Getting to know Don Bosco: his commitment to the good press

He expressed it with the means of his times, but in all its forms, developing it from beginning to end: from the elaboration of texts to their printing and dissemination. All and always to spread the Good News and work in the service of youth.

In the first “Constitutions of the Society of St. Francis de Sales” of 1875 (art. 7), Don Bosco wrote that the Salesians “shall endeavor to spread good books among the people using all those means that Christian charity inspires.” And in the special Circular sent to the Salesians in 1885, he added: “Among these [means of apostolate] which I intend to warmly recommend to you, for the glory of God and the health of souls, is the diffusion of good books. I do not hesitate to call this means Divine, since God Himself availed Himself of it for the regeneration of man. It was the books inspired by Him that carried righteous doctrine throughout the world. It is therefore up to us to imitate the work of the Heavenly Father.”

Don Bosco was a most prolific writer. His writings – more than 150 – pamphlets and books, even of a certain size, are devotional and religious in character such as “Il Giovane Provveduto – The Companion of Youth,” catechetical and apologetic instruction such as “The Catholic Instructed in His Religion,” lives of saints such as the “Life of St. Peter,” edifying biographies such as the “Life of the Young Dominic Savio,” scholastic works such as “The Metric Decimal System,” not forgetting the “Catholic Readings,” with its annual almanac “Il Galantuomo,” he being its main compiler. Then he launched into publishing proper with Classics Collections for schools, such as the “Selecta ex latinis scriptoribus” and the “Library of Italian Youth.” He also launched a series of “Dramatic Readings” for popular entertainment. And finally, in 1877, he founded the “Bollettino Salesiano“, the organ of information for his Work.

Of versatile wit, he did not pretend to be a scholar or a man of letters, but he became an esteemed writer by overcoming the difficulties of Italian, polishing the language to make it increasingly clear, simple, correct.

Three works, in particular, of a scholastic nature, reveal his preference for history, the “Storia Ecclesiastica” issued in 1845 by the Speirani and Ferrerò printing house, which reached, while Don Bosco was living, a dozen editions; the “Storia Sacra” which came out in its first edition in 1847 by the same printing house and then reappeared until our times in 14 successive editions and several dozen reprints; and, finally, in 1855, his masterpiece, the “Storia d’Italia” printed by Paravia and Comp, which, already in 1874, reached its tenth edition.

Before such an abundance of publications by a man so busy with so many other activities, there was no shortage of criticism and irony from the opposing press and even from “benpensanti – well-wishers,” and sometimes even perplexity from scholars.

But one should not make hasty judgments about Don Bosco’s writings. It is not true, for example, that Don Bosco in writing copied passing off as his own what was not his own doing. Don Bosco openly and repeatedly acknowledged that he drew extensively from other authors. It is true, however, that except in his most personal writings such as the “Memoirs of the Oratory,” he was not an original writer but rather an intelligent compiler who drew from other writings.

From easily accessible compilations he drew what he needed for his work, not only content, but especially literary models. Of these, he also made verbatim transcriptions. But he never hid this. Clear proof of this is what he confessed in certain of his “Prefaces,” such as in that of the “Ecclesiastical History.”

–     “Moved by the need and instances of many zealous and authoritative persons I undertook to compile the present compendium of Ecclesiastical History. I have read all those that I could get, written in native and foreign languages, and have derived from each one those sentiments and expressions that are most Italian, simple [and easy] according to the capacity of a young man.”

In the “Preface” to his “Sacred History” (1847), he writes:

–     “I also had under my eye many narrow [compendia] of the Sacred History and extracted from each what seemed to me convenient, transcribing in distended form more things that I found clearly and worthily set forth.”

In service to the dissemination of the good press, he also put his hand directly to the typographic stage. From the beginning, he had dreamed of his own printing house for these publications. He succeeded in starting it in 1861 under the title “Typography of St. Francis de Sales,” equipping it, little by little, with increasingly efficient machinery. By the second half of the 1870s, Don Bosco’s printing business had progressed so far that it aroused fears of competition in the Turin printers, even though its purpose was educational and not commercial.

In 1877 he also started a chemical-photographic laboratory for making photographs and for his own prints. And finally, to independently complete the entire production cycle, he had the bold idea of buying a paper mill in Mathi Torinese. In 1882 he ordered the new “paper machine” in Switzerland from the Escher-Wyss firm in Zurich, which gave the Italian machinery a quantum leap as regards quality.

On the occasion of the 1884 National Exposition he wanted to make known to the general public the reality of his book industry and the modernity of his printing equipment, obtaining from the organizing committee a special pavilion or “gallery” with sufficient space to exhibit the entire process, from the manufacture of paper to the printing of a book and its binding.

Throughout his life Don Bosco carried out an immense work of popularizing the good press and did it with much honesty and seriousness with only the good of souls in mind.

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