St. John Bosco and the Danger of Tolerance

St. John Bosco was a master teacher who loved his students and, by his love, many souls were saved. Not all students were open to Don Bosco’s love, however, and not all the souls he loved were saved. A preventive method of education was championed by Don Bosco and is now practiced by his Salesians, an order he founded inspired by the gentleness, patience, and charity of St. Francis de Sales. Don Bosco often used St. Francis’ words to endorse this preventive method: “You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” The preventive method consists chiefly in kindly supervision with the aim of building character and guarding against harmful influences: the conjunction of vigilance and familial affection, to prevent infractions rather than punish them. At the same time, Don Bosco, in his wisdom and vision as a saintly educator, knew well the menace to the common good posed by even one boy who refused the good, and, in an extreme act of prevention, never hesitated to expel those who were entrenched in sin or malice. He had no tolerance for those who would not be converted and was swift to prevent their influence from taking root. Though an unspeakably brave, humble, generous, and holy priest, St. John Bosco knew the danger of tolerance when it came to evil and was never afraid to be intolerant when occasion demanded.

There is a striking and even strange story that illustrates well St. John Bosco’s philosophy when it came to an expulsion, a situation when tolerance was impossible.

In 1886, while John Bosco was in Turin, an incident was brewing at the Salesian College of Sarria, an institution for troubled young men in Spain founded by the saint, under the nose of the superior, Fr. Branda. Among the students was a cunning group of posers who, under the guise of goodness, were plotting a crime. In the dead of a January night, Fr. Branda was startled from his sleep not by the cry of “Murder!” or “Thief!” or “Help!” but by the voice of Don Bosco. “Father,” Don Bosco called, “Get up!” Fr. Branda rolled over in his sheets and shook his head to clear it from what he regarded as a dream. Don Bosco was in Italy, after all, and not in his bedroom. The silence of sleep overtook him once again.

One week later, on February 6, “Father!” Don Bosco’s voice shattered the nighttime stillness, “Get up!” Fr. Branda sat bolt upright in his bed. Don Bosco stood before him, smiling amid the shadows of his bedroom. Stupefied, Fr. Branda bounced out of bed, struggled into a cassock, and, taking the hand of his superior—and finding it flesh and blood—kissed it. “Your house is bright,” Don Bosco said, “but there is one dark spot.” Suddenly Fr. Branda became aware of a group of four men in the room. Two he recognized as boarding students and the other two as day students. They shifted like shadows in the gloom. Don Bosco approached them with his fellow priest. “Tell this one to be prudent,” he said pointing to one. “Expel the other three immediately. Show no mercy and no pity. Be sure to do this at once, I tell you. Now, come!”

Don Bosco turned out of the room and glided silently down the hall with the breathless Fr. Branda at his heels. They moved noiselessly toward the dormitories under the noiseless night. Locked and bolted doors yielded without key to the hand of the saint, and even opened of their own accord as he approached, walking in a low patch of light cast from no visible source that illuminated their way. As they passed by the rows of slumbering students, Don Bosco put a word of advice or instruction in Fr. Branda’s ear for every one. “He must study for his examination more diligently.” “He needs to go to confession soon.” “He wishes to see his sister very much.” So it went, all down the rows of two dormitory bays, and then back to Fr. Branda’s bedroom.

“Remember, Father,” Don Bosco said upon their return, “expel those three without delay and without fail.” With these words uttered, Fr. Branda found himself alone in his room once again. Don Bosco had vanished. Darkness resumed its sway. The clock struck four. When the sun rose two hours later, it found Fr. Branda standing where he had stopped, his mind racing with questions and doubts. Had he really seen Don Bosco that night? How could it be possible? It must have been a dream. Was he truly to expel those boys without clear reason or any proof of guilt? He decided to wait.

Days passed. Still Fr. Branda had not determined to do as Don Bosco had instructed him. As he continued to mull over his mysterious experience, he received a letter from Turin from an oratorian priest named Fr. Rua in which he read with pounding heart that Don Bosco had told Fr. Rua to write to Fr. Branda asking if he had carried out the order he had received from Don Bosco. It was as yet not accomplished—and still Fr. Branda hesitated.

Again, days passed. Fr. Branda was in the sacristy preparing to celebrate Holy Mass. Though praying, his mind remained troubled by the words of Don Bosco and the difficulty he had in doing what had been so inexplicably put to him. He ascended the altar steps. He arranged the chalice. He descended the steps and genuflected. He began the prayers at the foot of the altar. “Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum...” “If you do not expel those boys immediately as I ordered,” Don Bosco’s voice suddenly whispered directly in Fr. Branda’s ear and echoed in his inmost being, “this will be your last Mass.”

After Mass, Fr. Branda, pale as a ghost, summoned the three boys. They appeared, and stood shifting like shadows before Fr. Branda who expelled them then and there without explanation or hesitation. Though their crimes were still a secret, to God and his chosen ones, nothing is hidden, and nothing that is evil can be tolerated.

The young clung to St. John Bosco because he was not afraid to tolerate youthful vigor and tomfoolery. Most teachers are not so brave. Even less are brave enough to be intolerant of evil. Don Bosco understood the nature and spirit of adolescence, knowing therefore the critical, and even dangerous, balance between order and disorder, between discipline and spontaneity, between good and evil. Prudence was first and foremost for him, for it was only by this virtue that his boys could truly find happiness and holiness. To John Bosco, nothing was so important as this joy. Without joy, nothing can be truly learned, lived, or loved. Don Bosco knew this deeply, and so brought joy to everything he did with his boys, from soccer to the Sacraments, but all the while, defended his boys from those who would destroy the joy he fostered. He was not tolerant when intolerance was called for, and this was a part of his genius.

