THE “DREAM” OF THE TWO COLUMNS

An Essay in Textual Criticism and Interpretation[1]


1. The Setting of the “Dream”
2. The Content of the “Dream”
3. The Interpretation of the “Dream”
4. Epilog

by Father Michael Mendl, SDB

1. The Setting of the “Dream”

On May 26, 1862, Don Bosco promised the boys of the Oratory, as he often did, that he would have “something pleasant” to tell them on the last or next-to-last day of the month[2] in his Good Night talk to the Oratory community. The Good Night is a Salesian custom that goes back to 1847, when it was initiated by Don Bosco’s saintly mother.

Not long after settling in at his own premises in Turin, Don Bosco realized that some boys needed shelter at night. He fixed up the stable. But his first experiences were not encouraging. He tells us in his Memoirs that some of these boys “repeatedly made off with the sheets, others with the blankets, and in the end even the straw itself was stolen.”[3] Then one rainy night in May 1847, a fifteen-year-old orphan showed up at the door, asking for food and shelter. Father John and Mama Margaret took him in, gave him a bowl of soup, and dried his clothes by the fire. Don Bosco spoke with him of his spiritual, educational, and employment state. After a while the boy broke into tears and begged for shelter, moving Margaret also to tears and affecting Don Bosco as well. The dialog in his Memoirs goes on this way:[4]

“If I could be sure you were not a thief, I would try to put you up. But other boys stole some of the blankets, and you might take the rest of them.” “Oh no, Sir. You need not worry about that. I’m poor, but I’ve never stolen anything.” “If you wish,” replied my mother, “I will put him up for tonight, and tomorrow God will provide.” “Where?” I asked. “Here in the kitchen.” “You’re risking even your pots.” “I’ll see that it does not happen.” “Go ahead, then.” The good woman, helped by the little orphan, went out and collected some bricks. With these she built four little pillars in the kitchen. On them she laid some boards and threw a big sack on top, thereby making the first bed in the Oratory. My mother gave the boy a little talk on the necessity of work, of trustworthiness, and of religion. Finally she invited him to say his prayers.

This boy was true to his word and became the first boarder in Don Bosco’s youth hostel, the first of hundreds. And Margaret Bosco had initiated a characteristic practice of the Salesian educational method. After night prayers, i.e., around 9:15 P.M., before the boys proceeded to their dormitories, Don Bosco or his representative would get up before the assembled community and address a few words to them—about a coming feast day, some happening in the house, some public affair, some advice based on the Bible or a saint’s life, etc., concluding by wishing them “good night.” Thus boys and Salesians alike were sent off to bed, and the monastic silence that would then pervade the house, with a good thought. This custom is still observed in our boarding schools and with modifications in many of our other works, and in our own communities.

It was usually in Good Nights that Don Bosco narrated his dreams to the boys. Whereas the Good Night was generally quite brief—Don Bosco said it should last only three minutes as a rule[5] —some of these dreams must have taken an hour to relate. Yet they were always anticipated with tremendous excitement, and if Don Bosco for some reason had to postpone the promised telling of a dream, the boys would give him no rest until he kept his word.

This context is important. With only a handful of exceptions, Don Bosco’s dreams concerned his boys and his Salesians. They were “not for external consumption.” He usually encouraged his listeners to discuss among themselves his words and their meaning as much as they wanted, yet very often he explicitly cautioned them not to repeat what he was about to say to anyone outside the house; outsiders did not know the intimate, fatherly atmosphere that reigned in the Salesian family, might misinterpret his words, might hold the Oratory up to ridicule. This was the case whether he was predicting that some pupil would die before a certain date or was telling of some mystical journey with his beloved sons that somehow revealed their hearts.

And so it was in a Good Night on Friday, May 30, 1862, that he finally delivered on his promise four nights earlier to more than five hundred lads and several dozen priests and seminarians, gathered under the porticoes where they said their night prayers in good weather. Father Lemoyne, of course, had not yet met Don Bosco and was not there. We have no version of the story in Don Bosco’s writing. What we do have are two independent letters to a Salesian lay brother, Frederick Oreglia, who was away from the Oratory at the time. Hence we have an solid record of the substance, but not a verbatim report, of what Don Bosco said.[6]

One letter was written the next morning, May 31, by a 20-year-old seminarian, John Boggero.[7] The other was written on June 5 by a 25-year-old layman, Caesar Chiala.[8] It is this second account that I will consider first.

