The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

From the Shepherds — Learning From the Charism of St. John Bosco

Authored by Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst in Issue #10.2 of Catechetical Review

Status message

This is a free online article available for non-subscribers. Start your subscription today!

Portrait Image of St. John BoscoIn the Latin language there is a saying that could also be applied to our work as catechists: nomen est omen. This means that the name also reflects the inner essence of a person or a thing. In other words, the name speaks for itself. The name of St. John Bosco has become synonymous with good and holy catechesis. In this sense, all reflection on his inspiring life and work can show us what transmitting the faith should look like.

Bosco lived in Italy in the 19th century. He was born and grew up in poor circumstances, and from an early age he had the desire to dedicate his life to handing on the faith. He had a special focus on young people. In 1880, he managed to acquire a simple shed in Turin to gather young people for catechesis. It was not the material or organizational expenses that made this place so effective but the radiance of his charism that turned humble walls into resonating bodies. The secret of his charism for catechesis is expressed in a simple saying that has come down from the saint himself—from his heart: “Do good, be merry, and let the sparrows whistle!”

One may think of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew: “Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?” (Mt 6:26). It is this connection to divine teaching that makes St. John Bosco so credible. This maxim of his can become a statement of faith and a curriculum for catechesis if we consider its meaning more closely.

Do Good: Mercy and Attention

Already 65 years ago, in 1958, the then-young theologian Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) foresaw the present situation of the Church almost prophetically. He spoke of the fact that faith needs graduality because not all people are connected to faith in the same way. Thus, in addition to wanting to belong to Jesus Christ out of deep inner determination and being at home in the Church’s sacramental life, catechists desire to draw especially close to other human beings.

 A good catechist knows how to be good to the other, to look at him kindly, to see what he needs, to understand courtesy not as a convention but as loving attention. Catechists in the Church want to guide their students to the good so that, in a world with so much denial, they can bring out the yes of God. Being a missionary Church begins with seeing, wanting, and doing the positive.

Some time ago, I became aware of how evangelization can begin in very simple ways. After a visit to the gym, I held the door open for another visitor as he was leaving. I had seen him there several times, but I had never spoken to him. He gratefully returned the gesture and, from then on, we were in conversation. Perhaps from the life of St. John Bosco we can learn that it is precisely the obvious, the simple, and the everyday events of our lives that can challenge us to do good. And how can we know what is good? The famous French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said it this way: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”[1] Whoever first looks at the other and at life with the heart understands the charism of St. John Bosco.

Be Merry: The Joy of Faith and Gratitude

Real and lasting joy of faith comes from within. The Apostle Paul understood this connection in his spirituality and preaching as the deepest source of his faith. In the Letter to the Philippians he writes what St. John Bosco also made his own: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all” (Phil 4:4–5). When a person has reached that depth in which he recognizes that he owes everything to God and that no success is the result of his own efforts, that his life is not a matter of chance but of providence, such a joy and gratitude radiates from him.

The confidence that Bosco conveyed to young people in his catecheses came from within. His faith that God gives in his time what man needs was unwavering. In Germany there is a children’s song sung in a canon (or round) that is very simple, and because of this it is quite stirring: “Froh zu sein bedarf es wenig, und wer froh ist, ist ein König!” — “It takes little to be joyful, and whoever is joyful is a king!” True joy is gratitude. It is not bound to external or material preconditions. It rises from within, and where it thus comes into life, faith comes into play. A catechesis carried out with such joy and gratitude is conducted in the spirit of Don Bosco. In these challenging days, teaching in this way is how young people can be won for Christ. This attitude is connected with the third insight of St. John Bosco.

Let the Sparrows Whistle: Patience and Serenity

“Let the sparrows whistle” does not mean in the liberal sense “to each his own!” It is not a call to arbitrariness but an invitation to a deep serenity. Perhaps it is precisely this that opens young people of every generation, in the material hardships and political and professional uncertainties of their time, so emphatically to the dimension of faith in catechesis. Bosco himself knew about the dangers of life and how easily man can get lost in the whirlpool of time. Finding and having faith, then, allows a serenity to mature.

We Christians are called to live serenity where otherwise agitation is rampant. It can be possible for us, by our living witness, to point out what the world lacks without Christ. We Christians are meant to carry into the world a soothing contrast that expresses what the Letter to the Hebrews promises us: “a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God” (Heb 4:9). The catechist is called to be patient with people because she knows of God’s greater possibilities for them.

We must continually consider the spirit of St. John Bosco, our holy patron of catechesis, and never tire of persevering in patience. We know the truth of St. Paul’s words in the Letter to the Romans: “affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint” (Rom 5:3-5).

When it comes to proclaiming the faith and finding the right ways to reach people in the name of God, when we give them mercy and attention, when we give witness to joy and gratitude, and when we live with serenity and patience, our catechesis indeed gains the spirit of St. John Bosco. “Do good, be merry, and let the sparrows whistle!”

Bishop Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is the Delegate for Catechesis in the Vatican Dicastery for Evangelization.


[1] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, trans. Irene Testot-Ferry (1948; repr., Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Classics, 1995), 82.

This article originally appeared on pages 30-31 in the printed edition.

Art Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

Articles from the Most Recent Issue

Editor's Reflections — Mary: The First Disciple of Jesus
By Dr. James Pauley
Free What does it mean to be a disciple? We might think the answer simple enough: a disciple follows a teacher, so a Christian disciple is one who studies and puts into practice the teachings of Jesus. The problem here, though, is that Jesus isn’t only a wise teacher. To be his disciple requires something more. At the Great Commission, when he charged... Read more
Marian Devotion and the Renewal of Church Life
By John C. Cavadini
Free What happened to Mary? This is a question that could easily occur to anyone reading through 20th-century theology. Marian theology up to the 1960s was vibrant and flourishing. Fr. Edward O’Connor’s 1958 magisterial volume The Immaculate Conception (recently re-released by University of Notre Dame Press) seems to sum up an era. The lively essays... Read more
The Witness of Mary: A Portrait of Doctrine
By Sean Innerst
In Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN), Pope Paul VI, of sainted memory, said something that has become almost a banner that we fly above our apostolic work today, both in our evangelization and our catechesis. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” [1] This is... Read more


Watch Tutorial Videos

We've put together several quick and easy tutorial videos to show you how to use this website.

Watch Now