DON BOSCO NARRATES:
I was a lively and attentive boy who, with Mom’s permission, went to the various festivals where there were acrobats and magicians. I always put myself in the front row, eyes fixed on their movements with which they tried to distract the audience. Little by little I could see their tricks; returning home, I repeated them for hours. But often the moves didn’t produce the desired effect. It wasn’t easy to walk on that blessed rope strung between two trees. How many tumbles, how many skinned knees! And how many times I was wanted to throw everything into the air! Then I’d start again, sweaty, tired, sometimes even disappointed. Then, a little by little, I was able to get it together; I could feel the soles of my bare feet clinging to the rope, which seemed to become one with my footsteps, and I then did as I wanted, glad to repeat and to invent other movements. That’s why, when I spoke to my boys in later years, I’d said to them: “Let’s hold on to easy things, but let’s do them with perseverance.” There you have it: my down-to-earth pedagogy, the result of so many victories and as many defeats, with the stubbornness that was one of my most marked characteristics.
That’s how my style came into being, to educate without using big words, without any great ideological schemes, without references to many famous authors. That’s how my pedagogy was born: I learned in the meadows of Becchi, later in the streets of Chieri, later still in prisons, in the streets, in the alleys of Valdocco. Mine is a pedagogy built in a courtyard.
I dared to prove it a few years later when I went to Chieri to continue my studies and was accepted by the teacher, in front of the whole class, with a not very exciting sentence: “This fellow’s either a simpleton or a genius.” It made me feel awkward in the extreme; I remember coping with these words: “Something in between. I just am a poor young fellow who has the goodwill to do his work and get along in his studies.”
Then there was that blessed dream when I was nine or ten years old (the dream which was repeated many more times!), which came to torment me, and the desire to become a priest for the boys became stronger. And then I did something that didn’t make a genius of me, but in fact, achieved a beautiful victory in my character, a real breakthrough; I stretched out my hand to ask for help, something just to realise my dream. I would admit much later to a Salesian: “You don’t know how much this begging cost me.” With my proud temperament, it was certainly not easy to be humble enough to ask. My courage was empowered by a high level of trust in Providence; and also what I had learned from my mother. At her school I had learned one rule that guided me everywhere: “Whenever I am faced with difficulties, even grave ones, I do what a hiker does in finding his trail blocked. If I can’t shove the obstacle out of the way, I either go over it or around it.” (BM 7:271)
And I assure you: I found many large boulders on my path. I shall briefly mention some of them: The year 1860, for example, was typically difficult. Fr Cafasso, my friend, confessor, and spiritual director had died. How much I missed his presence, his advice, and his financial help.
Then, from the government side, I encountered serious difficulties, authentic “boulders”: targeted searches which were devastating to Valdocco, as if I were a criminal! My boys were living in terror, while armed guards entered everywhere. The searches continued, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty. I wrote to the Minister of the Interior, Louis Farini, for an interview. I had the courage to tell him with humble determination: “For my boys I demand justice and restoration of honour so that they don’t lack the bread of life.” I know that I was taking a great risk because these government officials were anticlerical, but I didn’t lack the necessary courage. And so gradually the searches stopped.
I never gave up! I said to the boys: “The courage of the wicked depends on the fear in which others regard them. Be brave, and you’ll see how they wilt.” A French benefactor from Lyons sent me a holy picture with a phrase I’ve never forgotten because it served as a guide: “Be with God like the sparrow that feels the branch shake but still continues to sing, knowing that it has wings.” It wasn’t just a poetic expression, but an act of courageous confidence in the Lord’s Providence, because he alone “is the master of our hearts.”
When they were about to leave for summer vacation, I used to say this to my boys: “Be men and not branches! Lift your head high, walk straight in the service of God, at home and outside, in the church and in the square. What is human respect? A papier-mâché monster that doesn’t bite. What are the impertinent words of the wicked? Soap bubbles that disappear in an instant. Let’s not pay any attention to adversaries and their taunts. Remember that knowledge without conscience is nothing but the ruin of the soul. ”And I used to add, “Nothing in the world must frighten us. So behave today that tomorrow you’ll have nothing to be ashamed of”.
I never got tired of instilling into their little heads: “By your conduct give glory to God, consolation to your parents and your superiors. On the other hand, a lazy, undisciplined youth will be a disgrace, a burden to his parents, a burden to his superiors, and a burden for himself.”
From Valdocco would rise “good citizens and honest Christians” of whom the world has much need.