Salesian Congregation Has Lost a Giant
by Fr. Mike Mendl, SDB
Fr. Arthur J. Lenti, SDB, passed from earthly life into eternity early on the morning of January 6. A member of the Salesian community of Bellflower, Calif., he had been hospitalized in nearby Downey. Fr. Lenti, affectionately known to his confreres as Arthur or Art, died 25 days short of his 99th birthday. He had been a professed Salesian for 81 years and a priest for 71 years.
Arthur was born at Bassignana in the Alessandria province of Piedmont on Jan. 31, 1923. His parents were Pietro and Maria. He attended high school in Penango, Italy.
Arthur entered the Salesian novitiate at Colle Don Bosco, the birthplace of our founder, in 1939 and almost immediately was sent to the U.S. He entered St. Joseph’s Novitiate in Newton, N.J., on August 15, 1939, and made his first profession there on Sept. 14, 1940. He spent the rest of his Salesian life as a member of the San Francisco Province.
Since it was the practice at the time that the novices took some college courses, Bro. Arthur graduated from Don Bosco College in June 1943 with a B.A. in philosophy, magna cum laude. He went to California for practical training (1943-1946) and did at least one year (possibly all three) at St. Francis School in Watsonville. With World War II ended, American Salesians were able to resume theological studies in Italy. Bro. Arthur was part of a large class of Americans who began their studies at the Salesian Pontifical Athenaeum (aka “the Crocetta”) in Turin in 1946. He earned a licentiate in theology, magna cum laude, in June 1950 and was ordained on July 2, 1950, in the basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin.
Fr. Arthur was sent then to the Pontifical Biblical Institute (the Biblicum) in Rome for three years of studies in Scripture. He came out in June 1953 with another licentiate, this one in Sacred Scripture, again magna cum laude.
Back in California, Fr. Arthur was assigned to the faculty of the Salesian theologate at Aptos, Calif., teaching sacred Scripture. His particular field was Old Testament, and he was a master of it and an outstanding teacher. After the closure of that institution in 1960, he received two assignments to Salesian high schools: Salesian High in Richmond, Calif. (1960-1962) and St. Francis School in Watsonville, Calif. (1962-1967). He filled the role of “catechist” during some of those years and, of course, teacher. The Salesian Directory for 1960-1961 also contains the interesting designation of “professor of pastoral institute” at Richmond.
When the Salesians of the 2 U.S. provinces decided to send their students of theology to the Pontifical College Josephinum (PCJ) in Worthington, Ohio (a suburb of Columbus), in 1967, Fr. Arthur was chosen to join the faculty there. For the next 8 years he taught the 3 Old Testament core courses (Pentateuch and history, prophets, wisdom) as well as elective courses. He was in high demand not only among the Catholic seminarians but also among the students of the Lutheran and Methodist schools that formed a theological consortium with the PCJ.
In 1975 the San Francisco Province called Fr. Arthur back to California to serve on the theological faculty for the province’s young confreres at Don Bosco Hall in Berkeley; the students enrolled in either the Dominican school or the Jesuit one. Within a few years the province converted Don Bosco Hall into the Institute of Salesian Studies (1984) for advanced studies in Don Bosco, Salesian history and spirituality, and related courses, open to confreres from all over the English-speaking world for a one-year program. He and Fr. Mike Ribotta were the heart of the program, joined by a varying team of confreres and FMAs from California and beyond.
At Berkeley Fr. Arthur demonstrated a depth of knowledge and understanding of Don Bosco that ranks him with such scholars as Fr. Alberto Caviglia, Fr. Pietro Stella, Fr. Francis Desramaut, and Fr. Aldo Giraudo. He and Fr. Ribotta worked to make the (normally) twice-yearly Journal of Salesian Studies “must reading” throughout the Congregation, publishing learned articles and reviews in every issue. Fr. Arthur contributed 26 articles in the Journal’s first 15 years.
Those JSS articles were based on his class lectures as well as his further research. They gave birth first to Don Bosco, His Pope and His Bishop: The Trials of a Founder (Rome: LAS, 2006), which studies the saint’s relationships with Pope Pius IX, who was very supportive, and Abp. Lawrence Gastaldi, who was not; and eventually to the monumental 7 volumes of Don Bosco: History and Spirit (Rome: LAS, 2007-2010), which has been translated into Italian, Spanish, and other languages.
Fr. Arthur explained: “I call this survey Don Bosco: History and Spirit because Don Bosco’s life and work were played out in the context of the fateful events that created a new religious and political world, and thereby also shaped his thinking and action; ‘Spirit’ because through discernment, interpretation and acceptance he discovered the meaning of this new world and courageously responded to its challenges: his vocation.”
The Spanish Jesuit review Miscelánea Comillas of Comillas Pontifical University spoke highly of the first volume of the Spanish edition of Don Bosco: History and Spirit (eventually completed in 3 volumes). William Rodriguez Campos, author of the review, recommends Fr. Lenti as a historian who is able to identify the main thread uniting human events, and record them objectively. Fr. Lenti does this in masterly fashion as he presents the life and work of St. John Bosco. “The first two chapters dedicated to a study of the sources and the biographical tradition concerning Don Bosco are jewels of inestimable value for historians, social scientists, and researchers,” Prof. Rodriguez declares.
Using a hermeneutic approach, Fr. Lenti identifies, evaluates, compares, and often corrects documents and interpretation regarding Don Bosco that formerly were considered indisputable. He forcefully and in a definitive manner combats myths and superficial views. The reviewer concludes: “This is an extraordinary work, full of topics and themes, an excellent and successful effort uniting harmoniously a realistic view of the life and work of Don Bosco and his genuine religious motivation.” (ANS 7/11/2012)
Fr. Arthur also lent his learning to an introduction to the first edition of Dreams, Visions and Prophecies of Don Bosco (1986), edited by Fr. Eugene Brown. Not happy about how Don Bosco’s dreams, especially the one called “the two columns,” were being misinterpreted and misused in certain circles, he withdrew that introduction from the second printing (2000).
On January 25, 2008, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, conferred an honorary doctorate on Fr. Arthur J. Lenti, SDB, in recognition of the outstanding contribution of his scholarly work to the study of the life of Don Bosco, as well as in recognition of Fr. Lenti’s many years of service to the Church and the Salesian Society as an educator and writer.
With Fr. Aldo Giraudo at the Dominican School honors, 2008
At his 95th birthday (2018), Fr. Arthur was feted with a grand party in Los Angeles, including the presentation of “a very special surprise”: what in academia is often called a festschrift, entitled Arthur Lenti: Memory, Presence and Hope. It contains a biographical interview with him touching on his vocation and formation as a student of the Bible and as “a Salesian historian, his perspective on Salesian studies, and a number of messages that he offers to all those who share the Salesian mission,” as well as appreciations from various SDBs (ANS 2/13/2018)
At this 95th birthday party, Fr. Arthur inspects a copy
of the book in his honor. Fr. Tom Prendiville is to his right.
Beyond his scholarship, Fr. Arthur was treasured by countless confreres, students, and friends who appreciated not only his vast learning (in numerous fields beyond Scripture and Salesianity) but also his friendliness, cordiality, and generosity. Fr. Tim Ploch, one of his students at the PCJ and later his provincial in California, compliments his total dedication to the Word of God and to St. John Bosco and compares him to St. Francis de Sales as a scholar and a gentleman. The author of this obituary notice was Fr. Arthur’s student at both the PCJ (1974-1975) and Berkeley (1985-1986), and found in him a wonderful friend and mentor.