Salesian Spirit and Don Bosco's "Preventive System"

Preventive System





While Don Bosco was a prolific author, he wrote very little about his own educative style. However, his life, the manner in which he approached his work, and his preaching, indicate that he considered the basic building block of his educative spirit to be love. But love alone was not enough. He was adamant that the young people in his care should not only be loved but that they should also know that they were loved. Therefore, love had to be given practical expression. This was done via the educative method that he himself called the "Preventive System." Building upon the optimistic humanism of his patron, St. Francis de Sales, this style of education was to be contrasted with the "Repressive System."

Don BoscoLord, you called St John Bosco to be a teacher and father to the young. Fill us with love like his: may we give ourselves completely to his service and to the salvation of those entrusted to our care. AMEN.

[From the Mass of St John Bosco - January 21]

Later Canonised a Saint of the Catholic Church, St John Bosco was, and still is, popularly referred to as Don Bosco - "Don" being the title commonly used to refer to a priest in Italian.

The Preventive System

The term 'preventive,' which Don Bosco uses to describe his system, is to be understood not so much in its strict linguistic sense as in the richness of the lived experience of Don Bosco's own educative experience and practice. Rather than implying something negative - to stop or hinder something - it incorporates the intention of foreseeing and forestalling anything that would give rise to negative experiences. This is more clearly seen when the derivation of 'preventive' is understood. It derives from the Latin praevenire: 'to precede', 'to anticipate', 'to go before with spiritual help'. In this sense its orientation is positive.

The term includes deep intuitions, precise options and methodological criteria, all lived with particular intensity; examples are: the art of positive education by putting forward what is good through appropriate experiences which call for the involvement of the pupil and are attractive; the art of producing growth in the young persons 'from within' by appealing to their inner freedom to oppose external conditioning and formalism; the art of winning the heart of young people so as to inculcate in them a joyful and satisfied attraction to what is good, correcting deviations and preparing them for the future by means of solid character formation. (John Paul II: 1988, #8)

At the centre of Don Bosco's Preventive System is "Pastoral charity," of which he wrote: "The practice of the Preventive System is wholly based on the words of St Paul who says, 'Love is patient and kind, it is always ready to excuse, to hope, and to endure whatever comes'." (Don Bosco, 1877). This love, expressed in pastoral action, inclines the educator to love the young person in whatever state he may be found, so as to lead him to the fulness of humanity which is revealed in Christ, to give him the awareness and the opportunity of living the life of an upright citizen as a son of God (John Paul II: 1988, #9).

To summarise his Preventive System, Don Bosco used a three-fold formula: Reason, Religion and Loving-kindness. Don Bosco did not use this descriptive trilogy until late in his life when, in 1877, he wrote the brief Treatise on the Preventive System. Rather than providing a philosophical basis upon which his system is constructed, it represents distillation of Don Bosco's thoughts, a snappy slogan which can be used and which will be readily recognised. For this very reason it is the formulation of the Preventive System most commonly presented to staff in Salesian schools.


In line with the optimistic humanism of St Francis de Sales, the term "Reason" refers to that whole range of human activity which is the matter of education. Of its very nature, education is "humanistic" in its aims, processes and outcomes. "Reason" emphasises basic human values such as the freedom and dignity of the individual, the primacy of conscience, the goodness of creation and culture, and the worth of work and social living. The implication is that this whole human project will be enhanced and brought to life through the education that students receive. Don Bosco's own work bears witness to this, as he provided opportunities for his students to experience a broad range of educational activities, many of which were considered innovative for their time. He encouraged them to participate in formal studies, as well as develop their capabilities in wide variety of areas including trade skills, music, drama, sport and community service.

A second aspect of reason is that it involves giving attention to the common sense aspects of human relationships. It involves the ability to understand young people, to enter into relationship with them, to dialogue and communicate with them. This mutual understanding and acceptance invites an atmosphere of confidence and communication, which the educator cultivates by being actively present among the students. By entering into their world, understanding their values and appreciating them, the educator leads them to a greater and more mature appreciation of human and Christian values.