Chiala had been coming to the Oratory for some twelve years. He worked for the royal postal service, was active in the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, taught catechism at the Oratory—which may explain his presence on the evening of May 30—and later became a Salesian. Chiala tells Oreglia he had not written sooner because he expected him back at the Oratory any day; he confesses that he can no longer contain himself, and he writes so hastily that he apologizes for his scribbling and corrections. That indicates that he made no preliminary draft and was writing from memory.

This letter’s special significance comes from what it tells us of the context of Don Bosco’s account of his “dream.” After night prayers, he says, Father Victor Alasonatti, Don Bosco’s vicar, came up to the little rostrum in front to give the Good Night. If Don Bosco had promised four nights earlier to reveal “something pleasant,” he probably had not been present on the three intervening nights, and on this night Father Alasonatti must not have realized that he was present at last. “When Don Bosco himself suddenly came forward,” Chiala says, Father Alasonatti yielded to him “and all the boys began to shout and cheer.”

Although Chiala does not use quotation marks for Don Bosco’s words, he does put them in the first person. It is obvious that he is not giving a verbatim account but only a substantial summary. Don Bosco began by saying, “It is too bad that amid such a happy welcome, I must open my mouth to punish a few who yesterday slipped over the walls and away from the Oratory.” Saints, even charismatic ones, may have discipline problems with their sons. Don Bosco then read out the names of the guilty boys and announced their punishment. The picture is the ordinary running of the Oratory boarding school: the father and his five hundred boys, including a bit of uncertainty at first as to whether Don Bosco was present, and a problem that Don Bosco considered a serious breach of discipline. To put it another way, the setting is entirely pedagogical. And that is the key to interpreting Don Bosco’s words.

2. The Content of the “Dream”

Finally Don Bosco announced, “I had promised to recount something to you.” “Yes, yes!” everyone exclaimed. “But it is a little late,” Don Bosco teased. Everyone groaned. Again, the familiar interaction of the father within his family. So Don Bosco began.

“Oh well, since you want me to tell you something, listen. I want to see whether you all have good heads. I will tell you a fable, a simile. Pay attention [and see] if you can understand it.” Chiala reports, “Complete silence fell over that group of more than 500 heads that shortly before had been deafening the stars with their noise.”[9]

Note that Don Bosco did not say, as he usually did, that he had dreamt what he was about to narrate, much less caution the boys to remember that dreams are only dreams, as he often did. He explicitly said it was “a fable, a simile.” (The first letter, John Boggero’s, omits all of this introductory matter. On the other hand, at the end of his letter he remarks to Oreglia, “What I think is that it is one of his usual dreams.”) The next earliest evidence of what Don Bosco said also uses the terms fable and simile. This evidence is from the daily chronicle kept by seminarian Dominic Ruffino, which is dependent upon Chiala’s letter. Father Lemoyne’s preliminary draft ordering all the materials from which he later constructed The Biographical Memoirs uses the same terminology, fable and simile.[10] The first document that calls this particular narrative a dream seems to be the final text of those Memoirs, in volume 7,[11] without explanation for the change, unless the explanation is Boggero’s closing—and evidently personal—remark, “I think it is one of his usual dreams.” This textual history, obviously, is not very convincing evidence for a dream.[12] One of our problems in studying Don Bosco’s life lies in what Father Lemoyne did with the text of his sources; [13] this is an example.

