The Salesians of Don Bosco

A profile of the Church’s second-largest religious institute

In 2009, the relics of St. John Bosco began a 130-nation tour in anticipation of the 2015 bicentennial of his birth. On September 12, the relics arrived in the United States, at Saints Peter and Paul Parish in San Francisco.

“When the relics of Don Bosco arrived, the joy in the parish was like nothing I have ever seen,” said Gibbons Cooney, the secretary of the Salesian parish. “Each Mass was packed as if it was Easter Sunday—not only parishioners but devoted Catholics from many other places beyond our parish.”

The relics’ three-week sojourn in the United States helped introduce a new generation of Catholics to the Italian saint hailed by Venerable John Paul II as the “father and teacher of youth” and the “master of youth spirituality.” On September 21, 2,500 Catholic school students venerated his relics in New Orleans. On September 25, The Palm Beach Post reported that 20,000 venerated his relics in St. Petersburg over a two-day period. “Relics, not unlike indulgences, have slipped from our modern Catholic parlance since the Second Vatican Council,” Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg wrote on his blog, “so I was amazed at both the interest in and the effect of this saint on those who have come to pray and witness.”

The relics’ tour is also renewing interest in the Salesians of Don Bosco, the religious community the saint founded in 1859 and named after St. Francis de Sales. Under Pope Benedict, Salesian influence in the Roman Curia is particularly evident: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is the Vatican secretary of state, while Cardinal Angelo Amato is the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (both Salesians had served as secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect). In 2006, the Pontiff made Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the intrepid Salesian ordinary of Hong Kong, a cardinal. Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, another prominent Salesian, led the Archdiocese of Managua from 1970 to 2005 and was a vocal critic of the Sandinista regime. Rounding out the list of five Salesian cardinals is Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who was often mentioned as a leading papal contender at the last conclave. Another Salesian, Father Giuseppe Costa, is the director of Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican publishing house.

In all, 124 bishops are Salesians, as is one in 40 priests worldwide. With 16,215 professed members in 2009— 10,836 of them priests—the Salesians of Don Bosco are the Church’s secondlargest religious institute of men, exceeded only by the Jesuits, who number 18,711. In addition, the Salesian Sisters, with 14,420 members, are the Church’s largest religious institute of women.

In 2008, the Salesians’ two US provinces had 185 priests and 59 brothers. Because they are present in only 19 of the nation’s 176 dioceses, the Salesians, despite their worldwide presence and influence, are unknown to many Catholics in the United States.


In his apostolic letter Iuvenum Patris (The Father of Youth)—written in 1988 to commemorate the centenary of St. John Bosco’s death—John Paul II outlined the essential aspects of the saint’s spirituality and mission.

The almost 73 years of his life were accompanied by deep and complex political, social, and cultural changes: revolutionary movements, wars, and a migration of people from the countryside to the towns, all factors with an emphatic effect on the life of the people, especially of the poorer classes,” the Pope wrote. “Close-packed as they were on the outskirts of the towns, the poor in general, and the younger ones in particular, became victims of exploitation or unemployment: in their human, moral, religious, and occupational development they were insufficiently followed up and frequently given no attention at all … Traditional methods of education became disjointed and ineffective in the face of this rootless mass of people.”

In 1841, the saint, renowned for his kindness, opened his first oratory. In time, these centers of prayer, catechesis, and education grew to include “hostels for the reception of those with nowhere to go, workshops and schools of arts and trades to enable them to find work and make an honest living, schools for humanities and open to vocational ideals, a healthy press, and recreational initiatives and methods in line with the period (theater, band, singing, autumn outings).”

At the heart of the Salesian mission to youth is the “preventive system based on religion, reason, and loving kindness,” says Salesian Bishop Enrico dal Covolo, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University. The preventive system, Pope John Paul explained, includes

the art of positive education by putting forward what is good through appropriate experiences which call for the involvement of the pupil and are attractive because of their splendor and lofty nature; the art of producing growth in the young persons “from within” by appealing to their inner freedom to oppose external conditioning and formalism; the art of winning the heart of young people so as to inculcate in them a joyful and satisfied attraction to what is good, correcting deviations and preparing them for the future by means of a solid character formation.

“Reason, religion, loving kindness” was St. John Bosco’s educational motto. For the Salesians, “reason,” or reasonableness, entails a “preparation for life and a profession, the assuming of civil responsibilities in an atmosphere of joy and generous commitment to his neighbor,” in the words of John Paul. “Religion” means that “the columns of an educational edifice” are “the Eucharist, penance, devotion to Our Lady, love for the Church and its pastors”—all in the context of a “family spirit” in which the teacher is a “father, brother, friend.”

“We live in a moment of educational emergency, especially in the academic world,” Bishop Covolo told CWR, because of a “relativism of principles and values that unavoidably and dramatically diminishes the authentic way of Truth.” As they bring their charism to bear upon this educational world, the Salesians look to the moral teaching of St. Alphonsus de Liguori as an important point of reference, Bishop Covolo notes.

Present in 131 nations, the priests and brothers of the congregation live out their charism in numerous ways.

