The biographical profiles of Louis Comollo (in the 1854 edition), Dominic Savio, Michael Magone and Francis Besucco are among the spiritual and pedagogical documents which are most representative of Don Bosco’s outlook. From these stories comes a horizon of meaning, a way of thinking and acting thoroughly rooted in his cultural context. At the same time however, beyond historical contingencies, they highlight a range of elements which better illustrate the characteristic features of the saint’s spiritual pedagogy.
The primary beneficiaries of these edifying lives were boys of the mid-nineteenth century and their educators, but the narrative tool – which Don Bosco was a master at – allows the attentive reader to discover a deeper discourse in them on the experience of their main characters and the settings they lived in, on a complete educational humanism and the fascinating culture of the spirit which frames all this.
In the first place we have the life of Louis Comollo (no. 305), in its second edition (January 1854). It is a document of important spiritual relevance. The saint had recently set up at Valdocco a residence for students who were interested in the priesthood, so he took another look at the Sketch of the life of a friend, published ten years earlier, to offer the boys a substantial example of a well-rounded Christian life in accordance with his own perspectives. The basic text and structure are identical to the first edition (1844), but numerous additions— shown here in italics—mark a relevant shift of emphasis. Now Don Bosco is not only concerned with commemorating a deceased companion and offering him for imitation by seminarians, but he wants to illustrate a proposal of spiritual life which he considers suited to the new generations. If we look at the editions and emphases we see an awareness that has matured over a decade of educational and pastoral experience, and this allows him to highlight precise spiritual dynamics and point to interior processes that go beyond simply registering words and deeds. We find all the religious topics that are dear to him, already seen in the Companion of Youth, but framed in real life now. In this regard the recommendation Don Bosco added at the foot of the Regulations for the Immaculate Conception Sodality is relevant (1856). The Regulations were written by Joseph Bongiovanni, Dominic Savio and friends: “Before accepting anyone get them to read the Life of Louis Comollo.” It is this edition he is referring to.
Regarding St Aloysius Gonzaga, the young Comollo was able to be a more eloquent and stimulating model: perfect imitator of the saint in the way he gave himself totally to God and in the ascetic and virtuous life, but within a historic, cultural and social context which was closer to that of his young readers. The publication of the Life of Dominic Savio (1859) would put Comollo in the shade, but it would also demonstrate the impact the biography had on the teenage saint.
The second source in this section is the Life of Dominic Savio (no. 306), in the final edition which Don Bosco (1878) saw to personally. Here we note the consolidation and precise detail of formation processes at the Oratory, “the advent and proposal of a living model of youthful spirituality par excellence, embodied in the earthly life and biography” of the young pupil. Dominic expresses “in reality a complete adolescent Christian holiness”, and Don Bosco makes this explicit by making it readily available for others who were “determined and ardent”. The difference compared to Comollo, is that this one is also largely the story of Don Bosco as formator and spiritual guide, “mirroring the spirituality he practised and taught”, an illustration of his unmistakeable way of acting as the priest educator, spiritual guide, “in accordance with a mentality shaped by his priestly, theological formation and experience.”
But the life of Savio, and even more so the attractive and interesting one of Michael Magone (no. 307)—the third text in this section—also effectivel illustrate the lively and intense formative climate at Valdocco, so “saturated with frank humanity and intense spirituality.”
In Savio’s spiritual life, the author recognises, along with the merits of family education, “the work that Divine grace had already produced at such a tender age”, thanks to the boy’s extraordinary receptivity. But in Michael Magone’s spiritual adventure he unequivocally highlights the effectiveness of his own educational method. The moral and spiritual transformation of this teenager and his rapid progress appear, in fact, to be mostly the result of his work as educator and spiritual guide, the result of the formation strategy he employed and the fervent youthful community at Valdocco where the “General” from Carmagnola had been
As for the Life of Francis Besucco, The Shepherd Boy from the Alps, we include only the second part (no. 308), since the first fourteen chapters are almost completely taken from a long testimonial letter sent by the parish priest of Argentera. Don Bosco intervenes only from chapter 15 onwards, but very effectively, to the point where Alberto Caviglia considers this text to be a valuable “document made up of the saint’s spiritual and moral pedagogy … inasmuch as the author, more than in any other book of the kind, comes to the theory, and expresses his ideas with the clear intention of teaching them.” At the time of its publication (1864), in fact the saint was “at the end of his pedagogical self-formation, with ideas by now formulated in definitive terms.” It is here that we find the formula “cheerfulness, study, piety” expressed, and then fully illustrated chapter by chapter. This is considered the most complete and synthetic expression of Don Bosco’s spiritual pedagogy. But it is also the text that best makes the Saint’s spiritual intentions explicit, since, “with the episodic series of devotions, he illustrates the first principle, which is to have the taste for and spirit of prayer” and shows it as it takes shape. Up to the “highest and most intense degree, which is continuous prayer, when the attitude of the heart is such that prayer never ceases” and the habit of praying becomes “a kind of gravitation of the mind towards God, which comes from love and practising the divine presence.”
Along with the question of union with God we have the explicit Salesian idea of mortification of the senses, “which is not to be added to life but must come out of life itself, as it is the life which is lived which has to be mortified”; life that Don Bosco “considers as being austere and poor and limited, made up of work and temperance.” Don Bosco teaches us that there is no need to go looking for mortification outside the concrete nature of our lives, but it consists simply in guarding the senses and accepting with patience, fortitude and love everything that for us is difficult about the common duties and the daily situations of life: the heaviness of work, the limits imposed by our circumstances, the rough edges of people around us, exhausting work, small humiliations, health problems.
Reference time period: 1844 – 1878
Salesian Historical Institute, Salesian Sources 1: Don Bosco and his work. Collected Works, LAS – Kristu Jyoti, Rome – Bangalore, 2017, 1119-1322.
Istituto Storico Salesiano