Therefore, on the face of it, Don Bosco is offering his boys and seminarians a parable, the kind of parable often termed an apolog. This is a term borrowed from scripture scholars, especially those who study the parables, and it means an allegory that teaches a moral. It is an apt term for what Don Bosco related on the evening of May 30, 1862, as well as for some of his other dreams, e.g., that of the snake—an obvious symbol of the devil—that was slain by a rope snapped over it, the rope then spelling out “Hail Mary.”[14]

Now back to Don Bosco’s words as reported by Caesar Chiala. “Imagine,” he said to us, “that you are on the seashore and see no other spot of ground except what is under your feet.”[15] Again, we have an indication of a parable. Don Bosco is always one of the protagonists in his dreams; he is not even in this adventure. While his boys very often have active roles in his dreams, he never tells them to “imagine” that they are actually doing or witnessing what he is about to describe. Here he is very much like our Lord telling the peasants of Palestine, “Listen! A sower went out to sow...” (Mark 4:1-12); or saying to Simon the Pharisee, “Two men owed a certain creditor,” one five hundred denarii and the other fifty, and since neither could pay, he forgave them both: “Which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:40-43). In fact, Don Bosco, like Jesus, will ask for an interpretation after he finishes his parable.

I’ll now give Don Bosco’s narrative straight through, as Chiala reported it:

On the whole surface of the sea you see an infinity of ships, all ending in a beak of sharp iron that pierces whatever it hits. Some of these ships have arms, cannons, guns; others have books and incendiary materials. All of them are thronging after a ship that is considerably bigger, trying to ram it, set fire to it, and do it every possible sort of damage. Imagine that in the middle of the sea you also see two very tall columns. On one is the statue of the Blessed Virgin Immaculate, with the inscription underneath: “Help of Christians.” On the other one, which is even bigger and taller, there is a Host of proportionately large size in relation to the column, and under it the words: “Salvation of believers.” From the base of the column hang many chains with anchors to which ships can be attached. The biggest ship is captained by the Pope, and all his efforts are bent to steer it in between those two columns. But, as I said, the other barks try in every way to block it and destroy it, some with arms, with the beaks of their prows, with fire from books and journals. But all their weapons are in vain. Every weapon and substance splinters and sinks. Now and then the cannons make a deep hole somewhere in the ship’s sides. But a breeze blowing from the two columns is enough to heal every wound and close up the holes. The ship again continues on its way. On the way the Pope falls once, then rises again, falls a second time and dies. As soon as he is dead, another immediately replaces him. He guides the ship to the two columns. Once there he attaches the ship with one anchor to the column with the consecrated Host, with another anchor to the column with the Immaculate Conception. Then total disorder breaks out over the whole surface of the sea. All the ships that so far had been battling the Pope’s ship scatter, flee, and collide with one another, some foundering and trying to sink the others. Those at a distance keep prudently back until the remains of all the demolished ships have sunk into the depths of the sea, and then they vigorously make their way to the side of the bigger ship. Having joined it, they too attach themselves to the anchors hanging from the two columns and remain there in perfect calm.

Let me turn now to John Boggero’s letter to Brother Frederick Oreglia, written the morning after Don Bosco’s Good Night. This seminarian had lived at the Oratory for more than six years and was one of the original twenty-two Salesians. Eventually he became a diocesan priest.[16] Regarding what Don Bosco said on May 30, he did something which many students, even seminarians, have done at one time or another: he wrote a letter during class. According to the letter, he began writing at 10:30 A.M. and wrapped it up as class was concluding at 11:00 A.M.; hence we may suspect some haste.

He agrees with Chiala that Don Bosco began by inviting all the boys to imagine themselves on a seashore. He differs in one detail: Don Bosco included himself. But since Don Bosco plays no further part in the action, this is insignificant. Boggero offers a number of minor details that Chiala does not, e.g., describing the beaks of the enemy ships as “sharp like an arrow” and telling us that the two columns were “not far from each other.” On the other hand, he omits some of Chiala’s details; he had said the beaks were of iron and pierced whatever they hit. These little variances are interesting, confirm that the accounts are independent, and do not affect the substance of Don Bosco’s story. Among the enemy weapons that Boggero lists are not only cannons, guns, and books but also “hands, fists, blasphemies, and curses.” The Pope falls the first time because he had been gravely wounded; Chiala did not give a reason. When he falls the second time, dead, “a shout of joy goes up among the remaining enemies.” Chiala was vague, only implying after the battle is over that some other ships had been allied with the Pope, if not actually fighting for him; Boggero notes that, once the papal ship is safely anchored to the two columns, “Then one saw many of the small ships, some that had fought for this one, others far away that had retreated for fear of the battle, scurry to the columns and attach themselves to those hooks and remain there all safe and secure.” Although Boggero puts Don Bosco’s tale in quotation marks and once, at the beginning, notes a change in his tone of voice, he, like Chiala, is really presenting only a substantial summary.

