St. Francis de Sales, the zealous pastor and doctor of charity, inspired Don Bosco by his optimistic humanism and his complete dedication to the pastoral care of souls. In 1854 he declared: “The Madonna wishes that we begin a Society. I have decided to call ourselves Salesians. Let us put ourselves under the protection of St. Francis de Sales, so that we may obtain his extraordinary gentleness.” In 1854, Don Bosco gave the name ‘Society of St. Francis de Sales’ to the first band of 17 young men who wished to follow him in his work for youth.
St. Francis de Sales in the heart of Don Bosco
The 8th December 1844, Don Bosco started an Oratory on the outskirts of Turin, named after Saint Francis de Sales. For three years, on Sundays and feast days, he had already brought together the boys that he met in the streets and in workplaces in the city. The ‘Salesian’ work was only just beginning. He called it the oratory, recalling the oratory in Rome in the 16th century founded by Saint Philip Neri. It was aimed at the education of young people often left to their own designs. In addition to the religious formation that he considered to be essential, Don Bosco did not overlook human formation and education, and even more to the point infused all his activities with an air of festivity, such as games, singing, amusements, all of which were relevant in this education.
Describing that historical day (founding the Oratroy in Valdocco) in his Memoirs of the Oratory of St Francis de Sales, the Piedmontese educator took up the task of explaining why he had chosen this Saint as a protector. The first reason was apparently just one of chance: St Francis de Sales was already hanging as a painting at the entrance of the place where he started out with his work. The second reason, a more personal one, he explained almost redundantly:
“Because aspects of our ministry required great calm and kindess, we placed ourselves under the protection of this Saint, so he could obtain from God for us the grace to be able to imitate him in his extraordinary gentleness and care for souls”.
And so it happened that this bishop of long ago, born in 1567 close to Annecy in the Savoy, and who died in 1622 in Lyon, became the protector of all of Don Bosco’s works. St Francis de Sales, zealous and loving pastor, heroic missionary in the environs of Protestant Geneva, author of famous books like Philootea and Theotimus, catechist for the children, sought-out spiritual director and founder along with Saint Jean de Chantal of the Visitation Order, was without doubt someone who was very pleasing to him.
Already when he was at the seminary in Chieri, this resplendent personage was part of his life there. He was trying to overcome his fiery and sometimes violent temperament, imitating the holy bishop and his wonderful way of relating to others. One of his peers tells the story that there was another seminarian there, James Bosco by name. To distinguish himself from his companion, this James liked to describe himself in Piedmontese dialect as bosc d’pouciou (hard wood), while John did his best to become bosc d’sales (soft and bendable like willow). At the end of the seminary days, during the retreat in preparation for ordination, he made this resolution: “The charity and kindness of St Francis de Sales will guide me at all times”.
Don Bosco truly kept St. Francis de Sales in his heart and mind. Each year, the feast of the holy Patron kept, at the time, on the 29th January, was celebrated with great solemnity at the Oratory. He used say: “My spirit and the spirit of this oratory is the spirit of St Francis de Sales”. The first time Dominic Savio entered Don Bosco’s room, “his gaze”, Don Bosco tells us “fell on a card, where the words often said by St. Francis de Sales were written in large letters: “Da mihi animas, coetera tolle”. The “Salesians” whom he founded in 1859 were to have the spirit of charity and zeal that was distinctive of their Patron.
When Don Bosco decided to begin the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, the date chosen for the first elections to set up the first superior chapter with Mother Mazzarello, was precisely the 29thJanuary 1872, “the great day of St Francis de Sales”, as the chronicle records It is also a known fact that in many places where they work, the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians are called the Salesian Sisters.
Don Bosco was especially happy when Pius IX solemnly declared Saint Francis Doctor of the Church, in 1877. On that occasion, the Visitation Sisters in Annecy asked him to take part in the decoration of their church in honour of the “Doctor of charity”. His response was immediate: “It is my heart’s desire that our congregation, placed under the protection of the lovable Doctor, will have an altar in that shrine as a witness to our devotion”. And that is how it was.
In those times, devotion to the Heart of Jesus saw a notable development. In Rome, Don Bosco was pressed by Leo XIII to build the basilica of the Sacred Heart. In regard to this we recall that St. Francis de Sales is the one who had sown the seeds of this devotion. It was no surprise that his spiritual daughter, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, had received revelations from the Sacred Heart in Paray-le-Monial.
During his famous journey to Paris in 1883, Don Bosco wanted to make a “Salesian” pilgrimage. Knowing about the existence of the famous statue of the Black Madonna of Paris, where young Francis had prayed, he went to the church where it was and wrote in French in the Mass register: “Abbé Jean Bosco, superior of the Pious Salesian Society, recommends all the works of which St Francis is patron to him .
Don Bosco died on the 31st January 1888. Two days previously, the 29th January, feast of the Patron, he had received Holy Communion for the last time. We could say that this was the day Don Bosco’s pilgrimage was completed, even if the Lord came to take him a little later, early on the morning of the 31st. “As if Saint Francis came looking for him”.