The ‘Slaps’ of Don Bosco: Remedy against Temptation and Melancholy

Short episodes from Don Bosco’s life describe how he used smacks and slaps to drive away the evil spirit of his pupils … And they received these blows with great joy and fervour.

Newsdesk (03/02/2023 18:05, Gaudium Press) A common day at the Oratory in Turin, about the year 1864. As usual, dozens of students crowded around Don Bosco, eager to take advantage of the recreation time to spend a half hour with this holy priest whom they loved and venerated as a father.

Always cheerful and committed to transmitting to his ‘birichini’ [‘little rascals’] the joy of virtue, Don Bosco never lost sight of the faces of his young companions. One day, fixing his eyes on a young man whose mind seemed to wander dreamily in another world, he slapped him hard.

Immediately afterwards the Saint eased the bewilderment of the victim with a broad smile and whispered in his ear: “Don’t worry. I did not hit you, but the devil”.

Remedy against temptation and melancholy

Episodes similar to this were commonplace in the daily life of the Oratory.

Lemoyne tells us that “when he came across a youth who looked melancholy, Don Bosco called him to him, inquired about the reason for his sadness and warned him: “St. Philip Neri taught that melancholy is the eighth capital sin.” Then he consoled him with encouraging words and ended by giving him something like a slap, saying: “Be happy!” – restoring the boy to his former cheerfulness.

On other occasions Don Bosco had recourse to the authority of the same saint to explain the reason for the slap that he had just given to some boy: “St. Philip Neri acted in this way with his boys to whom he said: ‘I do not hit you, but the devil who tempts you.’

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What did the boys at the Oratory think of these slaps, smacks, and buffets?

Cardinal Giovanni Cagliero, who was not yet thirteen when he met his founder, gives this interesting testimony: “We were convinced that Don Bosco knew that the pupil who was slapped had some kind of temptation in his head”. And Fr. Lemoyne, a disciple and biographer of Don Bosco, adds: “Moreover, the pupils were well convicted that Don Bosco’s slaps possessed the power to strengthen them in their fight against the devil“.

Please, give me some more slaps…

So it was common for one of them to ask Don Bosco for a slap, which he would give while jokingly saying: “With this slap the devil won’t bother you anymore today”. To another he assured that for six months he would not be disturbed by the devil.

Every day one saw some youngster afflicted by some internal agitation approach him and, without saying anything, present his face to him expecting a smack, and run off after receiving it, happy as if he had just received a great favour.

And not only the youngsters appreciated this singular way of driving the devil away. Let us see what a letter from a Salesian cleric, reproduced by Father Lemoyne, says: “My beloved father […]. The last slap with which you gave me is still engraved on my face. When I think of it, I blush and think it appropriate to have the mark of your kind fingers on my face. Please send me a good slap, I expect it. I cherish Don Bosco more than the whole world. (And if some sadness or bad thought assails me during the day, it is enough for me to remember my beloved Don Bosco to be free at once.) Dear Don Bosco, prostrate before you, I offer you everything you can ask of me; I give you everything. Accept me as the least of your servants and do not exclude me from the great book of your very own sons, in Jesus Christ, Giuseppe Pittaluga.

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Who were the real ones being slapped?

Don Bosco had in a high degree the gift of discernment of spirits, by which he saw the state of soul of his pupils. He knew their temptations and their sins, to the point of frequently reminding the penitent of some fault forgotten in Confession. He was also able to accompany the temptations and bad acts of young people who were entirely out of his sight.

In 1863 he was preaching the Spiritual Exercises in another house of the congregation when he saw two boys sneaking out of the Oratory to bathe in a nearby river. After swimming for some time they engaged in conversation on inappropriate subjects. Don Bosco heard them interiorly and interrupted them with a series of vigorous smacks on the back. Frightened because they did not see their “assailant” but felt a burning pain in their shoulders, they hurried back to the Oratory.

The next morning the director, Fr. Alasonatti, received a note from Don Bosco telling him that he had seen the two offenders and had given them a good lesson. The director called them and they admitted their guilt. Their shoulders still ached, as they had been smacked so firmly.

On another occasion Don Bosco asked one of the young people around him:

– Do you not remember having received on such a day a slap given by an invisible hand?

Very surprised, he answered yes and asked how Don Bosco had learned of the fact. He limited himself to asking another question:

– And what were you doing at that moment?

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Seeing the little boy’s face turn red like a hot coal, he took him aside and reassured him, saying a few words of warning and encouragement in his ear.

* * *

The episodes related above make clear how profusely Don Bosco used the gift of curbing the action of the evil spirit on the birichini of the Oratory by slaps and smacks, and how his young pupils received these blows as a valuable favour. The infernal spirits, on the contrary, detested them. There could be no better proof that they were the real victims.

Text extracted from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 188, August 2017.

Compiled by Roberta MacEwan

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