3. The Interpretation of the “Dream”

Don Bosco had introduced his fable or simile with a challenge: “I want to see whether you all have good heads. Pay attention [and see] if you can understand it.” It was not unusual for him to offer an interpretation of his dreams, to ask his listeners what they thought, or to engage in some dialog during a sermon. Having finished his tale of the Pope’s ship on the vast sea, according to both of our witnesses, he called upon Father Michael Rua [17] and asked him to explain the fable. Boggero, without quotation marks, summarizes Father Rua’s reply:

He said: It seems to me that the ship of the Pope is the Church, of which he is the head. The other ships are human beings, and the sea is this world, this earth. Those who were defending the Church are the good people, attached to the Holy See; the others are its enemies, who try to destroy it with every sort of weapon. And the two columns of safety are devotion to Mary Most Holy and to the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Don Bosco approved Father Rua’s answer and made one correction in his interpretation. He said “the enemy ships are the persecutions in store for the Church. What has happened up to now is almost nothing.” Then he bade the boys good night.

Chiala’s summary observes that Don Bosco made some suggestions in the interpretation, but unlike Boggero he is not specific about what they were. He furnishes a few more details or variants: the ships fighting the Church are “the powers of the world”; the Church “now and then suffers damages, symbolized by the holes made in the big ship by the weapons, but a breeze from the Almighty and the Blessed Virgin is enough to repair those damages, those losses of some souls.” In keeping with the view that this is a fable or apolog, Chiala presents the moral, presumably still paraphrasing Father Rua: “The moral, then, is that we have only two means to stand firm in this confusion, devotion to the Virgin Mary and frequent reception of the sacraments, striving in every way to venerate them and spread that veneration.”

Neither Father Rua nor Don Bosco commented upon the double fall and death of the Pope. According to Chiala, when Don Bosco came down from the rostrum he told seminarian Francis Provera that if he were asked about that another evening, he would comment upon it. So it was supposed to mean something. Chiala ventured his own opinions:

It seems to me that he wanted to indicate that the now living Pontiff will not see the end of these afflictions, will fall once from his throne but will return to it, and that peace will be restored to Christianity only under another Pope, who will succeed Pius IX right after his death. The ships at a distance, I think, would be the infidel nations who will draw closer to the faith.

Running out of space, Chiala closed by suggesting to Oreglia that if he wanted “a more genuine exposition” of Don Bosco’s words he should consult Father Rua and then confirm that report with Don Bosco himself.

Those are the primary sources for what we commonly call the “Dream” of the Two Pillars. I put Dream in quotation marks because, as we have seen, Don Bosco does not present it as a dream but as a parable. When he came to record it in The Biographical Memoirs, Father Lemoyne added a number of passages,[18] some significant and some not, including one in which Don Bosco called his tale a dream, reference to a storm, a fleet supporting the Pope’s ship, two papally summoned conferences of the captains of the allied ships, “indescribable rejoicing” on the enemy ships at the damage they do the Pope’s ship, and a conclave of the allied captains to elect a new Pope. It seems to me that a supporting fleet and several conferences of the Pope and his captains are significant, not just details that one or another source might have accidentally omitted. The principal ship is no longer the Church, but the Holy See, with a supporting fleet that represents either the Catholic nations or the local churches. The meeting of the captains on the bridge of the papal ship may easily be taken to be the First Vatican Council, still more than seven years in the future. But what of the second conference, which takes place under the same Pope? And where did this new material and come from?

Father Lemoyne states that he relied upon four documents: the Boggero and Chiala letters, the Ruffino chronicle, already mentioned, and a manuscript by Secondo Merlone, a seminarian in 1862 who later became a diocesan priest. Father Lemoyne says this last document was written “much later” after Don Bosco’s narration, but that is all he tells us of it, and it has not survived. It might be the source for some of the material that appears only in The Biographical Memoirs. In any case, Father Lemoyne insists, “All four narratives agree perfectly except for the omission of some details.”[19] Now, as was said above, some of the details that he introduces are not insignificant.

