Giovanni Bosco – Spiritual formation of the young through preaching, “goodnights” and dream accounts

In Don Bosco’s educational system preaching has special importance, both that which is bound up with the liturgical or catechetical context, and that of the informal, familiar kind. The saint often addressed the community of young people with brief and fervent talks aimed at stirring up their emotions, nurturing their minds, encouraging good resolutions and devout sentiments, and looking ahead to stimulating horizons.

In his familiar community chats before they went to bed at night ( “goodnights”) he mixed in the oratory genre of spiritual exhortation, imaginary and allegorical stories, communication, and educational reminders.

The material in the archives is huge: we have chosen a few talks offering a panorama of Don Bosco’s preferred themes and his expressive style. The texts here are written up from notes taken by some of his listeners during or immediately after the saint spoke. Not every word is literal but they certainly contain the substance. The Biographical Memoirs make extensive use of this material, correct the language, integrate text and various testimonies. We have preferred to go with the sources.

In the “goodnights” to the boys, Don Bosco made broad use of his dream accounts. He was a very able narrator, and this enabled him to imprint on the minds of his listeners the messages that he had most at heart. When recounting his dreams to the educative community at Valdocco “the pedagogical motive is often interlaced with the supernatural or openly providential.” We see this in the four examples here (nos. 210, 213, 217, 223) which, “in their allegorical construction”, are an excellent example of his communicative style and pastoral concerns.

The goodnights and Sunday preaching generally deal with the recurring themes of sin and grace, purification of the heart through the sacrament of confession, frequent communion, spiritual fervour, exact fulfilment of duty and doing good, a peaceful conscience (nos. 211, 214, 216, 218, 219, 220). The instruction on the “beautiful virtue” (no. 209)—one of his preferred topics—is a particularly interesting Sunday talk for its argument, all made up of examples drawn from the Scriptures following a typical approach of Don Bosco’s, and with a particular spiritual and eschatological outlook where he presents virginity: the “beautiful” virtue introducing one to a taste for spiritual life. It allows a more intense and intimate relationship with God. It makes it possible to follow Christ more wholeheartedly. It introduces one into the band of blessed spirits who are the “crown of the divine Lamb and follow him wherever he goes”.

The insistence on vocational discernment and choice of state of life emerges in particular (nos. 212, 215, 221, 222). The conference on March 19, 1876 (no. 12)—reserved for Salesians but open for any boys who were interested—effectively represents the way Don Bosco was able to present an apostolic vocation, opening up horizons of meaning as wide as the world itself, enthusing and motivating. Everyone, he says, is called to work in the Lord’s vineyard for the salvation of souls; it is a vast harvest that needs many kinds of workers, some dedicated to preaching and teaching, others to a variety of essential services; all aimed at conquering the hearts of the young to lead them to God through prayer, good example, word, works of charity, meekness, fraternal correction. The only condition is right intention, meaning the sincere desire to cooperate in the salvations of one’s brothers and sisters and generous availability for any service and sacrifice as good disciples of the crucified Christ.

Reference time period: 1858 – 1878

Salesian Historical Institute, Salesian Sources 1: Don Bosco and his work. Collected Works, LAS – Kristu Jyoti, Rome – Bangalore, 2017, 801-841.

Reference institution:
Istituto Storico Salesiano
Istituto Storico Salesiano

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