John Bosco was born into the hardship that was all-too familiar for Italian peasants of the 19th Century. His Father died when John was two years old, leaving his mother to raise the family. When John was nine he had a dream that revealed to him his vocation, specifically his apostolate to help poor and troubled boys.
Name: John Melchior Bosco
Born: 16th August AD 1815; Castelnuovo d’Asti, Kingdom of Sardinia
Died: 31st January AD 1888; Turin, Kingdom of Italy
Feast Day: 31th January
Patron Saint of: Students; youth; apprentices; stage magicians.
Even as a youth he used acrobatics and magic tricks to win the attention of crowds of boys and would then set about teaching them catechism, or encourage them to join him in coming to Mass. When at sixteen, John entered the seminary he was so poor that everything including his clothes and shoes had to be provided for by charitable donations. This lived experience of poverty gave him a deep sensitivity to the privations and dignity of the poor whose needs materially and spiritually he continually sought to alleviate.
Once ordained a priest, ‘Don Bosco’ sought out the poor and neglected youths of Turin and began a new community, many of whom he took into his home, with the assistance of his mother who acted as housekeeper. At one point there were up to forty boys staying in his care and he worked to set them up with apprenticeships or work. He opened numerous workshops that would train the boys in various trades from which they could make a living and break the cycle of poverty. Don Bosco cared greatly for the health and material well-being of his boys, but above all else he thought of their spiritual well-being.
As the needs of the apostolate grew, he began to understand that God was calling him to establish a new congregation to continue and expand this work. The nucleus of this new order was established in 1854 and by 1859 he had attracted 22 companions who called themselves ‘Salesians’ after their patron, St Francis de Sales (last week’s Saint of the Week). Following the pastoral approach of the great bishop of Geneva, Don Bosco knew that indefatigable charity was the surest way to win the souls of his flock. Many of the poor boys were rowdy, uncouth, ignorant, and in much need of reforming. Don Bosco, though necessarily strict in his discipline, was always kind, encouraging and fatherly – his aim was to elevate them to reach their full potential in this life and to become saints for the next. He inspired genuine piety and holiness in many of the boys, the most famous of whom is St Dominic Savio, who died at the age of fourteen. Don Bosco wrote a biography of Dominic Savio thoroughly convinced that the boy was a saint (he was canonised in 1954).
In spite of (or because of) Don Bosco’s success in his apostolate he attracted the hatred of the secularists, Socialists and Free Masons who were jostling to sieze power in the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, and saw that with effective leaders like Don Bosco, the Catholic Church posed a serious obstacle to their political aspirations. There were multiple attempts on his life by paid assassins. Among the near escapes, were those occasioned by a mysterious, grey dog, whom Don Bosco called ‘Grigio.’ No one knew who owned the dog but it become Don Bosco’s unofficial bodyguard. Grigio would frequently appear out of nowhere with inspired timing on many of the occasions of the attempted assassinations, by either alerting Don Bosco to the danger or pre-emptively attacking the would-be assassins.
Throughout his life Don Bosco received vivid dreams in which future events would be revealed to him. After such dreams he would gather his boys together to recount what he saw. On some occasions he knew through his dreams that certain individuals were going to die unexpectedly and he sought to warn them to prepare well by going to Confession and Holy Communion. Don Bosco was not just a dreamer; he was also a man of action. Together with St Maria Mazzarello, he founded the Institute of the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, a congregation of nuns dedicated to the education and care of poor girls, as a counterpart to his own work with poor boys. Early on he had established his own printing press, by means of which he published his own writings and the Salesian Bulletin. He was a prodigious author of books and shorter tracts (under some 220 titles). He oversaw the construction of three major churches in Turin and Rome. All of this endless activity had destroyed Don Bosco’s health and he died at the age of 72. Such was the reputation of this saint, that some 40,000 faithful filed past Don Bosco’s coffin as he lay in state, and his funeral in Turin was attended by similarly vast crowds. He was canonised in 1934 and given the title “Father and Teacher of Youth.” At a time when the youth seem to be especially disengaged from the faith, we pray that with the inspiration and intercession of St John Bosco, the Church can take up anew this important apostolate.
St John Bosco, pray for us!