for me.
(1) He left Turin on 24 March.
(2) Bosco, Epistolario, IV.