My beloved children in J.C.,
A very serious reason has convinced me to write this letter to you at the beginning of the school year. You know how much affection I have for those souls that Our Blessed Lord Jesus, in his infinite goodness, has wanted to entrust to me, and on the other hand you should not fail to appreciate the responsibility that weighs on those who would educate the young, nor the strict account they must render to Divine Justice regarding their mission. But this responsibility I must bear along with you, my dear sons and I want it to be the origin, source, cause of glory and eternal life for both you and me. Therefore I am calling your attention to a very important point on which the salvation of our pupils may depend. I speak of books that should be removed from our youngsters' hands and those that should be used for individual reading or reading in common.
The first impressions that the virgin minds and tender hearts of the young receive, last throughout life; and books today are one of the principal sources of such impressions. Reading has a real attraction for them, arousing their eager curiosity, and the definitive choice they make for good or for evil very often depends on this. The enemies of souls know the power of this weapon and experience teaches us that they know how to use it for evil purposes to destroy innocence. Interesting titles, nice paper, neat fonts, well-designed illustrations, low price, popular style, variety of genres, power of description: all are used to diabolical purpose. So it us up to us to meet weapon with weapon; we must wrest this poison of impiety and immorality from our youngsters' hands and we should oppose bad books with good books. Woe to us if we should be asleep while the enemy is constantly awake and sowing darnel!
Therefore from the beginning of the school year put into practice what the Rule prescribes, that is, attentively observe what books the pupils bring with them when they enter the College, appointing someone for the purpose of checking trunks and parcels. As well as this the Rector of each House should ask the boys to provide a conscientious list of all their books and give it to the Superior himself. This is not a superfluous measure, since you can better see if some book has been overlooked and also because if you keep these lists, they can serve to help you act against someone who has maliciously hidden a bad book.
Similar vigilance should continue throughout the year, asking the students to hand over any new book they buy through the school year or that has been given them by relatives, friends and day students; and see that either through ignorance or malice the boys don't have parcels wrapped in the worst of our newspapers; and you should make prudent checks in the study, dormitories and school rooms.
There can never be too much diligence in this matter. The teacher, head of studies, assistant should even check what is being read in church or in recreation, in school, in study. Unexpurgated dictionaries should also be got rid of. For so many boys they are the beginning of evil and one of the whiles of bad companions. A bad book is a plague which infects many boys. Let the Rector consider that he has had great success when he succeeds in removing one of these books from the hands of a pupil.
It is unfortunate that the boys who have these books find obedience very difficult and try out every trick to hide them. The Rector has to fight against greed, curiosity, fear of punishment, human respect, unbridled passions. That is why I believe it is so important to win over the boys' hearts, persuading them through kindness. Often through the year from the pulpit, in the evenings, in school, take up the topic of bad books, let them see the damage that comes from them; persuade the youngsters that all you want is the salvation of their souls: that after God we love them above all other things. Do not use tough measures unless a boy is the ruin of others. If someone hands over a bad book for this coming year forget about past disobedience and accept that book as a treasured gift. More so because it could be that the confessor has said it should be handed over and it would be imprudent to go looking further into the matter. The known kindness of the Superior should also encourage school mates to tell on boys who are hiding books of this kind.
If you find a book forbidden by the Church, or an immoral one, it should be immediately thrown on the fire. If these books are taken from the boys then kept, they can ruin Priests and Clerics!
By acting this way I hope that bad books will not come into our colleges (boarding schools) and if they do, will be immediately destroyed.
But as well as bad books you need to keep an eye on certain other books which although they might be good or at least indifferent in themselves, could also be dangerous because they are unsuited to the age or place, to study, certain inclinations, nascent passions or someone's vocation. These should also be eliminated. As for good and pleasant reading, to the extent that you can reduce this it would be of great advantage for study purposes; teachers who assign homework can determine time spent in this kind of reading. But given the almost unstoppable eagerness to read and the considerable number of books that seem to arouse passions or disturb the imagination I am considering, if the Lord gives me the time, producing and printing a collection of good reading for youth.
This is what I have to say about books read in private. With regard to reading in common the refectory, dormitory and study, I would first want to say that no book should be read there unless it has been approved by the Rector and certainly novels of any kind that have not been produced by us should be excluded.
In the refectory we can read the Salesian Bulletin, the Catholic Readings as they come out, and between times the history books printed at the Oratory: the History of Italy, Church History, History of the Popes, stories about America and other topics but the ones published in the Catholic Readings and history books or stories from the Library for Youth. This latter group can be read in study, or where it is still the custom, in the last quarter of an hour before singing practice.
With regard then to reading in the dormitory, I would like to absolutely ban merely pleasant or amusing reading but would prefer books to be used that leave the appropriate impression on the minds of boys getting ready to go to sleep, things that can help them be good. So it would be very useful in these situations to use books that are attractive enough but on a rather more ascetic or sacred topic. I would begin with the lives of our boys: Comollo, Savio, Besucco etc., then I would continue with the small items from the Catholic Readings that deal with religion; I would finish with the lives of the Saints, but choosing the most appropriate and attractive of these. If these follow the brief good night given from a heart which wants the salvation of souls, I am sure that all this will be equally as good as making a retreat!
To fully obtain the desired effect and for our books to be an antidote to bad books, I ask and implore you to have great regard for our own confreres' publications and avoid any sense of envy. Where you find any fault in the ideas or in the publication if you have the time let people know so these can be corrected, letting the author himself know or those amongst the Superiors whose task it is to review our publications. But never let a word of censure cross your lips. The honour of one person is everyone's honour. If our boys hear the master or assistant praising a book then they too will hold it in good regard and praise it and read it. Recall one of the great things that our Holy Father Pope Pius IX said one day to the Salesians: "Imitate the example of the Jesuits. Their writers are very well regarded. That is why your confreres should review and correct the works by a confrere as if they were their own. In public, with all the newspapers they are responsible for, they celebrate the merits of their writers, give them good publicity, and in private in their conversations you only hear words of praise. You will never hear one of their priests, and there are thousands of them offer criticism that might lower a confrere's reputation."
If you do similarly amongst our boys you can be sure our books will produce immense good
My dear sons, listen to my advice, hold to it and put it into practice. I feel that my years are drawing to a close. And you too are quickly getting older. So let us work zealously so we can reap an abundant harvest of souls saved and we can offer them to the Father of the family who is God. May the Lord bless you and bless all your dear pupils who you must greet for me. Recommend this old priest who loves them so much in Jesus Christ to their prayers.
On All Saints Day, 1884.