Sunday, December 7, 2014

December 8 Anniversary of the Salesian Movement

December 8
Anniversary of the Salesian Movement
for the Salvation of the Young
St. John Bosco began his "work of the festive oratories," which developed into the Salesian Society and then the vast Salesian Family (including other religious congregations, the Association of Salesian Cooperators, secular institutes, and other groups) on December 8, 1841, "with a simple catechism lesson" introduced by a fervent Hail Mary.  He tells the story in the 28th chapter of his Memoirs of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales.  This is the translation by Fr. Daniel Lyons, published in New Rochelle, with a condensed version of the annotations that your humble blogger wrote for the 1989 edition (now out of print). 

The feast of the Immaculate Conception and the beginning of the festive oratory

Hardly had I registered at the Convitto of St Francis, when I met at once a crowd of boys who followed me in the streets and the squares and even into the sacristy of the church attached to the institute. But I could not take direct care of them since I had no premises. A humourous incident[1] opened the way to put into action my project[2] for the boys who roamed the streets of the city, especially those released from prison.

On the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (8 December 1841),[3] I was vesting to celebrate holy Mass at the appointed time. Joseph Comotti, the sacristan, seeing a boy in a corner, asked him to come and serve my Mass.

“I don’t know how,” he answered, completely embarrassed.

“Come on,” repeated the sacristan, “I want you to serve Mass.

“I don’t know how,” the boy repeated. “I’ve never served Mass.”

“You blockhead,” said the sacristan, quite furious, “if you don’t know how to serve Mass, what are you doing in the sacristy?” With that he grabbed a feather duster and hit the poor boy about the head and shoulders.

As the boy beat a hasty retreat, I cried loudly, “What are you doing? Why are you beating him like that? What’s he done?”

“Why is he hanging round the sacristy if he doesn’t know how to serve Mass?”

“But you’ve done wrong.”

“What does it matter to you?”

“It matters plenty. He’s a friend of mine. Call him back at once. I need to speak with him.”

Tuder! Tuder![4] he began to shout, as he ran after him. Promising him better treatment, he brought the lad back to me. He came over trembling and tearful because of the blows he had received.[5]

“Have you attended Mass yet?” I asked him with as much loving kindness[6] as I could.

“No,” he answered.

“Well, come to Mass now. Afterwards I’d like to talk to you about something that will please you.”

He promised to do as I said. I wanted to calm down the poor fellow’s spirit and not leave him with that sad impression towards the people in charge of that sacristy. Once I had celebrated my Mass and made due thanksgiving, I took my candidate into a side chapel. Trying to allay any fear he might have of another beating, I started questioning him cheerfully:

“My good friend, what’s your name?”

“My name’s Bartholomew Garelli.”

“Where are you from?”


“Is your father alive?”

“No, my father’s dead.”

“And your mother?”

“My mother’s dead too.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m sixteen.”

“Can you read and write?”[7]

“I don’t know anything.”[8]

“Have you made your first communion?”

“Not yet.”[9]

“Have you ever been to confession?”

“Yes, when I was small.”

“Are you going to catechism classes now?”

“I don’t dare.”


“Because the other boys are smaller than I am, and they know their catechism. As big as I am, I don’t know anything, so I’m ashamed to go.”

"If I were to teach you catechism on your own, would you come?”

“I’d come very willingly.”

“Would you come willingly to this little room?”

“I’d come willingly enough, provided they don’t beat me.”

“Relax. No one will harm you. On the contrary, you’ll be my friend and you’ll be dealing with me and no one else. When would you like us to begin our catechism?”

“Whenever you wish.”

“This evening?”


“Are you willing right now?”

“Yes, right now, with great pleasure.”

I stood up and made the sign of the cross to begin; but my pupil made no response because he did not know how to do it. In that first catechism lesson I taught him to make the sign of the cross. I also taught him to know God the Creator and why he created us. Though Bartholomew’s memory was poor, with attentive diligence in a few feast days[10] he learned enough to make a good confession and, soon after, his holy communion.

