To understand Don Bosco's Way of educating for a happy life it is necessary to know the man behind the educating. From the little he wrote on the subject, one can clearly see that it was not his aim to put forth a new theory of education. He merely wanted to share with his successors the ideas he gleaned from personal experience with youngsters. “Since we are dealing with an experience and not with an abstract theory, our re-construction cannot be understood without an explicit reference to Don Bosco’s personality.” (Braido, PNR, 10)

An attractive personality
Testimonies of the exceptionally gifted traits of Don Bosco by which he was able to attract people wherever he went are many. “Priests or young clerics who happened to go out with him were amazed to see how much people liked him.” (Lemoyne, BM. Vol V, 126) Here is a statement from a townsman of Chieri:  
“When I was still a boy at Chieri, Don Bosco, who was then a seminarian, was highly esteemed as a cleric of great virtue not only by us young boys, but also by […] older people. He was liked by all because he cared so much for youngsters. He was forever in our midst charming us with his affability and warm affection. One might say that he literally lived for young people. Whenever the seminarians passed on their way to the cathedral for religious services, everyone would stop to catch a glimpse of him and people would point to the curly-haired seminarian, ‘curly’ for short, the nickname we boys had given to John. His pleasant and easy manners encouraged me to try and get to know him better." (Lemoyne, BM, Vol. I, 307)  

Exuberance and initiative
Much of Don Bosco’s inspiration was derived from an unquenchable enthusiasm that was “youthful, persistent, and buoyant” (Morrison, 19). How was he to invite the tough street-urchins to his oratory? Many young people of this sort preferred to stay far from priests and religion. But Don Bosco did not hesitate to use unconventional means to attract them:

"He would go to the market place in his cassock, walk up to the gang of boys engaged in a game of cards, sit down on the footpath with them and join them in the game. At first these dishevelled youths would eye him suspiciously. Once, he was aware that they had gro wn accustomed to his presence in their midst he would unexpectedly snatch the money-bag and sprint straight for the Oratory. He would dash into the church which would be full of boys who, by now, were used to their teacher’s methods, and would enjoy watching the look on the faces of the new arrivals who were unaccustomed to Don Bosco’s unique style. In no time their money was returned, a laugh shared, and the Oratory had enrolled yet another group of street-kids in its ranks." (Lemoyne, BM. Vol III, p. 82-84)

Adaptability to needs
Don Bosco was flexible in the way he thought and acted. He could easily adjust to the needs of time and place. When, for example, in 1847, he realised that there were no suitable prayer-books for young people because the existing ones were too obtuse theologically, he wrote The Companion of Youth. In doing so he addressed the needs of young people and furthered their religious education.

Again in 1846, when he found that he had insufficient teachers to cope with his expanding evening classes at the Oratory, he came up with a bold solution: he began peer-to-peer education. He selected a few students from the more intelligent who were desirous of employment. He made them teachers of their companions. In return, he offered them free courses in Italian, Latin, French, arithmetic and other subjects that would help them achieve their goals. (Lemoyne, BM, Vol III, 434).

Historian, Pietro Stella gives us this description of the man: “Don Bosco had his absolute values and his constants but, working in the concrete, he had not become an absolutist and while making his decisions he never stopped to dwell on an organic and theoretical systemization of his ideas. What he said, what he did, what he got others to do, was always inspired by circumstances; and even when he generalizes or theorizes, he is quick to base these on immediate experiences. (P. Stella, Don Bosco Nella Storia Religiosità Cattolica. Vita e Opere, Vol. 1, 18.)

Don Bosco’s biographer, Lemoyne, bore witness to his versatility. His competence in various trades, his organizational ability, and academic accomplishments, presented a formidable picture for an educator to emulate. He could, for instance, cope with several things at once. Speaking to his personal secretary in 1869 he candidly declared: “This morning, while preaching on church history, I mapped out an entire issue of the Letture Cattoliche and also figured out a solution to a certain need of this house.” (Lemoyne, BM, Vol IV, 377)

Don Bosco always cherished the memory of his humble beginnings even as he moved higher in learning on the road towards the priesthood. The memory helped him to open his heart to the poor and the abandoned who, like his own family, had to struggle to make ends meet. He learned humility from others as well. As a young priest he read the texts of some of his sermons to his mother to check if simple people like her would understand what he was saying.

He did not parade his wide knowledge of languages. He humbled himself by submitting for criticism drafts of his writings to young clerics. He was not upset by admonitions he received over the years about his ideas. It was said that he shunned honours, declined high church positions, was at ease with both rich and poor. It was as if he had a sincere conviction of his own nothingness.  Lemoyne recalled: “Everyone admired his honest simplicity and humility.” (Lemoyne, BM. Vol. V, 583)

“Make yourselves loved”
The boys themselves regarded Don Bosco as the Oratory’s inspiration and centre. At one time, in 1846, he had to go to Becchi for health reasons. After two weeks had passed, the impatient Turin boys walked to Becchi to visit their teacher who had been sorely missed. They presented him with the proposition that either he had to come back to join them in Turin, or, they would move the whole Oratory to Becchi and join him there. (Lemoyne, BM, Vol II, 395)

On another occasion, some three hundred boys went looking for him when he did not appear at their school to hear confessions. The sight of this crowd of boys “soaked in perspiration, bespattered with mud, so tired and hungry that anybody would have felt sorry just to see them” must have moved Don Bosco when they finally found him at Sassi, a suburb of Turin. (Lemoyne, BM. Vol II, 353).

His personality shaped the method
We conclude this section on the characteristic traits of Don Bosco with John Morrison’s reflection on the link between his personality and the method of education he employed:

“Flexible and practical, extremely popular with children and youths, both relaxed and yet perceptive in his assessment of them, and at the same time maintaining a father-friend image, Don Bosco had adopted a technique compatible with these characteristics. […] It would appear, then, that a certain type of person would feel free to follow him; that teacher training was to be more than the gaining of academic qualifications and classroom expertise; and that character-formation would become of importance. The Salesian [and the Salesian Educator] would be, for instance, capable of relating in a relaxed and friendly way to young people.” (Morrison, 57)

SDB Photo Archives: With his boys, 1961; with the Oratory Band,1870; two years before his death, 1886,
Next: Time-line >>