Saint John Bosco

Spiritual Father and Friend of Penitents

In the two-thousand year history of the Catholic Church, there have been many priests who have distinguished themselves as renowned confessors. These priests are important models for confessors today to be effective ministers of mercy. This paper will explore the confessional theology and practice of one such priest: Saint John Bosco. It will examine John Bosco’s approach to hearing confessions and offer his personal insights about ministering to penitents in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The paper is meant to be an aid to current and future priests. It will help them understand their role as confessors in a new and deeper way. It will also hopefully enhance their appreciation for the sacrament and enrich their own ministry of reconciling people to God and others.

John Bosco’s confessional practice began after his ordination to the priesthood in 1841.1 John was ordained in Turin on June 5 of that year after several years of formation at the seminary of Chieri.2 In Turin, he immediately started ministering to “neglected people in the poorest quarters of the city.”3 John Bosco ministered in slums and prisons, but became most known for his work with “boys and young men [living] on the streets.”4

Many of these boys and young men “were without work or education.”5 To help save them from a degrading life, John Bosco “established a group known as the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales.”6 The group, also referred to as “the Salesians,” was named after his spiritual hero.7 John Bosco “became a kindly spiritual father to boys in need.”8 He guided them and gave them “religious instruction, lodging, education, and work opportunities.”9

John Bosco developed a unique educational method to educate the boys of his oratory.10 This method, known as the preventative system, consisted “chiefly in kindly supervision with the aim of building character and guarding against harmful influences.”11 The preventative system was “based entirely on reason, religion, and kindness.”12 Through “vigilance and familial affection,” it sought “to prevent infractions rather than punish them.”13

John Bosco’s confessional practice stems largely from his ministry to youth. However, his theological and pastoral approach to the sacrament is widely applicable. It can be applied to all people, regardless of age. Priests, then, would do well to learn from John Bosco’s thoughts and insights. His confessional theology and practice can greatly benefit priests striving to become better confessors. It can also benefit penitents by helping them encounter Jesus’s love and mercy more fully through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

John Bosco considered reconciliation essential to the “spiritual progress of the soul.”14 From early childhood, he “cherished and practiced a great love for the sacrament.”15 After making his first confession, John Bosco “never went a week without confessing his sins.”16 Since age twelve, he always had “a regular confessor and spiritual director.17 As an adolescent, John Bosco placed himself under the direction of Father John Calosso.18 He trusted Father Calosso with “every secret of his life.”19 This relationship “brought him fundamental advantages for his own interior life.”20 Afterward, John Bosco chose Fathers Joseph Cafasso and Giovanni Giacomelli as his regular confessors and spiritual directors.21 These men helped guide him spiritually throughout his priestly life.

John Bosco’s “personal experience as a penitent probably [underlays] his teaching about confession.”22 One of his sayings “reflects his thinking very well: ‘There are two wings with which to fly to heaven: they are confession and communion.’”23 John Bosco “did not separate the sacrament of [reconciliation] from the Eucharist.”24 He believed that both sacraments are essential to a person’s spiritual growth.

John Bosco said: “To grow in holiness, it is necessary to go to confession and Communion!”25 He recommended receiving these two sacraments frequently. His advice to the boys of the oratory was: “Go to confession regularly, receive Communion often, and choose a regular confessor to whom you can unburden your heart.”26

John Bosco believed very much in the “usefulness of frequent confession.”27 He considered frequent confession to be “a prelude to the devout hearing of Mass.”28 Because of this belief, he “never tired of hearing confessions for hours on end.”29 John Bosco knew that when people received the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently, “it would mean an increase in the number of devout Communions.”30

However, going to confession and Communion “was not enough for his boys.” John Bosco “wanted them to go ‘willingly,’ to derive personal pleasure from those experiences.”31 This sentiment is captured by the following statement he gave them: “You should not think you have a sincere devotion until you go willingly to confession and Communion.”32

John Bosco also viewed their frequent reception as a way of growing in virtue. On this subject, he once wrote: “From the bottom of my heart I recommend frequent confession and Communion, but both of these sacraments should be received with the proper dispositions so that progress in virtue can be made each time.”33

John Bosco focused often on the proper dispositions for receiving the sacrament of reconciliation with his boys. Sometimes, he stressed “sincerity and the need to overcome shame; [other] times he stresse[d] sorrow for sin, firm purpose of amendment, and the need for perseverance.”34 John Bosco emphasized the importance of being properly disposed because he knew “the absence of proper dispositions blocks the efficacy of the sacrament.”35 He instructed the boys to prepare well and pay attention to their dispositions so that they could make a good and fruitful confession.36

John Bosco also spoke about the relationship between confession and moral living. He told the boys: “religion and morality survive so long as confession does. Where confession has been abandoned, unbelief and misconduct take its place.”37 Despite his insistence on confession, he cautioned them “not to make the mistake of expecting moral improvement solely from . . . frequenting the sacrament more and more.”38