Father Lemoyne also tells us of a visit to the Oratory in 1886 of Canon John Bourlot, who had been a seminarian in 1862 and heard Don Bosco’s original narration. He retold the parable at dinner in the presence of Don Bosco and Father Lemoyne, and he placed a third Pope in the narrative. Canon Bourlot called at the Oratory again in 1907 and told the whole tale again, still insisting there had been three Popes.[20] Obviously Father Lemoyne did not accept that point. But it is possible that Canon Bourlot’s oral account, fresh in Father Lemoyne’s mind as he composed volume 7, gave rise to some of the unexplained details in the final text of The Biographical Memoirs. On the other hand, one needs to be cautious in accepting oral testimony twenty-four years after an event, the gap between Don Bosco’s Good Night and Canon Bourlot’s first relation of it in Father Lemoyne’s presence. If Don Bosco was there in 1886 to guarantee the Canon’s accuracy, he was not there in 1907, forty-five years after the original event.

It is unfortunate that we do not know on what authority Father Lemoyne added the details and substance that we cannot trace in the surviving primary sources, especially since some of them are not entirely consistent with the surviving sources. Without dismissing them categorically, a little skepticism about those particular details is appropriate.

Now what are we to make of Don Bosco’s parable? We must begin where he did, i.e., in 1862 in a pedagogical setting among his boys and his Salesians. The image of the Church as the bark of Peter was a common one that everyone understood. The storm-tossed sea is a readily perceptible image of the world and its dangers, and it appears often in Don Bosco’s dreams. The column with the Host on it is self-explanatory. The other column had a statue of Mary Immaculate, the focus of Don Bosco’s Marian devotion from the beginning of his Oratory on December 8, 1841, until this period, when his Marian focus was beginning to shift to the Help of Christians. This shift may have been inspired by an appeal of some of the Italian bishops to Mary as Help of Christians to come to the Church’s aid and perhaps by some recent alleged apparitions at a shrine to Mary under that title near the city of Spoleto.[21] “Help of Christians” was the inscription on the pillar; and that particular feast had just been observed on May 24. The Marian title “Help of Christians” originates in the Christian naval victory at Lepanto, October 7, 1571; the imagery of this apolog is suggestive of Lepanto. When an earlier enemy of the Church, Napoleon, had seized Pope Pius VII and taken him into exile, the Pope had returned triumphantly to Rome on May 24. Thus Don Bosco’s imagery of Church and Pope finding safety at the Help of Christian’s pillar fit Church history and also reflected current events.

What was happening in Italy in 1862? The Church was under grave assault on several fronts. She had been assaulted politically and militarily. King Victor Emmanuel II, Camillo Cavour, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and others in 1860 had united most of Italy into a single kingdom. Along with other territory, they had seized most of the Papal States, which had belonged to the Papacy for a thousand years; and it was no secret that Rome, which the Pope still held, was intended eventually to become the national capital. While we today realize that a minuscule state is sufficient to guarantee the Pope’s moral and spiritual independence, and his moral power is stronger without his being a temporal potentate, that was by no means clear in 1862.

The Church was also under assault religiously. Besides the 1855 Piedmontese law suppressing monastic orders, other laws had stripped ecclesiastical courts of a great deal of their authority, reduced the number of publicly observed religious holidays, eliminated Church censorship of the press and control of education, and established religious toleration, though nominally Catholicism remained the State religion. These laws were extended to other regions as they were incorporated into the kingdom of Italy. Except for the suppression of the monasteries and the seizure of their properties and goods, these steps amounted, basically, to separation of Church and State, a concept the Church did not formally accept until 1965. In nineteenth-century Europe it was still regarded as revolutionary and evil. That some evils did attend this separation is unquestionable.

The Church was under assault culturally. For several reasons public opinion began to turn anticlerical. The Pope had foreign backing in maintaining his hold on the States of the Church until 1860 and on Rome until 1870; the Austrian presence was particularly odious to Italian patriots. In general, the Italian hierarchy fought tooth and nail all changes in the social and political status quo. Without the check of Church censorship, writers of every sort, from patriots to evangelical Protestants to demagogs to smut-peddlers, were free to attack religion, popular devotion, the Church, the Pope, the bishops, religious life, church schools, and individual priests. The reader must have noted the presence of books and journals in the armament of the Church’s enemies in Don Bosco’s allegory.

