St. John Bosco reminds us: Teaching children is a labor of love

St. John Bosco With Young People   Copy
January 30, 2022

Intention is an important attribute in teaching because it proposes a deliberate act of the will to do or act on something or someone. In the case of teaching children about God, this action takes on greater significance because it involves the gradual development of a child’s relationship with God as the primary intention. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead the entire premise of his act was to help Martha, Lazarus’ sister to believe in the Messiah healing someone who was thought to be unhealable. If you read further in this passage from St. John Jesus speaks to His Father and we encounter the glory of the Trinity as Jesus invokes the Father so that all may believe.[1]

The gradual progression of a Divine action and a Divine invocation reveal the Lord’s intentions, to invoke faith and trust in God through the Son Jesus Christ. The act and intention of teaching religion requires an act of love not a deposit of information. Instead, the art of teaching the Catholic faith is an invitation to the deposit of faith established by God through the Son revealed in a visible and loving way.

Get them to love you

There is perhaps I argue no better example of a person who exemplifies teaching youth as a labor of love than St. John Bosco. His famous motto: “Get them to love you, and they will follow you anywhere” serves as the seminal foundation of his Salesian model of religious education and formation because it places emphasis on the heart speaking to the heart as echoed by his mentor and teacher St. Francis De Sales.   

The pedagogy of St. John Bosco’s method of teaching involved a three-fold process of reason, religion, and kindness known as his Preventive System. Each principle has a specific act of love to guide a child toward a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Principle of Reason provides a reasonable atmosphere where the child would be given the opportunity to consent to instruction and guidance. The goal of this first principle is to develop good Christians and useful citizens. The teacher must be the bridge to a child’s discovery of the world through patience, diligence, and prayer.

The Principle of Religion stressed the ugliness of sin and the value of living a virtuous life. The aim is to develop the intellectual and physical gifts the child possesses and how he can be directed toward a greater good. There are five steps within this principle to help youth attain personal holiness:

  1. Holiness of ordinary life
  2. The joy and optimism of holiness
  3. Centrality of Confession
  4. The Holy Eucharist
  5. Love of Mary

The Principle of Kindness emphasizes the virtue of love. St. John Bosco would stress: “Let us make ourselves loved, and we shall possess their hearts.” In other words, our Christian witness must be constant for the development of the child. The learning environment should be warm and inviting, not cold. The family spirit reigned; he did this through rapport, friendliness, presence, respect, attention, dedication to service, and personal responsibility.

The core of all three principles of the Preventive System is to draw the child away from a view that only he exists and no one else. As the last principle stressed; “the family spirit reigned.” We want the child to know that he is part of God’s plan by the very fact he was created in His image and likeness. This in turn will help the child view others in the same light.  

What made St. John Bosco’s methods so effective was his willingness to go into the heart of the child regardless of his state in life and see Christ in him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that Jesus paschal mystery is a continual labor of love, one we are called to imitate:

By embracing his human heart, the Father’s love for men, Jesus loved them to the end, for greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. In suffering and death his humanity became the free and perfect instrument of his divine love which desires the salvation of men. Indeed, out of love for his father and for men, whom the Father wants to save, Jesus freely accepted his Passion and death: No one take my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.[2]   

A Labor of Love

Anyone who desires to embark on a journey to teach children about Jesus Christ and His Church would serve themselves well by the study and application of St. John Bosco's methodology and approach to teaching the Catholic faith to children. However, even more important than this is to remember that everything he did was out of love for the soul of the child, this was his labor of love. The following letter perfectly encapsulates Don Bosco’s love to teach children;  


I have always labored out of love:

First of all, if we wish to appear concerned about the true happiness of our foster children and if we would move them to fulfill their duties, you must never forget that you are taking the place of the parents of these beloved young people. I have always labored lovingly for them, and carried out my priestly duties with zeal. And the whole Salesian society has done this with me.

My sons, in my long experience very often I had to be convinced of this great truth. It is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him. Yes, indeed, it is more fitting to be persistent in punishing our own impatience and pride than to correct the boys. We must be firm but kind, and be patient with them.

I give you as a model the charity of Paul which he showed to his new converts. They often reduced him to tears and entreaties when he found them lacking docility and even opposing his loving efforts. See that no one finds you motivated by impetuosity or willfulness. It is difficult to keep calm when administering punishment, but this must be done if we are to keep ourselves from showing off our authority or spilling out our anger.

Let us regard those boys over whom we have some authority as our own sons. Let us place ourselves in their service. Let us be ashamed to assume an attitude of superiority. Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better. This was the method that Jesus used with the apostles. He put up with their ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity. He treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalized, and still others to hope for God’s mercy. And so he bade us to be gentle and humble of heart.

They are our sons, and so in correcting their mistakes we must lay aside all anger and restrain it so firmly that it is extinguished entirely. There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future, as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement. In serious matters it is better to beg God humbly than to send forth a flood of words that will only offend the listeners and have no effect on those who are guilty.


From a letter by Saint John Bosco, priest
Epistolario, Torino, 1959, 4, 201-203



[1] Jn 11:38-44

[2] CCC 609

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