To this first pupil some others were added.[11] During that winter, I concentrated my efforts in helping grown‑ups who needed special catechism, above all those who were just out of prison. I was beginning to learn from experience that if young lads just released from their place of punishment could find someone to befriend them, to look after them, to assist them on feast days, to help them get work with good employers, to visit them occasionally during the week, these young men soon forgot the past and began to mend their ways. They became good Christians and honest citizens.[12] This was the beginning of our Oratory.[13] It was to be blessed by the Lord with growth beyond my imagining at that time.


      [1] Not as funny as it was providential.
      [2] In the last chapter he mentioned that he had already begun to discuss some ideas with Fr. Cafasso. Although he had been at the Convitto barely five weeks at this point, Fr. Cafasso may already have begun taking him into the city jails to offer spiritual counsel, encouragement, and material assistance to youths who had ran afoul of the law; as mentioned in the last chapter, Don Bosco did not yet have faculties to hear confessions. This was one of the older priest’s own special ministries. We may assume that Don Bosco’s fellow students also discussed their various pastoral experiences.
      [3] This holy day of obligation fell on Wednesday.
      [4] A Piedmontese term used in jest or scorn for a German; cf. “Kraut.” Since Lombardy and Venetia were still part of the Austrian Empire, the Germanic peoples were regarded as foes of Italy.
      [5] After his first reception in the sacristy, why did the boy come back at all? Perhaps Don Bosco had shouted loudly enough at Comotti that the boy overheard even as he fled; perhaps once or twice he had been among the “crowd of boys” that followed Don Bosco through the streets and “even into the sacristy.” He must have had an inkling of Don Bosco’s sympathy.
      [6] Amorevolezza, one of the three key words of the Preventive System (together with “reason” and “religion”).
      [7] According to the 1848 census of the Kingdom of Sardinia, half the population of Piedmont, a third of Liguria’s, and a tenth of Sardinia’s were literate—this all within a State where an education reform law in 1822 had mandated free primary schools in every commune. Piedmont was the most literate region in the Italian peninsula. The whole of united Italy was but 26% literate in 1861. Ten years later only 33% of the persons marrying could sign the parish register themselves; in contrast, 77% in England and Wales could do so.
      [8] At this point Lemoyne inserts two further questions, which he must have heard from Don Bosco. These questions shed light on Don Bosco’s psychological and pedagogical approach to the young:
   “Can you sing?”
   Wiping his eyes, the boy stared in surprise at Don Bosco and answered: “No.”
   “Can you whistle?”
   The boy’s face broke into a smile, which was what Don Bosco wanted, because it showed that the boy felt at ease. (BM II, 58)
The first thing was to win the boy’s confidence, both in himself and in his would‑be teacher.
      [9] This was not unusual in the 19th century.
      [10] When Don Bosco speaks of “feast days” and calls his work the “festive” Oratory, he means any day on which Mass was an obligation, the numerous holy days and Sundays alike; these days were also public holidays, meaning that young workers without families were left idle.
      [11] Garelli continued to come to catechism for a time and brought some friends with him. Then he disappeared. All we know about him is that he visited the Oratory even after 1855 (BM II, 59).
      [12] Don Bosco’s classic definition of the objectives of the Salesian work.
      [13] Don Bosco always dated not only his work but even the founding of the Salesian Society from this historic catechism lesson. When he was seeking letters of recommendation from various bishops in order to seek the Holy See’s approval of the Salesian Society, he introduced its history thus: “This Society’s origins are found in the simple catechetical instructions conducted by Father John Bosco in a hall adjacent to St. Francis of Assisi Church...” (BM IX, 35). Echoing this, the Salesian Constitutions today announce: “This Society had its beginning in a simple catechism lesson” (article 34).
      In this account, Don Bosco omitted one detail of great interest. After the sign of the cross, “he recited a Hail Mary, asking our Lady to give him the grace to save that boy’s soul” (BM II, 59). He recalled this in 1884 during a conference for the Salesians: “All the blessings graces that had been showered upon them were thanks to Our Lady and were all the outcome of the first Ave Maria that had been recited together with the young Bartholomew Garelli there in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi with true fervor and the right intention” (BM XVII, 471).

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