Following the example of St. Philip Neri, John Bosco recommended receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation weekly.39 He said: “Stick to that. If you fall into serious sin and have to go to Communion, go to confession. But if you tend to keep falling into the same sins, you should concentrate on a firm purpose of amendment because you will not derive any greater benefit from more frequent confession.”40

John Bosco believed that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has three benefits.41 The benefits are that it was “instituted by Jesus Christ to communicate to our souls the merits of his passion and death, to break asunder the chains with which the spirit of evil has shackled, [and] to close for us the gates of hell and open wide the gates of heaven.”42

John Bosco urged his boys to receive the sacrament to ensure their “holiness and salvation.”43 He was concerned about the state of their souls and sought to prevent them from being ensnared by the devil. Speaking about the evil one, John Bosco asserts: “The devil chokes them to keep them from speaking when they should; he makes them blush to the point of losing their heads so that they no longer realize what they are doing.”44

John Bosco trembled at the thought of the great number of Christians who go to eternal perdition . . . because they held back or were not completely honest about certain sins in confession.”45 He encouraged his boys “to open themselves to their confessor with the fullest frankness and confidence.”46 He told them to tell their confessor “about everything that was bothering them” and conceal nothing from him.47

John Bosco adhered to the teaching of St. Alphonsus Liguori about the role of being a confessor.48 He accepted the belief that a confessor has four functions to exercise: “namely, that of father, doctor, teacher, and judge.”49 John Bosco “insisted on the functions of father and doctor more than on those of teacher and judge.”50 He “believed that the confessional was not suitable as a place for the teaching of doctrine.”51 Therefore, in his thinking, “the function of teacher yielded to that of guide.”52 John Bosco also toned down the role of judge considerably in his teaching on and practice of the sacrament.53 He “pointed out that the confessor is a judge, not to condemn us, but to absolve us and free us from eternal death.”54

John Bosco considered the confessor to be a “father, friend, confidant, [and] guide.”55 In his view, the confessor is “a father, who ardently desires to do as much good to [the penitent] as possible and tries to keep [him] away from every sort of evil.”56 According to John Bosco, the confessor “is also a friend, [who] receives with gentleness and simplicity . . . anyone who opens up to him.”57 This was how John Bosco practiced hearing confessions. He was kindly and gentle and aroused “true sorrow in the soul of his penitents.”58

One of John Bosco’s boys, who later became a cardinal, noted that “his kindness to young and old alike was exceptional, unwavering and admirable.”59 He also went on to state: “Nearly all of us went to him for confession because of his ever benign, patient gentleness and charity. He was more indulgent than severe and encouraged us to trust in God’s mercy, while he inspired God’s holy fear into our hearts.”60 After the confessor establishes himself as a father and friend, John Bosco says that he can then “progress to becoming . . . a doctor and guide.”61 As a spiritual doctor, the confessor was to listen attentively to the penitent’s sins and “prescribe the right cure.”62

John Bosco believed that dialogues with the confessor “should be frequent, according to the gravity of the sins committed and also the penitent’s concern for his own spiritual progress.”63 He said that the confessor should never “show surprise at ignorance or at the things told in confession.”64 Whenever someone confessing needed instruction, John Bosco suggested that the confessor “invite that person to call at a suitable time and place.”65 In situations when one of his boys had trouble beginning his confession, John Bosco tried to “break the ice and open the way to confession.”66 For instance, he would ask them “how many brothers they had and whether they had breakfast that morning.”67

John Bosco also was very concerned about whether all of a penitent’s past confessions “were made well.”68 He feared that penitents’ confessions were “often null, or at least defective because of the lack of instruction or the willful omission of matters for confession.”69 John Bosco recommended that confessors “[i]nvite the penitent to ponder well the state of his conscience.”70 However, “once the confession was made in reassuring terms, [he] did not want the boys to go back and dig up the past again.”71 John Bosco wanted the penitents “to look ahead to the future and ponder how to be good and holy.”72

As a confessor, John Bosco “was quick . . . about putting his penitents at their ease.”73 He “was a rapid confessor.”74 John Bosco “did not get lost in lengthy admonitions.”75 Usually, “a short but appropriate word of advice sufficed.”76 The penances John Bosco imposed also tended to be brief.77 They “were always salutary and adapted to the age of the penitent.”78

In the confessional, John Bosco “did not depart from traditional teaching.”79 He followed “the common catechism on various points: i.e., the five components of confession (examination of conscience, sorrow for one’s sins, firm purpose of amendment, confession of sins, performance of prescribed penance); the qualities of the minister (bound to the seal, judge, teacher, healer, father), the dispositions of the penitent and proper attitudes before, during, and after confession (humility, sincerity, brevity, firm resolve, careful daily examination of conscience, prayer, and so forth).”80 He believed and practiced the church’s teachings about the sacrament of reconciliation. He was a good spiritual father to the boys and “friend of their souls.”81

Because of this, he is most worthy of emulation. John Bosco was one of the Church’s great confessors. His confessional theology and practice is a valuable source of wisdom for modern-day confessors. It can help penitents and them celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with renewed ardor, understanding, and appreciation.

