Patron of Don Bosco’s Work
The feast of St. Francis de Sales has been celebrated on January 24 since the post-Vatican II revision of the Roman calendar. That date was chosen, rather than the date of his “heavenly birthday,” December 28, because the latter (1) falls within the Octave of Christmas, and (2) is already occupied by the feast of the Holy Innocents. January 24 is date of his burial in the Visitation convent at Annecy, where pilgrims still come to seek his intercession.
Don Bosco chose St. Francis de Sales as the patron of his foundational work, the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, and then of the religious congregation he established to continue and spread the work of the oratories—the Society of St. Francis de Sales, aka the Salesians. Since St. Francis is our titular patron, his liturgical day holds the rank of a feast in our calendar.
Unfortunately, this year the 24th falls on a Sunday and, as the Salesian proper ordo, indicates, Festum S. Francisci Salesii hoc anno omittitur (“This year the feast of St. Francis de Sales is omitted”) because Sundays outrank feast days.
Painting of St. Francis de Sales in Don Bosco’s roomsat the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in Turin.
But, the reader may ask, why did Don Bosco choose St. Francis as the patron of his work in the first place?
Don Bosco himself provides a partial answer in his Memoirs of the Oratory (ch. 32 of the English edition; part II, ch. 16 of the Italian edition).
We began to call [the first Oratory church, at the Rifugio of the Marchioness Barolo] after St Francis de Sales for two reasons: 1st, because Marchioness Barolo had in mind to found a congregation of priests under his patronage, and with this intention she had a painting of this saint done, which can still be seen at the entrance to this area [no longer true]; 2nd, because we had put our own ministry, which called for great calm and meekness, under the protection of this saint in the hope that he might obtain for us from God the grace of being able to imitate him in his extraordinary meekness and in winning souls.
We had a further reason for placing ourselves under the protection of his saint: that from heaven he might help us imitate him in combating errors against religion, especially Protestantism, which was beginning to gain ground in our [civil] provinces [of Piedmont], and more especially in the city of Turin.
So we see that Don Bosco gave three reasons for the patronage of St. Francis de Sales: the devotion of his then-financial patroness, the marchioness; the virtuous qualities of the saint that youth ministers ought to imitate; the desire to imitate the saint in resisting the incursions of Protestantism.
Not that Don Bosco’s move to the Rifugio in December 1844 (following the nameless Oratory’s first three years at the Convitto Ecclesiastico and the adjacent church of St. Francis of Assisi) was his first contact with the gentle saint from Savoy. Francis was already a very popular saint in Piedmont, in part because of the royal family’s Savoyard origins (Savoy was still part of the family domains until 1859), in part because Francis had visited Turin more than once in his lifetime, in part because the Vincentians were actively promoting Salesian spirituality in Turin through their preaching, including their preaching of all the pre-ordination retreats of the archdiocesan seminarians.
As early as his years in the seminary John Bosco had noted Francis’s spirit. According to his classmate Fr. John Baptist Giacomelli (who also was his confessor, 1873-1888), our John distinguished himself from a fellow seminarian with the same name, John Bosco, by the other’s calling himself Bosco Nespolo [“medlar,” a hard, knotty wood] while our John called himself Bosco Sales [“willow,” soft and flexible wood] (BM 1:302). Then, before his ordination, John made nine resolutions, the fourth of which was “The charity and gentleness of Saint Francis de Sales are to be my guide” (BM 1:385).
Marchioness Barolo never did found her order of priests, and Don Bosco’s oratory didn’t stay long at the Rifugio (December 1844 to July 1845, when the period of the “wandering Oratory” began). But Don Bosco had found his patron as he became ever more convinced of the patience, kindness, and gentleness that the ministry of the oratories demanded and as he became ever more involved in controversies with the Waldensians. In his apologetics—while clearly presenting Catholic truths and targeting Protestant deviations—he strove to imitate Francis’s moderation and charity and to present himself to potential Protestant readers as their brother and friend.
By 1854 Don Bosco was heavily involved in both the oratories and apologetics. On January 26, shortly before the feast of St. Francis de Sales (on January 29 at that time), he gathered the four clerics on whom he most relied (Rua, Cagliero, and two others) and invited them to form an association committed “with the help of the Lord and St. Francis de Sales” to “performing deeds of charity toward our neighbor.” From then on, they called themselves Salesians. (BM 5:8)
Very early photo of Don Bosco in his room,
with Da mihi animas poster over the window.
At least as early as 1854, Don Bosco took from St. Francis the motto Da mihi animas, caetera tolle, which was printed on a poster hung in his room (BM 5:81).
And in the previous year he and others had founded the Catholic Readings, which, among other purposes, engaged in polemics with the Waldensians. Their effectiveness quickly aroused the Protestants’ ire and led, first, to attempts to buy him off and then to attempts on his life in the mid-1850s.
Happily, the attempts failed (with some assistance from Grigio) and eventually the polemics subsided. But the need “for great calm and meekness [and] the grace of being able to imitate this saint in his extraordinary meekness and in winning souls” has remained as the Salesian Family continues Don Bosco’s great work on behalf of the salvation of the young, for the glory of God.