• In Buenaventura, Colombia—a city of 300,000 where drug trafficking has led to the nation’s highest murder rate—Salesians train 900 youths in woodworking, welding, and other practical skills.

• In Quetta, a Pakistani city of 900,000 on the Afghan border, Salesians care for more than 3,400 children daily, providing housing, education, and food. Some are refugees from Afghanistan; more recent arrivals are flood victims.

• The Salesian parish in Kakuma, Kenya includes 60,000 Sudanese refugees, and Salesians there provide vocational training to 300 refugee boys and girls.

• Salesians in Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have cared for 35,000 children affected by war since 1997. In addition to educating and feeding nearly 3,000 school age children, they house 50 orphans under age three.

• In Austria, 600 youth associated with the Salesians made a 35-mile walking pilgrimage in August to Mariazell, the nation’s principal Marian shrine, while 110 youth associated with the Salesians in northern Italy made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, covering more than 100 miles on foot.

• In Guwahati—a northeastern Indian city of 2.5 million that is only 1 percent Catholic—Salesians evangelize, engage in youth ministry, and educate 30,000 students from primary school to junior college.

• In the rural Andean town of Simiatug, Ecuador, Salesians are teaching the indigenous population computer technology so that they can market their agricultural and other goods online.

• Two Salesian schools in Argentina have signed an agreement to train mechanics for the automaker Fiat.

• In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, three Salesians and 250 street children to whom they provided vocational training perished during the January 12 earthquake.

• In CÁdiz, Spain—where unemployment, according to the New York Times, is at 30 percent—the Salesians organize an annual summer music festival for the city’s youth, among other activities.

“A unique feature of Salesian high schools is how we form the educative culture,” says Father Steve Shafran, SDB, the president of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, a DC-area collegepreparatory school where low-income students earn 63 percent of their tuition through a corporate work-study program. “Our approach, which originated with St. John Bosco, holds friendly rapport and welcoming presence [are] key to young people feeling at home with educators that really care for them and want them to succeed.”

He adds:
In our environments we emphasize a holistic approach, not only solid academics, plentiful activities, and strong Catholic identity, but a thread of youth ministry throughout all we do, where young people feel valued and respected. Don Bosco believed that education is a “matter of the heart,” and in winning the heart of the young we can assist them in growing on every level … We are often told by visitors that they can sense a great family spirit and cheerfulness, and that is something we love to hear. For me all this is a great blend of spices that flavors and distinguishes our Salesian schools.

That cheerfulness, says Saints Peter and Paul’s Gibbons Cooney, extends to Salesian parishes as well. “Our spirituality is shaped by our service of the young, which means service of the family,” he says. “Because we are devoted to the young, ours becomes a spirituality of joy. How can’t you be joyful around kids? Kids are always up to something and it is our job to help make sure they have the chance for it to be something good.” The parish offers seven Sunday Masses (offered in Chinese, English, Italian, and Latin) and three daily Masses, with confessions available before every Mass.


The growth of the Salesians of Don Bosco is “phenomenal for a congregation that was just founded 150 years ago,” says Father Shafran. “Even during the days of Don Bosco, the congregation showed promising signs of growth and expansion,” adds Father K.O. Thomas, vice provincial of the Salesian province that is headquartered in Bangalore, India.

Father John Dickson, a historian and rector of the Salesian community in London, says that St. John Bosco grasped “the possibilities that Italian emigration gave for realizing a missionary dream,” leading the Salesians to “an extraordinary expansion in South America, initially in Argentina but very quickly in the other Spanishspeaking countries, and then into Brazil too.” At the time of the saint’s death in 1888, the institute had 1,049 members and 57 houses. Over the next eight decades, Salesian membership surged to 5,075 in 1921, 8,954 in 1931, 16,364 in 1951, and 22,383 in 1965.

“What was attractive about the Salesians was their friendly, easy manner with youngsters; the importance of games and fun in their program; the magnetism of Don Bosco; the idea of becoming a teacher; and an attractive spirituality based on the sacraments and Marian piety,” recalls Father Michael Mendl, editor of the New Yorkbased Salesian Bulletin, who entered a Salesian junior seminary in 1963.

The number of Salesians then fell sharply to 16,947 in 1978; since that time, the decline has been more gradual. This decline has been most pronounced in Western nations. In India, the Salesians continue to expand and now have 2,500 members who work in 340 institutions.

“Besides the grace of God and the protection of the Blessed Virgin,” says Father Thomas, several factors have led to the Salesians’ growth. The “relevance of the charism” is “perennial,” he says; “at no time [has this] mission to young people become irrelevant.” The youth to whom the Salesians minister are also a potential source of vocations. “Compare it with a congregation that looks after the sick or elderly,” he says. “Can vocations come from such a target group?”