A third aspect of reason is that it implies "reasonableness." This particularly applies to relationships with students and the ways of dealing with discipline. In contrast to the methods of his own times, Don Bosco rejected physical punishments and anything that might be considered humiliating. He insisted that rules be reasonable and able to be easily understood. Alternatives to punishment should be tried and punishments should only be a last resort, but even then they must enable students to understand the inappropriateness of their behaviour and leave open opportunities for reconciliation. Don Bosco believed that inappropriate behaviour - and, hence, punishments - could often be avoided by the presence of the educator, a positive relationship with students, meaningful activity, and the use of ordinary human reasonableness. To this end Don Bosco demanded understanding, patience and great resilience from his followers.


While reason refers to human activity and human relationships, the second term of Don Bosco's trilogy, "Religion", indicates that his pedagogical approach is essentially transcendent, that it emerges from and is oriented towards relationship with God. Don Bosco did not make sharp distinctions between the 'sacred' and the 'profane,' but believed that the human project could not reach its fulfilment without a lived and lively faith in the God of Jesus Christ. For Don Bosco this was not a matter of speculative or abstract religion, but a living faith rooted in the reality of the presence of God in the world.

Don Bosco's educational activities were not restricted to religious education classes and active moral formation. Prayer, liturgy, spiritual direction and the celebration of the sacraments - especially Eucharist and Reconciliation - were included as part of the natural rhythm of daily life. For Don Bosco, holiness was an ordinary part of life and the pursuit of holiness was carried out as part of one's normal activities. Put in simple terms, one became holy by carrying out to the best of one's abilities one's ordinary duties as a Christian and a citizen.

Long before the Second Vatican Council called for "full, active and conscious" participation in the liturgy Don Bosco was conducting religious celebrations that were joyful, festive celebrations of life. For Don Bosco, love of God led naturally to love of neighbour, to action and to service of others. These activities in turn led to a greater love of and union with God. Don Bosco's students actively participated in religious groups and on occasions risked their lives in the service of others (many of his students volunteered to care for people infected with the plague).


"Loving-kindness" is the most unique (and, perhaps, the most misunderstood) element in Don Bosco's system. Essentially it describes the love-filled relationship between educator and student. Don Bosco used the Italian word "amorevolezza." There is no English equivalent for this word and it is often simply translated as kindness. This can be misleading because the concept is far richer and more profound.

"Loving-kindness" is more a daily attitude of love that has the good of the other at heart and which works so that the students realise their potential with growing independence. This is not just an attitude of shallow niceness. Real love challenges. Rather, it is an attitude expressed in practice in the commitment of the educator as a person dedicated to the good of the students. Educators are present in the midst of the young, prepared to offer guidance and correction where and when necessary, and ready to accept sacrifices and hard work in the fulfilment of their mission. It calls for a real availability to the young, a deep empathy with them, the openness to enter into genuine relationship with them, the ability to dialogue with them and the willingness to share their lives.

Loving-kindness also implies much about the atmosphere in which education occurs. It is an environment of love, where human values are genuinely respected and promoted and where there is an openness to the spiritual dimension of life. It is an atmosphere marked by a "family spirit" in which there is mutuality in human relationships and a full range of joyful and stimulating educative activities.

A further aspect of loving-kindness is that it requires a deep knowledge and understanding of young people - on an individual and personal level as well as collectively. It implies being attentive to their ideals, hopes and aspirations, their fears and anxieties. It means being able to discern their needs and the means by which they can make a meaningful contribution to the educative and wider community. Knowledge of the social and cultural conditions in which they live and analysis of the conditioning factors to which they are subjected is indispensable to this process.


Working at a Salesian school is an invitation to share in and become part of a rich spiritual and educational tradition that has love as its key motivation. Don Bosco's work began when he touched the hearts of the homeless, abandoned youngsters on the streets of Turin more than a century ago. His work continues today in the work of each and every member of staff at St John Bosco College as we work for the students entrusted to our care. Therefore, each of us also has a responsibility to ensure that this Salesian Spirit is lived with energy and vigour.