The banner of tolerance is one that flies proudly over modern world. Though tolerance is in some cases salubrious, too much of it can be suicidal. In the effort to accept and acclimate, there exists a real need to preserve cultural identity and spiritual integrity. John Bosco understood this and was intolerant of those that threatened the order and spirit of his oratories. He knew well that there is a type of tolerance that can ultimately compromise nature, society, and the soul, and undermine culture by changing it into the chameleon called diversity. Culture without definition and distinction in values is no longer culture—it is confusion. People cannot be themselves if they do not know who they are. Without the effort to remain true to who we are, it will be impossible to remain true to Him who died that we may live. St. John Bosco is a testament to the courage to be intolerant for the right reasons. May he guide us all as he guided Fr. Branda and help us to be brave enough to be intolerant to those powers that threaten our friendship with God.

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    I was upset by this article and hope it does not accurately portray St John Bosco.

    I read in it “not all the souls he loved were saved”. How was this known?

    I note “He had no tolerance for those who would not be converted” and that he was “never afraid to be intolerant”. I am surprised a saint would advise one to “Show no mercy and no pity”.

    Reading this article I am reminded of the great Irish priest Fr Flanagan of Boystown who believed “there’s no such thing as a bad boy”.

  • Kathy Moran Finnegan

    thank you…I can’t thank you enough for writing this

  • There seems to be a missing punchline here – what exactly were the expelled boys up to? At first (perhaps with modern concerns too much on my mind) I thought they were going to be homosexuals, but instead the story just ends with the proverbial not a bang but a whimper. I think I would also like to know the source for the story.

  • Azeb Gide

    I completely agree with St John Bosco’s decision. Sometimes you have to remove the bad apple to protect the other children. We don’t know the nature of their sins but it must be grave enough for the Saint to persist the way he did. At least he can’t be accused of his decision being based on fleeting emotions. I once heard a priest say that justice and mercy are the two sides of the same coin – too much justice leads to cruelty and too much mercy leads to tolerance of evil. Thus, it is very important that we pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance before making decisions like that or even form an opinion. I disagree with the author who used the example of St. Don Bosco to liken it with the need for cultural and identity preservation. As Christians, our new identity is in Christ, through our Baptism we are born again to become children of God. As such, we should not tolerate sin, we are even called to detest it and also avoid the occasion of sin. But this, by no means, does it mean to separate ourselves in a pharisaic way. Reminds me of the feud between St. Paul and St. Peter – the issue between gentiles and Judaizes. The Lord says we are not of this world but we are in this world. He mandated us to go to the end of the Earth and evangelize. In the past, the vocations in the Catholic Church were so abundant that missionaries made disciples for Christ all over the world. The Western civilization is a bi-product of the Church and not her ultimate goal. Today, few answer the call to serve the Lord as priests and religious, we barely have enough priest to serve existing churches. I guess since we can’t fulfill Christ mandate to evangelize the world with missionaries, the Good Lord is sending them where we are. But “will the Son of Man find enough Faith when He comes back?”. Sadly, we can’t even keep our grown children in the Faith, let alone evangelize…. God help us. Mother Teresa saw Christ in the poor. St. John Paul the Great, it is said, always asked “how much have I loved today” during his daily examination of conscious. Please let’s be transformed by the examples of the Saints.

  • Lizzaanne O Leary

    So what? What are we going to do? The bishops, save one, didn’t stand up to Henry 8 when he came after the English Catholics; the Cardinals went along with Pope John 23 and now Pope Francis is leading adulterers into complacency. We need Our Lady of Fatima and her Immaculate Heart in our personal devotions.

  • pnyikos

    I too would like to know a source, and I hope Sean Fitzpatrick is reading this comments section and will provide one for us.

  • STF

    There are several accounts of this story. Fr. Branda himself recounted it in writing. It can be found in Joan Carrol Cruz’s lives of the saints and Jeff Jansen’s book on miracles. It is also held up as one of the miracles of bilocation performed by John Bosco by several scholars and storytellers.

    What the boys were up to remains a mystery. Don Bosco prevented their sin or their crime – and by all appearances may have saved Fr. Branda’s life in the bargain. We hope that those three never committed what they were contemplating.

    The undisclosed information in the story is what makes it a good story. It shows the way of faith – a way that bids us to go gaily in the dark, as Chesterton wrote. We cannot understand everything that God ordains, but we still know that God ordains everything.

  • James Pontillo

    Charles Manson was at Boystown, there was even a newspaper article about how that ‘troubled teen’ had been accepted to Boystown.. Manson lasted one day. I have to think that he was a bad boy, no doubts about it.

  • Maribell

    I, for one, thought this article speaks wisdom and the author of it is courageous to speak of such a topic as tolerance and point out its flaws in this day and age. Western society was founded on Christian values. It is thanks to Christ that we have such wonderful civilizations. It isn’t a coincidence that the freeest, liberal countries were built on Christian values. But now our value system is being destroyed in the name of tolerance. And, the truth is, evil influences are entering our countries because of tolerance. It is difficult to practice both love for others and have the wisdom to see when our love would sometimes require us to protect our own people. This is a difficult age we are experiencing where wolves (evil ideologies) parade in lambskins and lambs are being condemned as merciless wolves. But I have faith that Christ is with us and with Him in our hearts, the darkness will not devour us.

  • Maribell

    What St. Bosco did reminds me of when Jesus warned about giving pearls to swines. Christ was the most loving as He is Love Itself. But there is wisdom behind this idea, despite having the appearance of a merciless way of thinking. I believe St. Bosco was simply putting Christ’s own words to practice.

  • Maribell

    I’m so glad I’m not alone in seeing the wisdom behind this article! 🙂