Saint John Bosco
It was the year 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte had just been defeated, but his iron grip on the Piedmontese area of northern Italy could still be felt. He had bled the country of all its natural resources. The people were left to their own devices to survive, or starve. Dead bodies were found strewn all over the countryside each morning, having starved to death the night before. It was hard times for the common people, who had nothing to do with the political upheavals of the day. But they were the victims. They looked for a place to begin again.
Masses of migrants descended on the big city of Turin, Italy. They had deserted their farms, fresh air, and the fragrances of the land, in exchange for the sweat and stench of close quarters in these newlyfound slums, all in the hopes of a new life. But some were still holding on to the lives, their families had lived for centuries in the little hamlets, the rolling hills of northern Italy. One of these villages, Becchi, was to be the birthplace of one of the most powerful men in our Church. On the day after the Feast of the Assumption in 1815, our Lady gave us a gift, in the birth of John Melchior Bosco, in this unknown place, which is still not on the map of Italy today.
He was born of strong peasant stock, Francis and Margaret. Theirs was a large household to feed. Francis’ invalid mother, as well as a son by his ﬁrst wife, plus John and his brother Joseph, created a major ﬁnancial burden on the young couple. The fruits of their land were not enough to take care of the family, so Francis worked at other jobs to bring extra income into the house. It was while he worked for a landowner that he contracted pneumonia and died. John was barely two years old. John always remembered his mother’s words, although he could not remember his father: “You have no father, Johnny.”
With the father and main breadwinner gone, many families would have fallen apart, but not the family of Margaret Bosco. She had been given special graces by the Lord, to hold onto and provide for her family’s welfare and growth. She used them. She took care of her bedridden mother-in-law, a step-son, and her own two children. She had the greatest inﬂuence on Don Bosco. While he has been given the honor of being among the Communion of Saints, his mother has to be right there next to him, sharing the glory.
The children were not spoiled in any way. It would have been impossible. Hers was a monumental task. There was no place for frills in their lives. Margaret believed that she was training her children for the difﬁcult world they lived in. They all worked hard. Simple proverbs like “Idleness is the devil’s workshop” guided her in every step of their upbringing. They ate little. They put up with all the hardships imaginable. But they became strong, physically and spiritually. John began working at four years old. The whole family pitched in with the housework. It was good training for the life John would live as a religious. We can’t help but think, Our Lady had a direct hand in raising John.
Don Bosco was gifted with many dreams, visions and prophecies, during his lifetime. Actually, it’s very difﬁcult to distinguish between them. We believe, his dreams were prophetic visions. There is a great deal of accuracy attached to Don Bosco’s visions, both for his time and for the Church of today. Penny and I always open our talks by focusing on one vision of Don Bosco’s in particular. We’ll talk about it later in the chapter. He actually became very famous, while he was still living, for the dreams, visions and prophecies he was given. In 1858, Pope Pius IX1ordered Don Bosco to write down all his dreams “word for word”, for the posterity of the community. Don Bosco experienced his ﬁrst dream at age nine. He wrote it down in his autobiography. It impressed him so much, he never forgot it. Years later, he could recount the dream exactly as it had happened. In his own words,
“When I was about nine years old, I had a dream that left a profound impression on me for the rest of my life. I dreamed that I was near my home, in a very large playing ﬁeld where a crowd of children were having fun. Some were laughing, others were playing and not a few were cursing. I was so shocked at their language that I jumped into their midst, swinging wildly and shouting at them to stop. At that moment, a Man appeared, nobly attired, with a manly and imposing bearing. He was clad with a white ﬂowing mantle, and his face radiated such light that I could not look directly at Him. He called me by name and told me to place myself as leader over those boys, adding the words,
`You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.’
“Confused and afraid, I replied that I was only a boy and unable to talk to these youngsters about religion. At that moment the ﬁghting, shouting and cursing stopped and the crowd of boys gathered about the Man who was now talking. Almost unconsciously, I asked:
`But how can you order me to do something that looks so impossible?’
`What seems so impossible you must achieve by being obedient and by acquiring knowledge.’
`But where, how?’
`I will give you a Teacher, under whose guidance you will learn and without whose help all knowledge becomes foolishness.’
`But who are you?’
`I am the Son of Her whom your mother has taught you to greet three times a day.’
`My mother told me not to talk to people I don’t know unless she gives me permission. So, please tell me your name.’
“At that moment I saw beside Him a Lady of majestic appearance, wearing a beautiful mantle glowing as if bedecked with stars. She saw my confusion mount; so she beckoned me to her. Taking my hand with great kindness, she said:
“I did so. All the children had vanished. In their place I saw many animals: goats, dogs, cats, bears and a variety of others.
