Interview with Fr. Arthur Lenti, S.D.B.
How did you become interested in Don Bosco?
It was quite fortuitous. I was born in Italy and grew up in a small town in Piedmont. Growing up I never heard of Don Bosco. My old pastor (80 years old at the time) had known the Salesians at the Oratory in Turin and had actually seen Don Bosco, but never spoke of him. One of my cousins had been a pupil in the Salesian school at the Oratory in Turin, and one of his teachers, a Salesian priest, came to our town on vacation one summer. He gathered the kids together and entertained them with exciting stories about a priest (Don Bosco) who had done great things for young people during his lifetime, and was a saint. I delighted in the stories but was not otherwise interested.
Following a suggestion from a distant cousin who was finishing training in the Vatican diplomatic school in Rome, my parents enrolled me in a Salesian high school that also functioned as a junior seminary. Here I learned about Don Bosco and the Salesians, and felt attracted, but could not come to a decision. At graduation I finally made a commitment to join the Salesians.
Then Hitler invaded Poland, and war seemed imminent. We had relatives in the United States, so my parents allowed me to come to this country under sponsorship of the Salesians. After meeting my relatives and a brief visit to my cousin “the diplomat,” who by this time was serving as a secretary in the Apostolic Delegation in Washington, D.C., I joined the novitiate and through the war years I went through college in Newton, N.J. From that time on my interest in all things that had to do with the history of the Congregation, with Don Bosco especially, never flagged. I pledged to read the entire 18-volume biography of St. John Bosco, making good on the pledge in several years.
After graduation from Salesian College in Newton, N.J., I was assigned Western province of the Salesian Society where I did my 3-year practical training, teaching in Salesian in schools.
After the First World War and the reopening of the Atlantic sea-lanes, I returned to Italy for my theological degree, and in 1950 was ordained in Turin by Cardinal Archbishop Maurilio Fossati. Immediately thereafter, I attended the Biblical Institute in Rome for my degree in Sacred Scripture, and returned to the United States in 1954. For quite a number of years I lectured in Sacred Scripture in several theological seminaries and in summer institutes for the laity.
Assigned in 1980 to Don Bosco Hall at its establishment in Berkeley, I was invited back to Rome for the course in Salesian Studies at the Salesian Pontifical University and for research in the general archives of the Salesian Society in the life and times of Don Bosco. After three years I returned to Berkeley, and served on the staff of the Institute of Salesian Studies (ISS), in cooperation with the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union. I have ever since taught courses on the life times of Don Bosco—his history and spirituality.
What would you say is most striking about Don Bosco's life?
I would say that his persevering struggle and unswerving commitment in the pursuit of a vocation on behalf of young people at risk was his most striking characteristic in a life of 72 years.
Don Bosco was born at a difficult time (1815). In 1815 Emperor Napoleon, defeated by the powers of the sixth coalition, was exiled to St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic. The great powers convened the Council of Vienna, in which they brought back the pre-Napoleonic European system, a general “Restoration” after Napoleon's final defeat. The Restoration re-established the Church and the papacy; brought back the old monarchs; religious orders were recalled; the old school system, with improvements, was again placed in the care of the Church; traditional Christian life and practice experienced a resurgence. Such was the historical context in which Don Bosco was born.
His father (Francis Louis) died of bronchial pneumonia in 1817 when John Bosco was less than 2 years old. The family of five barely survived through two rough years of drought and famine that made hundreds of victims. The Bosco family lived at the lowest level of poverty, but they were a happy family. Thanks to his mother Margaret, her care and sacrifice, John Bosco had a good childhood.
Precocious as he was, he had no problem associating with the lads in his rural neighborhood, and entertaining them with acrobatic feats and speeches. About the age of 10, he had the dream (repeated over the years) that set the course of his vocation to minister to young people.
His early schooling was at his mother's town of Capriglio, then with the local chaplain in a private capacity, and finally in elementary school in his own town of Castelnuovo. He acquired a lot of disconnected knowledge, but for a variety of reasons the result was disappointing.
