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.

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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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