St. John Bosco and the Making of the Catholic Man
By the Catholic Action Team
There is a grave crisis facing modern men.
The prevailing spirit of our society is to deform men to the point where there is no image of God (imago Dei) in the world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that our powers of reason and free will to do good and avoid evil make us reflections of the divine image, but those reflections can be tarnished by sin.
The Church also teaches that living out the differences between man and woman makes us who we were created to be—reflections of God:
“‘Being man’ or ‘being woman’ is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator. Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity ‘in the image of God’. In their ‘being-man’ and ‘being-woman’, they reflect the Creator's wisdom and goodness” (CCC 369).
Both masculinity and femininity have taken a hit because both men and women can gravitate toward vices or extremes. Today, we are focusing on masculinity. When we allow those extremes to become our expectations for behavior, we are headed away from our purpose. We find that on the excessive end, manhood is equated with brutality—being dominant and aggressive. This vice often characterizes itself in abuse (rather than the proper use) of man’s God-given authority. On the deficient end, mediocrity—being unmotivated and weak—is considered the norm. This often results in an inability to take on responsibility, commit to a job or to a relationship.
These kinds of expectations lend no dignity to the male character. In truth, we are experiencing a famine of real masculinity. We must find the courage to make a shift!
What is true masculinity?
True masculinity can be summed up in a word: virtus—virtuous, responsible, and full of sacrificial love. These characteristics equal true strength, but have been belittled, leaving room only for effeminacy and weakness. St. Paul told his brothers, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16: 13-14).
Men are made to actively initiate love and use their strength to protect and promote that love, no matter the sacrifice involved. They have the courage to commit—not merely to strength training or video games—but to their Faith, vocations, wives and children, education, and work.
Who specialized in forming young men?
January 31st is the feast of St. John Bosco (1815-1888), also known as Don Bosco (‘Don’ being an Italian title of respect). In him, the Church gives us an example of how young men are to be formed, in order to foster in them true masculinity.
As a young man, John Bosco noticed the large number of boys who ended up in prison by the age of 18 in cities that were overrun by poverty. Grieved at their spiritual deprivation, he gathered poor boys together and formed the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, where they could meet for care and education, both spiritual and academic.
Before the Oratory was founded, the saint would meet with his group of boys in a church, cemetery, or lot each Sunday. He would hear confessions, say Mass, and give religious instruction on basic points of truth. Then he would take them into the countryside for an outing of games. In this way, he educated the whole person, uniting the spiritual life, work, study, and play.
His prayer was always, “Give me souls—the souls of young people.” By the end of his life, the order of Salesians he founded was helping 130,000 children in 250 houses.
St. John Bosco is the antithesis of the way society is deforming men today.
Guided by his work, here are 6 practical points for cultivating true masculinity.
For Young Men
1. Find a balance.
St. John Bosco would always tell the boys that sanctity is easy. One does not need to go to great lengths to find the virtuous path. We have the course right in front of us. All you must do is your duties at home, school, and work to the best of your ability. He told them to offer their lives to God—the joys as well as the sorrows, because we have much with which to join in Christ’s Passion.
He firmly believed in training the passions. In a related way, the great philosopher Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics speaks of the art of living in an intermediate way. He calls this balance of our passions the doctrine of the ‘mean.’ It is a sort of practical wisdom, taking into account the situation, time, person, and so forth, before taking action. For instance, in the passion/concern of fear, the vice of deficiency is to be cowardly, the vice of excess is to be rash, and between these two we find the virtue of courage.
2. Welcome challenges.
The vital need for challenge is embedded in men. However, young men generally lack built-in challenges because of the modern conveniences of our day. This often leads to a lack of commitment. Schools have noted boys are more likely to fall behind on their studies, and are no longer expected to succeed in the same way as women.
St. John Bosco encouraged his boys to challenge themselves spiritually and mentally. In this way, he fostered responsibility in them, since all of these challenges involve sacrifice of comfort and pleasure.
His education of the boys revolved around care for their spiritual wellbeing. In his rules he wrote: "Frequent Confession, frequent Communion, daily Mass: these are the pillars which should sustain the whole edifice of education."
He eagerly took upon himself the academic instruction of boys upon the streets in Turin, Italy. (For more about his method of education, please read the section below for parents and educators.
The saint realized the importance of job training, talent, and ability, so he trained his students in the trade crafts. The workshops he established for the boys were shoemaking and tailoring. Through these, he inspired in the boys a desire for quality. During the week, he visited the boys at work, to be sure they were working hard and compensated ethically.
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3. Be involved in a community.
Men tend to find their community through shared action.
Taking this need into account, Don Bosco knew it was important for the boys, both the wayward and the dutiful, to be brought into the same community to support each other in their struggles and joys.
He believed in purposeful activity for play, and would often take the boys out for sports and games. Besides this, he organized a band with old brass instruments, because he believed music is a powerful refining influence.
For Parents and Educators
1. Lead by example.
Apart from their catechetical training, John Bosco taught the boys at the Oratory by example and through fatherly advice what commitment and sacrifice look like. He was a man of deep prayer and Catholic action, who tirelessly led the boys, even in his old age. He kept expectations high, and his boys in turn desired to live up to those expectations.
In the same way, when parents, especially fathers, take the Faith seriously, there is a better chance that their children will do so.
A Swiss government study in 1994 revealed that if a father does not go to church – no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions – only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper.
Additionally, studies from the Gallup Poll of Catholics in 2005 and 2008 show that only 32% of Catholic men strongly agree that the Sacraments are essential to their faith and 55% agree that they “don’t get anything out of the Mass.” A large portion (42%) of Catholic men attend Mass “a few times per year” or “seldom or never.
As for fatherly advice, the good saint, Don Bosco, often told them, “I want to give you the formula for sanctity; first, be happy; second, study and pray; third, do good to everyone.”
2. Preventative system: Use charity and respect.
When John Bosco was nine years old, he found himself in a dream fighting a rowdy group of cursing boys. While trying to stop them, a man appeared who told John, “Not with punches will you help these boys, but with goodness and kindness!”
Thus, St. John Bosco’s theory of education was a preventative system, based on charity instead of punishment. Its foundations were reason and religion, fostered by the Sacraments. This included supervision of his boys through daily contact and genuine interest between student and teacher. He walked alongside his students as their guide in order to fully understand them and to retain mutual love and respect. While the preventative method is not new, he added a freshness to it by observing that young people often commit errors. We do not condone them, but we use errors as channels to formation of solid character.
He believed that, “In every young person, a point of goodness is accessible and it is the primary duty of the educator to discover that sensitive cord of the heart so as to draw out the best in the young person.”
3. Preventative system: Remove the occasions of sin.
Removing the occasions of sin was St. John Bosco’s method for keeping the young men pure.
In one of his visions, Don Bosco saw some of his boys tumbling down a path, screaming in terror down to the gates of Hell. His guide told him that bad companions, bad books, and bad habits are mainly responsible for the eternally lost. There was also a road laden with traps, into which boys were entangled. Upon closer observation, he noted the most dangerous were those of impurity, disobedience, and pride. The only methods visible for cutting oneself free were weapons among the traps: knives symbolizing meditation (for use against pride), spiritual reading, and devotion to the saints; swords representing devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin Mary; and a hammer symbolizing confession.
In these ways, not only did St. John Bosco live out the characteristics of true masculinity, but he also helped foster these same traits in thousands of young men. Through his guidance and prayers, let us hope to reverse the crisis affecting many modern men, and in this way, better reflect our Creator’s divine image.