“The good formation, training process, and the internal organization [and] cohesion within the congregation too are significant factors,” he continues. “The unique Salesian style of education and the family spirit among us and in our institutions attract the young.” Father Thomas adds:

In my area, the greatest accomplishment, I would feel, is that Salesians have been faithful to the original charism directed to young people. Furthermore, Don Bosco’s predilection for young people who are poor and abandoned is well preserved and nurtured. In our province, our highest number of institutions and services are for the poorer youth, children on the street, the less privileged. The congregation, therefore, enjoys credibility in society, and has the favor even of governments.

On the other hand, “in the West we’re facing immediately a challenge of demographics,” says Father Mendl. “We’re all getting older, and we haven’t been replacing ourselves as men die or leave. Quite a few provinces have been consolidated … Unless we ‘recruit’ new vocations, our mission to the young will suffer.”

“The greatest challenge we face as a province is the aging of many members and having few vocations, recruits, within Australia,” concurs Father Will Matthews of the Australian Salesian Bulletin. “The worldwide greatest challenge is similar,” he adds. “The need for recruitment to continue the work of Don Bosco … is obvious. We will have to trust in God and pray to the Holy Spirit to send us more vocations.”

This decline has been not caused by theological dissent, according to Father John Malloy, a San Francisco-area Salesian renowned for his outspoken defense of the right to life and sanctity of marriage. Now 88 years old, Father Malloy served as provincial of both US Salesian provinces.

“Thank God our theological divisions as Salesians are almost nonexistent,” he told CWR. “We have been blessed with superior generals who have supported and encouraged devotion and obedience to the Holy Father and insisted that we do likewise.”

Father Mendl adds that the current rector major, Father Pascual ChÁvez

constantly reminds us that, for all the good we try to do, and must try to do, for the young and the poor in the fields of education, health care, job training, etc., in Haiti or Bangalore or anywhere else, we have to be much more than social workers. We’re evangelizers. It’s not enough that I be a good classroom teacher, shop teacher, coach, editor, or networker among social agencies, or even a good preacher. I must bring Christ with me. And that means that Christ must be the center of my own life.

Father Malloy instead believes that the decline of the institute in the United States stems in part from a lax vocation culture in the 1950s and 1960s. “In the preconciliar years, we had accepted many young men,” he says, who “lacked maturity and failed to understand the demands of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience … Admittedly our initial formation was not very thorough, and many applicants were accepted who were too immature. Our present formation programs are thorough, and many young men who would have been accepted in earlier years are eliminated.”

“With a renewal of Catholicity in the Church, vocations will flourish again,” he adds. “Where poverty is greater, vocations are more abundant … As the self-inflicted wounds of the Church and religious organizations are healed, I believe [that] a renewed vocational response to the Salesian religious life will follow.”

While Salesian vocations have declined in the United States, they are not in a free-fall: five men in the eastern US province entered the novitiate in August. The “challenges of commitment and materialism so prevalent in our nation will continue, but I see a deep desire by young men to search for an authentic path to holiness through a committed life and mission for the young with the support of community life,” says Father Shafran. “Even though challenges remain, I am heartened by what I have seen and experienced with the young candidates who come and seek. I am very excited about the future.”

A further challenge facing the Salesians is the need to adapt to changing conditions. “It’s easy to keep doing the same sorts of things, running the same kinds of apostolic works because that’s what we’re used to doing,” says Father Mendl. “But in many places the youth situation has changed; the needs of the young are different from [what they were] 50 or so years ago.”

“The greatest challenges that the Salesians face in the UK today are how best to impact young people in the very professionalized world of education and how to develop new strategies to ensure that the charism or insights of Don Bosco about the young … develop in a very rapidly changing and fragmented world,” says Father Dickson. “Our response has to emphasize both the positive human values that our society embraces and yet the shallowness of much of what we are sold in terms of human values.”

Responding to changing conditions, the Salesians launched Project Europe in 2008 because they “view Europe as mission territory,” in the words of Father Mendl. “Today, more than ever, we become aware that our presence in Europe needs to be rethought,” said Father ChÁvez, the congregation’s rector major, in 2008. The Salesians, he said, will be “seeking a new form of evangelization in order to respond to the spiritual and moral needs of these young people, who to us appear as wanderers without guides and without destination.”

An additional challenge from which the Salesians have not escaped is the sexual abuse scandal. In 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times, the western US Salesian province settled with 17 victims for $19.5 million. The following year, the eastern US Salesian province settled with three men who say they were abused by Father John McCormick, the former provincial. In September 2010, Father ChÁvez wrote a letter to Salesians on the scandal. “It is not right for us to pretend that nothing has happened or that we are dealing with matters which do not apply to us,” he said, as he called for “the transparent admission of responsibility” and for priority to be given to victims, “whose trust has been betrayed and whose personal dignity has been violated.”

As Salesians face these challenges, they will turn to their patroness, Mary Help of Christians, whose feast day was instituted by Pope Pius VII in the year of St. John Bosco’s birth, after the most powerful leader of the day, Napoleon, released the Pope from captivity. Interestingly, when US First Lady Michelle Obama visited with Salesians in Ronda, Spain, on August 7, she told them that the most powerful political leader of our day—her husband— “always carries a picture of Mary Help of Christians in his wallet.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 62 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.