Priests, bishops, and even cardinals who opposed the new regime were harassed, jailed, exiled. Catholics could well feel that the Church was undergoing a new persecution like the one inflicted by the French Revolution.[22]

Even Don Bosco and his Oratory were under assault. In the early 1850s he was subjected to several assassination attempts. By the 1860s these had stopped, but vile attacks in the anticlerical press took their place. Anticlerical politicians also set their sights on him, convinced that right in the national capital, Turin, he was conspiring with the Pope against Italy. From time to time his mail was intercepted, and eleven times in 1860 police officials showed up at the Oratory to search it, interrogate and intimidate staff and pupils, and ransack Don Bosco’s room and papers, looking for incriminating evidence. Naturally, they found nothing they could use—thanks not only to the Saint’s prudence and apolitical stance, but also to one of his dreams, which warned him before the first search. Don Bosco used the opportunity provided by the searches to speak to the officers of their souls. A few months after the “Dream” of the Two Columns, officials from the department of education would try to disqualify Don Bosco’s teachers and demonstrate that the Oratory school was teaching subversion, so that they might shut it down.

If we wish to interpret the Pope’s first fall in Don Bosco’s allegory, and then of his second, fatal fall, we might explain it this way: The first fall represented the temporary overthrow of the Pope’s temporal power during the Revolution of 1848, when Pius IX was driven into exile for about a year and Garibaldi, Mazzini, and their friends set up the short-lived Roman Republic. The fatal second wound might represent what many people could foresee in 1862: that the Church’s temporal power would be taken away completely in the future, as happened in 1870. From that “fatality,” a new kind of Church leadership emerged. This, of course, is a hypothesis. We do not have Don Bosco’s own explanation. Others might hypothesize that the Popes are personal figures: Pius IX, who would live until 1878, and Leo XIII.

To start speculating about the conferences of the captains allied with the Holy Father and the conclave that elected a new Pope takes us into Father Lemoyne’s interpolations in The Biographical Memoirs, and we tread ground even less certain because we are not sure that Don Bosco described those matters.

In any case, taking what Don Bosco unquestionably said, we have a Church and a religious house undergoing the storm of persecution. Don Bosco could easily have spoken directly to boys and Salesians about Divine Providence, the promise of Jesus that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, the power of the Eucharist, the protection of our Blessed Mother. And he did so constantly. But to use a graphic story or parable that would at least suggest to his hearers his well known dreams would be a more powerful teaching tool, like the unforgettable parables of our Savior.

Indeed, the imagery of the embattled Church, the sure piloting of the Holy Father, the safe harbor offered by Mary’s protection, the salvation assured by the Blessed Sacrament continue to appeal to us today. In the light of the pedagogical context and his words as recorded by the witnesses, I believe that is all that Don Bosco meant to convey. Saint John Bosco’s allegory is as timeless as the Church herself. In that respect, people who find in this dream or parable “a prophetic vision for our time” are on target.

Now, some have tried to make of this dream or parable “a vision of the Catholic Church in the end times... a vision that revealed how the Church would survive terrible persecutions sometime in the late 1900s.” I hope that the presentation above has already made it clear that such an interpretation is a baseless distortion. Moreover, there is no record that Don Bosco was the least bit interested in the end times or gave speculation about them any thought. His concern for his boys and even for police inspectors harassing his Oratory was always their individual salvation, their personal readiness for the inevitable judgment that comes immediately after death. This is a constant theme in his sermons, Good Night talks, and dreams and is the moral he draws from the episode he reported of the temporary raising of a dead boy back to life.[23] To attain salvation we must be aboard the ark of safety, which is the Church; Mary offers us her sure motherly protection at all times; the sacraments, particularly penance and the Holy Eucharist, are our means of salvation.

4. Epilog

Perhaps the idea that Don Bosco was predicting some apocalyptic battle between the Church and the powers of evil at the end of the twentieth century comes from a certain confusion that, regrettably, seems to be fairly widespread. People frequently call me or write with inquiries about Saint John Bosco. Now and then I’m asked about the dates on the two pillars in the sea. As the reader realizes, there are no dates.