“`This is your ﬁeld, this is where you must work.’ the Lady told me. `Make yourself humble, steadfast, and strong. And what you will see happen to these animals you will have to do for my children.’
“I looked again; the wild animals had turned into as many lambs, gently gamboling lambs, bleating a welcome for that Man and Lady.
“At this point of my dream I started to cry and begged the Lady to explain what it all meant because I was so confused. She then placed her hand on my head and said:
`In due time everything will be clear to you.’
“After she had spoken these words, some noise awoke me; everything had vanished.”
The next day, when he shared this dream with his family, everybody came up with a variety of interpretations of what the dream might have meant. However, his mother zeroed in on the message immediately. She said, “Who knows if some day he may not become a priest?”
John’s vocation was a foregone conclusion. Everybody knew, he was meant to be a priest. He had written that at age nine, he believed he was called to the priesthood. If there had ever been a doubt in any one’s mind, even his, it was wiped out, when he met his mentor and future teacher, Don Calosso. It was 1826. John was not yet eleven years old.
Keep in mind that John had never gone to school. He had a hunger to learn, especially anything that had to do with the Church. He had a brilliant mind, a photographic memory, and the ability to remember sermons. He had learned to read over a summer, but there was nothing else to challenge him intellectually in his surroundings. So when the opportunity to learn about Church was presented to him, he grabbed at it.
In the course of his pursuit for the priesthood, John Bosco learned and worked at more trades than a dozen men work, in a lifetime. At any time during his studies, he was a candymaker, shoemaker, restaurant manager, tailor and of course, his great love, a clown, acrobat and juggler. He excelled in everything he did. He probably could have taken up any of those trades and been successful at them. But his heart longed for the priesthood.
A moment of truth was to come for John Bosco. He ﬁnally reached a dead end, a brick wall, which he could see no way of overcoming. During his years of study, he could always work at these odd jobs we’ve mentioned, which gave him the money he needed to survive and pay for his education. However, once he entered the seminary, he would not be able to do that. There was no time, and he couldn’t leave the seminary to pursue part time work. He, quite honestly, didn’t know what to do. For the ﬁrst time in his life, he feared he might not be able to achieve his lifelong goal of being a priest.
Towards the end of his seminary days, John Bosco had another dream. It was similar to the one he’d had at age nine, only much clearer. He was in a great valley back home in Becchi. Abruptly, the valley turned into a large city, overﬂowing with young people. They were running, playing, shouting and cursing. His ears couldn’t stand the sounds of their cursing. He went over to them, in an effort to get them to stop. They wouldn’t pay any attention to him. Anger rose up in him. He began to shake some of them. They retorted by hitting him. He hit them back. Then he retreated; they were too much for him. He could actually feel the pain of his bruises, in his dream. As he ran away from the youths, a mysterious Man stopped him. He ordered him to go back to them. John just showed the Man all his bruises. The Stranger pointed to a beautiful Lady, who was coming closer to John. “This is my Mother. Listen to Her.” She looked at him, with eyes that bore deep into his soul. The warmth of her love mesmerized him. “If you wish to win over these boys,” she told him, “do not hit them; be kind and appeal to their better selves.”
He did as she told him, and another transformation took place. As in his ﬁrst dream, the children ﬁrst turned into wild animals, then into sheep and lambs. After he had wakened, John knew, this dream was the Lord’s way of afﬁrming the vocation, He had chosen for him, from at least age nine, and possibly from before he was born. John had only to say “Here I am, Lord. I come to do Your will.”
Saturday, June 5, 1841, was the ﬁrst Saturday of the month, Mary’s day. We have to believe that a Heavenly contingency, led by our Lord Jesus and His most special Mother Mary, were there at the forefront to congratulate their son, John Bosco, as he was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Turin. Nevermore to be called John or Johnny, (except of course, by his mother Margaret) he was given the title which he used the rest of his life, and by which he is famous the world over, Don Bosco.
He began to teach this boy catechism. At the end of an hour, he asked if he would like to return the next week? The boy answered yes. Don Bosco told him not to come alone; bring a friend. That was how it started. The next week, he had nine, and then twelve. Pretty soon, he was the pied piper of Turin. He had over a hundred children coming to him every week. Where was he going to put them? This became his battle cry for the rest of his life. He had too little room, and too little help.