After much agonizing and a family council, with help from a number of local benefactors, his mother had him enrolled in the public high school of the city of Chieri, and there he began to blossom. During his five years of high school, he was drawn to working with young people, the most exemplary of his fellow students. But during the last two years he was tried in the crucible of a protracted vocational crisis. The vocation dream indicated to him that he should be a priest, but he was fearful of the dangers that one would encounter in this way of life. After much prayer, he was persuaded to opt for the local seminary of Chieri, founded in 1830, one of three put in operation in the diocese of Turin in the Restoration. John Bosco enrolled in 1835. The seminary offered a 7-year course (two years in philosophy and five in theology). John excelled in every subject, challenged and passed examinations for fourth theology, and was ordained in 1841.
After ordination, Don Bosco spent three years at the resident pastoral college called Convitto Ecclesiastico, where newly ordained priests were trained in moral and pastoral theology and preaching in preparation for various ministries. Among several dedicated instructors one stood out, Father (Saint) Joseph Cafasso from Castelnuovo, Don Bosco's hometown. Father Cafasso was actively involved in prison ministry—the four detention facilities in which one found young lads, imprisoned for petty theft, living with hardened criminals. It was under father Cafasso's guidance that Don Bosco made the personal discovery of the “poor and abandoned.” He met these children in the prisons and in the streets and squares of the city where they congregated in cliques, and where they often got into trouble with the law. Immediately he saw the need for doing something about it; he started by gathering a group of these lads in the small courtyard of the pastoral college and in a chapel of the adjoining church of St. Francis of Assisi. That is how he started his “oratory.” There were other oratories in the city, mostly parish-based and serving the children of the parish. Don Bosco's oratory was special, if not altogether unique. It was for lads newly released from jail or roaming the streets, a parish for children without a parish.
But the time came for him to leave the pastoral college in October 1844. Where could he gather the Oratory? Don Bosco had no financial or social base in Turin and no place he could call home. The vocation dream came to him again that night to reassure him. Father Cafasso had meanwhile been talking to a rich and charitable lady, Giulia Falletti, Marchioness of Barolo, a widow that had been doing similar work on behalf of young women released from prison. She had built an establishment for them in a northern district of the city called Valdocco, and was putting up another building to serve as a hospital for young crippled girls. She would hire Don Bosco to serve as chaplain and to help her head chaplain, Father John Borel, whom Don Bosco knew from visiting the prisons. She graciously allowed Don Bosco to gather his oratory at her place. Over the next two years the number of boys attending the oratory increased beyond all expectation, into the hundreds.
The Marchioness hoped that Don Bosco would make a permanent commitment to continue as her chaplain. But much as he appreciated what the charitable lady had done for him, he had made a stronger commitment to the needy boys that attended the oratory. So in 1846 with help from Father Cafasso, Father Borel and others, he rented a place in the same district, not far from the Barolo institution. This place became the permanent home of the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales.
In 1848 the Liberal Revolution took place, marking the end of the Restoration, not only in Piedmont and Italy but in other nations of Europe as well. Although this movement marked also the gradual waning of the Church's dominance in society, the school being an outstanding example, the liberal constitutions permitted a wide range of activities by the Church and the clergy, such as were judged to be beneficial to society, including private schools. Don Bosco was quick to see the opportunity and take full advantage of it. Besides expanding the activities of boys' oratories on Sundays and holy days, particularly with the introduction Sunday and evening classes, in the 1850s he engaged in a bold building program at the Valdocco Oratory with the aim of establishing a boarding facility, with workshops and a high school with a liberal arts curriculum.
Don Bosco founded the Salesian Society (1858-1869) as a religious congregation under the Church's canon law on the one hand, and on the other as a group of free citizens exercising their individual civil rights before the State. The Constitutions of the Salesian Society were definitively approved in 1874. The Society would develop personnel to guarantee the continuance and expansion of the work of the oratories and the staffing of schools to which the Society was making a permanent commitment.
Don Bosco firmly believed that the Catholic school (education) could serve as the means whereby a Christian society could be rejuvenated to counteract the secularization advocated by the liberal establishment. In a short time the school became quantitatively the heaviest involvement of Salesian Society. In the 1860s Don Bosco accepted invitations to found schools in small country towns; but from 1870 on, he saw the greater need of founding schools in populous districts of larger cities, usually at the request of bishops and conservative Catholic laity. In Italy schools were founded in the North (Piedmont and Liguria, along the Italian Riviera) and in most cities throughout the Peninsula. From 1875 on he began to establish schools outside Italy: from Nice to Marseilles in Southern France along the French Riviera. In the 1880s Salesian schools were established in Spain, near Seville and Barcelona, and in Northern France in Paris and Lille.