How did dates get into this “Dream” of the Two Pillars, in some minds? My theory is that some people have come across two paragraphs that are found in volume 9 of The Biographical Memoirs. It is 1869, and Don Bosco has built the church of Mary Help of Christians at the Oratory, but the finishing touches have still to be done. Father Lemoyne writes:

...additional work on the Church of Mary Help of Christians was in progress. Each of the two belfries flanking the facade was to be surmounted by an angel, nearly eight feet tall, fashioned from gilded wrought copper, according to Don Bosco’s own plan. The angel on the right held a banner…bearing the word “LEPANTO” drilled in large letters through the metal, while the one on the left offered…a laurel wreath to the Blessed Virgin standing atop the dome.

In a previous design, the second angel too held a banner on which the figure “19” was drilled through the metal followed by two dots. It stood for another date, “nineteen hundred,” without the final two numbers to indicate the specific year. Though ultimately, as we have said, a laurel wreath was put into the angel’s hand, we have never forgotten the mysterious date which, in our opinion, pointed to a new triumph of the Madonna. May this come soon and bring all nations under Mary’s mantle.

Thus Father Lemoyne, in the published English translation.[24] I have checked it against the Italian original,[25] and one important phrase is missing in English: “In a previous design, which we have seen ourselves....” Father Lemoyne is fond of the editorial we. He means he saw it. Unfortunately, he does not specifically say that the original design was Don Bosco’s; he is explicit about that for the final design, the angels as they actually stand atop those two belfries. It is reasonable to suppose that the unused design, the second angel’s incomplete twentieth-century date, also came from our Saint; it would have been helpful if Father Lemoyne had affirmed it. But, despite archival searches, the original design has never been found, and no one besides Father Lemoyne ever claimed to have seen it. To say anything further about the design or the date is speculation.

If the first design originated with Don Bosco, did the mysterious date come from a dream? That’s possible, but that too is only speculation.

A little speculation, then. The date 19.. could be any date in the century. There is no reason at all to say it must be in the late twentieth century. There is no compelling reason why the mysterious date must be identified at all. But if one wishes to guess at it, he must look for something that would parallel in some fashion the event of Lepanto, signaled by the first angel’s banner. Lepanto was a victory for a Catholic alliance against the Islamic legions massing to invade Christian Europe in 1571. The victory was entirely unexpected, the result of good fortune, militarily speaking, and of a well-executed battle plan. It was attributed then and ever since to the power of the Rosary, to the assistance of Mary, the Help of Christians.

If the mysterious date came from Don Bosco, he chose not to publish it. But if one wants to speculate—and there is no harm in it—here is a reasonable hypothesis. The mysterious year has already passed us, and not very long ago. It was the year of a breathtaking, unexpected rush of events: the triumph of Solidarity in Poland’s first free elections, the liberation of the Soviet satellites all over Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall—events which presaged the collapse of the Soviet Union. That series of happenings is roughly parallel to the victory of Lepanto. Our Lady asked us at Fatima, before there even was a Communist Russia, to pray for Russia’s conversion. In 1989 we saw some of the visible fruits of our prayers.

That is speculation, and others can offer other ideas. Anyhow, that unused angelic design is probably where the incorrect and unfounded idea came that there were dates on the two pillars in the sea. There is no connection whatever to the two pillars. Hence the idea that the “dream” or fable of the two columns foretells a specific twentieth-century victory for the Church cannot be substantiated. The “dream” or fable is to be interpreted in its own nineteenth-century context, including its schoolboy audience. It offers very sound, timeless advice, like any good fable: in this case, the spiritual advice that our Blessed Mother is our helper and protector in this life against the assaults of our spiritual enemies; that our salvation comes from feeding on Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, sacramentally and devotionally; that the Catholic Church, piloted by the Successor of Peter, will guide us to safe harbor.[26]



[1] This essay is based on an address delivered to the Eucharistic Marian Congress at Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 11, 1997.

[2] Giovanni Battista Lemoyne, The Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco, trans. Diego Borgatello, vol. 7 (New Rochelle: Salesiana, 1972), 107. Cited hereafter as BM with volume and page.