  1. R.F. O’Connor, “Venerable Don Bosco,” The American Catholic Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 181 (January 1921): 7.
  2. O’Connor, 7; Alban Butler, “St. John Bosco,” Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition – January (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 213.
  3. Butler, 213.
  4. Butler, 213; Catholic News Agency, “St. John Bosco,” catholicnewsagency.com/saint/st-john-bosco-133 (accessed March 5, 2019).
  5. CNA, “St. John Bosco.”
  6. CNA, “St. John Bosco.”
  7. F.A. Forbes, Saint John Bosco: The Friend of Youth (New York: TAN Books, 1962), 81.
  8. CNA, “St. John Bosco.”
  9. CNA, “St. John Bosco.”
  10. Michal Vojtas, Reviving Don Bosco’s Oratory: Salesian Youth Ministry, Leadership and Innovative Project Management (Jerusalem: STS Publications, 2017), 174.
  11. Sean Fitzpatrick, “St. John Bosco and the Secret of Education,” Crisis Magazine, Jan. 30, 2014, crisismagazine.com/2014/st-john-bosco-and-the-secret-of-education.
  12. Fitzpatrick, “Secret of Education.”
  13. Fitzpatrick, “Secret of Education.”
  14. Francis Desramaut, Don Bosco and The Spiritual Life (New Rochelle, NY: Don Bosco Publications, 1979), 114.
  15. Edna Beyer Phelan, Don Bosco: A Spiritual Portrait (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), 177.
  16. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 177.
  17. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 177.
  18. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 177.
  19. Pietro Stella, Don Bosco: Religious Outlook and Spirituality (New Rochelle, NY: Salesiana Publishers, 1996), 314.
  20. Stella, Religious Outlook, 314.
  21. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 177.
  22. Stella, Religious Outlook, 314.
  23. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 114.
  24. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 119.
  25. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 119.
  26. Anne Ball, “Saint John Bosco,” Modern Saints: Their Lives and Faces (New York: Tan Books, 1990), 145.
  27. Stella, Religious Outlook, 329.
  28. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 173.
  29. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 174.
  30. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 174.
  31. Stella, Religious Outlook, 348.
  32. Stella, Religious Outlook, 348.
  33. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 119.
  34. Stella, Religious Outlook, 318.
  35. Stella, Religious Outlook, 329.
  36. Stella, Religious Outlook, 319.
  37. Stella, Religious Outlook, 294.
  38. Stella, Religious Outlook, 317.
  39. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 118; Stella, Religious Outlook, 317.
  40. Stella, Religious Outlook, 317.
  41. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 115.
  42. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 115.
  43. Stella, Religious Outlook, 319.
  44. Stella, Religious Outlook, 317.
  45. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 117.
  46. Stella, Religious Outlook, 313.
  47. Stella, Religious Outlook, 313.
  48. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 116.
  49. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 116.
  50. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 116.
  51. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 116.
  52. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 116.
  53. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 116.
  54. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 116.
  55. Stella, Religious Outlook, 311.
  56. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 117.
  57. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 117.
  58. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 177.
  59. St. John Bosco, Forty Dreams of Don Bosco: From Saint John Bosco’s Biographical Memoirs (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 1996), 193.
  60. Bosco, Forty Dreams.
  61. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 118.
  62. Stella, Religious Outlook, 313.
  63. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 118.
  64. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 179.
  65. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 179.
  66. Stella, Religious Outlook, 311.
  67. Stella, Religious Outlook, 311.
  68. Stella, Religious Outlook, 312.
  69. Stella, Religious Outlook, 312.
  70. Stella, Religious Outlook, 312.
  71. Stella, Religious Outlook, 316.
  72. Stella, Religious Outlook, 316.
  73. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 118.
  74. Stella, Religious Outlook, 311.
  75. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 118.
  76. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 118.
  77. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 178.
  78. Phelan, Spiritual Portrait, 178.
  79. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 115.
  80. Stella, Religious Outlook, 310.
  81. Desramaut, Spiritual Life, 117.
Fr. Charles H. Lana About Fr. Charles H. Lana

Fr. Charles H. Lana is a priest of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. Ordained in 2019, Fr. Lana currently serves as Parochial Vicar at Holy Family Parish in Florham Park, New Jersey. He has a Juris Doctor degree from Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey and graduate degrees in theology from Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange, New Jersey.

Comments

  1. Avatar Jo-Anne Zisa says:

    Fr Charles,
    Thank you for sharing this beautiful written piece on St. John Bosco. I found it quite interesting and educational. Thank you!!!
    Respectfully in Christ,
    Jo-Anne Zisa

  2. Hello, Fr. Charles and Happy 4th of July as we pray for our nation to be true to God’s Laws.
    Did you ever think of becoming a Salesian Cooperator?

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