The gentle St John Bosco worked with inner city children in nineteenth century Italy. The slums of the Northern industrial cities compared to the slums of the developing world today. Sanitation and housing were miserable. Mortality rates were high. Addiction, gangs, violence and crime were of epidemic proportions. The harsh conditions claimede children as the first and greatest victims. Orphans were drawn into gang life, crime and prostitution, and in the midst of these horrors John Bosco founded refuges of happiness, peace, acceptance and love.
John Bosco developed a simple and loving method for dealing with children which informs Catholic educators today, but these simple methods for teachers and those who work with young people can be applied in all our work with people–especially in the area of the New Evangelization.
John Bosco’s simple principles begin with the realization that the child is good not evil. Each child is created in God’s image and is therefore intrinsically good. God’s good image in the child is wounded by sin, but the essential goodness at the heart of each person remains the over riding truth and the foundation of the relationship.
The second principle that John Bosco teaches is that the child is not only good, but he desires the good. “Desire” is in itself, at heart, a longing for what is good, beautiful and true. Human beings will often seek to fulfill their desires in negative, twisted and selfish ways, but the underlying desire is for the good.
Bosco’s third principle is that the child wants to please the adult. The child’s instinct is to win love and affirmation, and he instinctively wants to win that love and affection by pleasing the adults in his life because they are the source of love and affection.
John Bosco taught his brothers to work with these powerful instincts and use them to form the child in the ways of the faith. The brothers were to listen carefully to the needs of each child and encourage them to seek the best in every case, to draw them into what is good and point them on the way to find what is best. The Bosco method is to emphasize the positive, build on what is good and encourage the child to believe that the very best is possible. This in turn builds a relationship of trust, from which comes real joy and confidence. It is on this joy and confidence that an abundant and successful life is the result.
Bosco’s method also unlocks great wisdom for the task of the New Evangelization. Too often we wade into the deep waters of apologetics or Evangelization armed with the church’s doctrines, a list of rules and regulations and intellectual formulations. While these things are necessary and have their purpose, Evangelization is most effective through personal relationships.
Bosco’s method shows us what those personal relationships should look like. We start by acknowledging the intrinsic goodness of the other person. God created them good and although they are wounded by sin and selfishness, they remain good. When we see them as good we can love them as good.
Secondly, no matter what their mistakes, their anger towards God, their ignorance or their resistance to religion–they long for the good. The vast majority of people spend their lives longing and looking for what is truly beautiful, good and true. We want the most abundant and fulfilled life, and so do they.
Thirdly, the other person, even if he doesn’t know it, is longing to please God. We were created to be in a loving and obedient relationship with our creator. That’s the way we’re wired. In the midst of everything else he or she is searching for, at the foundation, what they really long for is a life that pleases God.
Those involved with the New Evangelization will want to resort to doctrines, rules and regulations, but St John Bosco teaches us a way that requires risk, faith, trust and an open ness to what God is doing in the other person’s life. The ability to do this will draw others to the faith not by intellectual assent alone, but by the attraction of a truly loving approach that affirms all that is good in them and all the good for which they long.
That approach encourages, enthuses and inspires so the true searcher can find the way that leads to eternal life.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book The Romance of Religion is published by Thomas Nelson in February. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com