Wednesday 25 May 2016

Umberto Eco and Don Bosco

Andrea Caglieris (journalist and secretary of the Ordine dei Giornalisti del Piemonte).
Translated from Rivista Maria Ausiliatrice  3/16 (maggio-giugno 2016) 36-37.

Secular intellectual with a profound religious sensibility, Umberto Eco died in Milan on 9 February 2016. A man on whom his Salesian education left a mark, even after his decision to take a distance from the gospel.

Between the vine-covered hills and the gates of the city of Nizza Monferrato in the province of Asti, there is still the oratory where as a young boy during the Second World War he studied music, and which became a setting for one of the chapter of his novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. Why did a young man, who was one of the leaders of Catholic Action, who used to go daily to communion and weekly confession, who chose St Thomas for his thesis in order to defend faith rather than get a degree, decide to be an agnostic and then an atheist, is a mystery to be investigated. In every one of his works, however, there is always a strong reference to the sacred and to spirituality, conscious as he was that the religions are a part of human history, of society, of the world.

The meeting with don Celi

Those who are familiar with the Salesian charism know well that the only really effective “formula” in the work of education is the meeting with a genuine master who knows how to attract and to show the way. Eco found such a figure in Don Giuseppe Celi, director of the oratory of Nizza Monferrato, 54 years in the service of the youth of Nizza, a priest full of goodness and for the use he had made of the phrase of Don Bosco that “an oratory without music is like a body without a soul.” Celi had set up a band for the town and had been responsible for teaching Eco to play the “genis,” a traditional instrument very similar to the clarinet. Winning the heart of that boy who would be more than one on the verge of a Nobel Prize for Literature, don Celi became for him a guiding light, a direction, a flicker in the darkness.

The importance of the oratory

The Salesian youth ministry thus touched also one of the protagonists of the twentieth century. Eco called don Bosco “great revolutionary” for having created “a new way of being together.” “This genial reformer,” he wrote, “saw that the industrial society needed new ways of gathering young people and adults, and so invented the Salesian oratory, a perfect setting in which every channel of communication, from games to music, from theatre to the press, was given its with the most minimal of resources. The wonderful thing about the oratory is that it prescribes a moral and religious code to its participants, but then goes on to welcome even those who do not follow it.” With his natural gift of bringing together high and low culture, Eco would return again to the “project of Don Bosco,” saying that if it were to continue being effective it would have to find “someone or a group of persons with the same sociological imagination, the same sensitivity to the times, the same organizational inventiveness” as Don Bosco.

A restless searcher

Such are the reflections left to us about the Salesian world he had known in his youth by this man of narrative structures, of conceptual architectures, of the “library of Babel,” of vast yet rigorous learning. Philosopher, semiologist, medievalist, linguist, encyclopedist, professor, editor – these are just a few of the many roles of this multi-faceted man. A wonderful representative of the “Società dell’Allegria” of bosconian memory, where everyone was committed to search out and share little things that make life better, and where all that led to melancholy had to be banished. Eco enjoyed having fun and writing, learning and teaching – revealing himself, in those best sellers that are maps for understanding our time, to be a restless seeker.


“Apart from the religious experience of his youth – a background that he never wanted to forget, despite his profoundly secular spirit – there was in him the desire to see how one could live the experience of faith without having to renounce cultural curiositas. Always with great respect for theological and spiritual themes.” (Cardinal G. Ravasi, in an interview with Edoardo Castagna, Avvenire 21 February 2016)


Italian essayist, writer, philosopher, linguist. Authoritative student of semiotics, in which he saw the icon of an interdisciplinary knowledge, he is also a brilliant journalist and writer, author of numerous essays and some extremely successful novels, most well-known among which is The Name of the Rose (1980), a philosophical thriller in a medieval setting. (Enciclopedia Treccani)  

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