Don Bosco brought these young people together each Sunday, for Mass and Catechism. But in addition, there was much fun, playing, picnics, a version of the acrobatics and juggling that the younger John Bosco had become famous for. It was relationship. It was someone caring about these young people, in a world where they were barely tolerated. They had street smarts. They could tell very quickly who was sincere, as opposed to who wanted to exploit them. And they reacted accordingly. They could see love in this young priest. He genuinely wanted to make their lives better. It was their souls he was after, but he was not beyond helping with their physical necessities in any way he could. He called the meetings Oratories6. To Don Bosco’s way of thinking, an Oratory was an actual building or complex, with a playing ﬁeld, classrooms and a chapel. But for many years, the Oratory only existed in his mind. However, Don Bosco was a man of vision, and great faith. He knew what he was being called to do, and the Lord would provide the means to do it. It was just that simple!
Don Bosco knew, there was only one way to combat this constant shortage in quality help. He knew he was called to begin his own Order. He had known it, from the year after he was ordained, but every time he tried to institute it, he was blocked. The timing was just not right, or the people were not right. In 1852, when he actually planted the seeds of what was to become the Salesian order, it was the worst possible time, not only to start a Religious Order, but to even consider priestly vocations. It was at the height of anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism in Europe. The Jesuits had been thrown out of Piedmont. An order of nuns were also ejected. The Bishop of Turin was living in exile in Lyon, France! Even Rome was cutting back on Religious Orders. They were seriously considering combining Orders, to make them more manageable and less troublesome.
So, naturally, this was the best possible time for Don Bosco to begin a Religious Order. If it were successful, no credit would be given to him, because it was an impossible task. Perhaps, that’s why the Lord blocked any attempt, before this time. People might have a tendency to give credit to Don Bosco, who was too famous for his own good, anyway, so they thought. He began with four. He brought them into his room on June 5, of that year. He really didn’t spell out what he had in mind. He asked for a commitment to work with him over a period of time; he wanted to train them for a special mission. They all agreed. This was the nucleus which formed the Salesian society, a year and a half later, in January 1854.
Don Bosco picked the octave of the feast of St. Francis de Sales, to have his young men formalize their commitment. He asked for a promise, which might eventually become a vow, which might lead to the priesthood. Everyone who agreed, was given the name Salesian, after the great Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales.
Don Bosco spent his entire life running at ninety miles an hour. In addition to working with hundreds of boys, running a school, running an orphanage, running a Religious Order for men, starting a Religious Order for women, plus a third order for laity, building churches, he managed to write some 130 books and articles. He was a bull of a man, who played football with his boys up into his late ﬁfties. And while we think his mind raced until the very end, his body began to give out. He never had any real ailments, until he was stricken with phlebitis.10 He had to have Salesians on either side of him, walk with him to keep him steady.
He couldn’t resist an invitation from Pope Leo XIII, to go to France and beg for money, for the completion of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Rome. Don Bosco was a great beggar. He had had a lifetime of experience at it. He had ulterior motives. His movement, the Salesians, had spread their wings into France and Spain and Don Bosco wanted to visit them. He could never afford to do it on his own. This way, he could beg for the Pope and visit his people. In January, 1883, the sixty-eight year old Don Bosco headed for France, by way of Nice. He was not aware how famous, he had become. Everywhere he went, huge crowds of people followed. By the time he reached Paris, the excitement had risen to fever pitch. A little girl was cured of a malignant tumor through his intercession, which hit the secular newspapers. The crowds were tumultuous! It was said that not that many people had turned out to see a priest, since Pius VII had visited Paris in the early part of the century. They knew they had a living saint in their midst. They called him, “The Italian Vincent de Paul,” which was a great honor. Needless to say, he collected more than enough money to ﬁnish the Church of the Sacred Heart in Rome.
Was Don Bosco on a roll, or did he know that his days were so numbered, he had better do all his traveling, as quickly as possible? It took him three years to gather enough strength to go back out on the road, but in 1886, he went to visit his congregation in Barcelona, Spain. A repeat of his French trip took place. Throngs of excited people greeted him wherever he went. Miracles, all of which he attributed to the intercession of Mary, Help of Christians, took place. He was a huge success. But he was fading fast. His doctors claimed he needed rest. He said that was the one thing he could not give them. When the doctors were asked, by the Salesians, what was ailing Don Bosco, they were told it was no great illness, or disease. He was just out of steam. He was like an oil lamp without oil. He had worn himself out.
During the last days, Don Rua, who had been chosen by Don Bosco as his successor, had all the brothers come into the death room to bid farewell to their father in faith. Though Don Bosco couldn’t speak anymore, and his right side was paralyzed, he blessed each of them.
On January 31, 1888, Don Bosco turned his life over to Jesus, through His beautiful Mother Mary. In 1934, forty six years after his death, Don Bosco was ofﬁcially raised to the Communion of Saints.
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