[3] Memoirs of the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales from 1815 to 1855, trans. Daniel Lyons (New Rochelle: Don Bosco Publications, 1989), p. 313.

[4] Ibid., pp. 313-14.

[5] Il Sistema preventivo nella educazione della gioventù,” an appendix to Inaugurazione del Patronato di S. Pietro in Nizza a Mare (San Pier d’Arena: Salesiana, 1877), pp. 44-65, at 58 (this is a bilingual publication, with the versos in Italian and the rectos in French); reproduced in Giovanni Bosco, Opere edite 28 (Rome: LAS, 1977), [422-43] at [436]; Eng. trans. “The Preventive System in the Education of the Young,” an appendix in Constitutions of the Society of St Francis de Sales (Rome, 1985), pp. 246-53, at 250.

[6] I follow here Fr. Stella’s discussion of the sources: Pietro Stella, Don Bosco’s Dreams: A Historico-documentary Analysis of Selected Samples, trans. John Drury (New Rochelle: Don Bosco Publications, 1996), pp. 55-60, and the texts of the sources themselves, pp. 77-84.

[7] Manuscript in the Salesian Central Archives (at General Headquarters, Rome) 275 Boggero; Stella, Don Bosco’s Dreams, pp. 77-78.

[8] Manuscript in the Salesian Central Archives 110 Chiala; Stella, Don Bosco’s Dreams, pp. 78-81.

[9] In good weather night prayers were said under the porticoes around the Oratory courtyard.

[10] Giovanni Battista Lemoyne, Documenti per scrivere la storia di D. Giovanni Bosco, dell’Oratorio di S. Francesco di Sales e della Congregazione Salesiana (Archives 110 Lemoyne) 8:56-57; Stella, Don Bosco’s Dreams, pp. 82-84.

[11] Memorie biografiche del venerabile Don Giovanni Bosco 7 (Turin: Salesiana, 1909), 169; BM 7:107.

[12] The Salesian rector major, Fr. Egidio Viganò, also referred to this narrative as “the so-called ‘dream’ of the two columns” in a circular letter to the Salesians, “Our Fidelity to Peter’s Successor,” Sept. 3, 1985, Acts of the General Council 66 (1985), no. 315, p. 31.

[13] For more on this subject, the reader may refer to a separate Introductory Essay about Don Bosco dreams. [Note that this is also available on Bosconet]

[14] See BM 7:143-144, 146-148.

[15] This language is quite similar to that which Don Bosco used in delivering to the Oratory community the strenna for 1864, in which, also, he spoke of two columns representing the Eucharist and the Virgin—without a hint of a dream and with no narrative to speak of (BM 7:354).

[16] See BM 8:243-248.

[17] His eventual successor as rector major, beatified by Pope Paul VI.

[18] Memorie biografiche 7:169-71; BM 7:107-09.

[19] BM 7:109.

[20] Ibid., pp. 109-10.

[21] See Pietro Stella, Don Bosco: Religious Outlook and Spirituality, trans. John Drury (New Rochelle: Salesiana, 1996), pp. 155-69.

[22] In “Our Fidelity to Peter’s Successor,” p. 32, Fr. Viganò notes this context of assault, as well as in a later letter, “The Eucharist in the Apostolic Spirit of Don Bosco,” Dec. 8, 1987, Acts of the General Council 69 (1988), no. 324, pp. 49-50.

[23] See Lemoyne, BM 3 (1966):349-51, and Pietro Stella, “Don Bosco and the Death of Charles,” appendix to Don Bosco: Life and Work, trans. John Drury (New Rochelle: Salesiana, 2005).

[24] Lemoyne, BM 9 (1975), 276.

[25] Lemoyne, Memorie biografiche del venerabile Don Giovanni Bosco 9 (Turin: SAID, 1917), 583.

[26] In “Our Fidelity to Peter’s Successor,” Fr. Viganò used the “dream” to emphasize “the strict linkage which unites the figure of Peter’s successor with that of Mary,” loc. cit., pp. 31-34. In “The Eucharist in the Apostolic Spirit of Don Bosco,” he returns to the “dream” to stress the importance of the twin devotions to Mary and the Most Holy Eucharist.