In 1875 (in the wake of the First Vatican Council, 1870) in response to requests by bishops, Don Bosco sent ten Salesians (priest and brothers) to be at the service of the archbishop of Buenos Aires. In the 1870s and '80s, schools with vocational and liberal arts programs were founded in four South American Countries: Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile.
In Argentina, in the context of the government's moves to secure control of the vast regions south of Buenos Aires, the Holy See created two large mission territories (Northern Patagonia and Southern Patagonia-Tierra del Fuego) to evangelize the sparse native population that still survived. The two territories were entrusted to the Salesians, and the Salesian Congregation was thereby made a missionary society of apostolic right.
Over the whole Salesian world, missions included, the boys' oratories, the orphanages, the vocational school, the liberal arts school, etc. became the chief vehicles apt to evangelize or re-evangelize society. To the objections that the Salesian Society was founded to help young people at risk, not for the foreign mission, he would reply: “And who is more at risk than people who have never heard of Jesus and never received the light of the gospel?”
How would you characterize his spirituality?
Don Bosco grew up in a solidly Christian home and community. The Piedmontese peasantry was absolutely religious and committed. The home was like a shrine with prayers in the morning, noon and night. His mother, Margaret Bosco, was a Christian through and through and when Don Bosco established the school at Turin, his mother went along to take care of the children.
The spirituality that Don Bosco developed as he grew up was a combination of several matrices across the history of Christian spirituality. Very early on, he became acquainted with St. Francis de Sales who was a Piedmontese-Savoyard saint (Piedmont and Savoy were united). He took him as the model and principle patron of the Salesian Society, for his gentle Christian humanism, apostolic zeal, and spiritual teaching (especially by his Introduction to the Devout Life). St. Charles Borromeo, who with St. Francis de Sales was the principal patron of the Pastoral Institute that Don Bosco attended, exemplified the “pastoral, resident bishop” in care of souls; St. Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians, provided a model of joy in Christian living for his youthful followers; St. Vincent de Paul - the heroic exemplar of Christ's love for the poor and the suffering; St. Alphonsus de Liguori, the gentle preacher and receiver of sinners in the confessional, was also a patron of the Pastoral Institute, which followed his “probabilism” in moral theology.
Behind the new and fresh spirituality represented by these models stood the Jesuits. After being suppressed by Napoleon, they returned stronger than ever in the Restoration. In Turin they provided the inspiration for the spiritual renewal represented by the saints mentioned above. For example the Pastoral Institute had Jesuit origins, as had the Alphonsian moral theology (Probabilism) taught in it by Father Cafasso and followers.
Don Bosco's spirituality could be said to have been eclectic in the good sense that it united harmoniously the spiritual teaching and praxis of the saints that were his models. This synthesis was totally harmonious and germane to his vocation and the works of charity connected with it. One might say that he was himself personally a kind of mystic, but a mystic in action rather than a kind of mystic separated from world and society. He did not compartmentalize: work or prayer, active life or spiritual life. This “eclectic” spirituality is what he passed on to his Salesians and boys, a spirituality that has produced a number of saints over the years.
What can Don Bosco teach us today?
Don Bosco conceived his vocation as a priest and religious as a Christian vocation, that is, a call to model in one's life and action the pastoral charity of Christ. In practice this would mean that the priestly or religious vocation is not a personal entitlement but a call to Christian service in imitation of the pastoral charity of Christ. This is what every true Christian is called to be and to do by his or her baptism, whatever other religious rite may follow, such as ordination or profession. Don Bosco would translate this in terms of total availability. He saw his Christian vocation as continuously evolving in response to need. This perception demands adaptability and the will to strive and endure. He handed down to his followers a spirituality that could adapt to present needs and problems in Church and society. Don Bosco used to say: “If on my way I come upon an object that is insurmountable, I don't turn back; I just go around it.”