Feast Day: 31 January
John Bosco, also known as Don Bosco, was born in Becchi, a village near Turin in northern Italy, on 16 August 1815.
He came from a family of poor farmers, the youngest son of Margherita and Francesco.
When he was only two years of age John lost his father.
His mother, with sacrifice, tenderness and energy brought up John and two other sons, Antonio and Giuseppe. Mamma Margherita, as she was also called, played a strong role in John’s formation and personality; she taught her children to pray from a young age, to have faith and live according to the Gospels.
From his mother, John learned to see God also in other faces, those of the poor or those of the miserable ones who came knocking at the door of the house during winter – to whom Margherita gave hot soup and help.
The Prophetic Dream
At the age of nine John had a great dream, which marked the course of his entire life. This dream revealed to him the mission to which he was called: he saw a multitude of very poor boys who played and blasphemed and he started fighting to stop them. At that point, a Man of majestic appearance told him: “With meekness and charity you will conquer these your friends” and a Lady just as majestic added: “Make yourself humble, strong and robust. At the right time you will understand everything”.
The years that followed were directed by that dream. He saw an indication of a road to life and an inspiration to become a priest.
During his education to become a priest, John showed excellent memory and intelligence. But that was not all – he also had great capacity for entertainment, which he used to bring the kids closer to prayer and to listening to Holy Mass.
When the visiting performers’ trumpet announced a local feast in the nearby hills, John went and sat in the front row to watch them and learn magic tricks and acrobatics. He studied the jugglers, tricks and the acrobat’s secrets.
One Sunday evening, John gave his first performance in front of the kids from the neighbouring houses. He performed balancing tricks with pots and pans on the tip of his nose. Then he jumped up on a rope strung between two trees and walked on it, applauded by the young spectators. Before the grandiose conclusion, he repeated for them the sermon he heard at the morning Mass and invited all to pray. The games and the Word of God began transforming his little friends, who willingly prayed in his company.
John understood that to do good for so many boys he needed to study well, even if this required an economic effort that he could not afford. However, he found a priest willing to provide him with some teaching and a few books.
John’s older brother Antonio did not approve that his brother, instead of working, studied and became angry with his brother making it so difficult to live together. John was undeterred, so his mother was forced to remove him.
John was only 12 when he departed and went to work and study in Moncucco, first on the Moglia farm for three years, and then with the local priest Don Calosso, who died a year later, leaving John without accommodation, forcing him to go back home.
He laboured for two more years before he met Jospeh Cafasso, a priest who was willing to help him. Cafasso himself would later be recognized as a saint for his work, particularly ministering to prisoners and the condemned.
Becoming “Don Bosco”
At the age of twenty, John took one of the most important decisions of his life: to become a priest. He entered the seminary of Chieri where, after six years of intense studies, on 5 June 1841, the archbishop of Turin ordained John Bosco a priest.
In Italy, priests are called “Don”, followed by their family name, so John Bosco became Don Bosco as we refer to him today.
Now Don Bosco was finally able to dedicate himself full-time to the abandoned boys he had seen in his dreams. He went to look for them in the streets of Turin.
On those first Sundays – says young Michael Rua, one of the first boys he met in those first months – Don Bosco went through the city to become aware of the moral conditions of the young. He was shocked. The outskirts of the city were zones of turmoil and revolution, places of desolation. Unemployed, sad and ready-to-do-anything adolescents caused problems on the streets. Don Bosco could see them betting on street corners, their faces hard and determined, as those who are willing to try any means to make their way through life.
He went into the streets and started to meet young men and boys where they worked and played. He used his talents as a performer, doing tricks to capture attention, then sharing with the children his message for the day.
Those boys on the streets of Turin were a consequence of an event that was upsetting the world: the Industrial Revolution. Started in England, it quickly crossed the English Channel and went to the South. It brought a level of well-being never thought of in previous centuries, but it would be at a very high human cost: the labour question, the clusters of poor families on the outskirts of the cities, immigrated from the countryside in search of a better life.
Boys in prison
But Don Bosco met the most dramatic situation when he entered the prisons.
While visiting the prisons, Don Bosco noticed a large number of boys, between the ages of 12 and 18, in deplorable conditions.
He wrote: “To see so many boys, from 12 to 18 years of age, all healthy, strong, intelligent, insect bitten, lacking spiritual and material food, was something that horrified me”. In the face of such a situation he made his decision: “I must, by any available means, prevent boys ending up here”.
There were 16 parishes in Turin. The parish priests were aware of the problem of the young but they were expecting them to go to the sacristies and to the Churches for the required catechism classes. They did not realize that because of population growth and migration to the city this way of doing things was inefficient. Don Bosco realized that it was necessary to try new ways, to invent new schemes, to try another form of apostolate, meeting the boys in shops, offices, market places.
The dream realized: the Oratory
The main contribution to the youth was the Oratory: this was not simply a charitable institution and its activities were not limited to Sundays, but it was a full-time youth centre for abandoned boys.
Don Bosco met the first boy, Bartolomeo Garelli, on 8 December 1841, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. While Don Bosco was vesting for Mass, he heard the sacristan argue with a boy. Don Bosco heard his cries and recalled him and, realising how lonely this boy was, he started taking care of him.
After Bartolomeo, many other boys in the same conditions came to request Don Bosco’s help. They were pavers, stone-cutters, masons, plasterers who came from faraway places. But they did not have sleeping quarters and slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories, so Don Bosco provided lodgings in his house. In a short space of time, the number of boys became very significant and Don Bosco was forced to look for a new accommodation in Valdocco in 1847.
For Don Bosco the oratory became his permanent occupation and he looked for jobs for the ones who were unemployed. He tried to obtain a fairer treatment for those who had jobs and he taught those willing to study after their day’s work.
In the first months, money became a dramatic problem for Don Bosco. It would remain a problem throughout his life. His first benefactor was not a countess, but his mother. Mamma Margherita, a 59 year old poor peasant, had left her house at Becchi to become mother to these poor boys. To be able to put something on the table, for them to eat, she sold her wedding ring, her earrings and her necklace, things which she had kept jealously until then. The boys sheltered by Don Bosco numbered 36 in 1852, 115 in 1854, 470 in 1860 and 600 in 1861, 800 being the maximum some time later.
The dream becomes mission
In the following years, Don Bosco, working almost to exhaustion, accomplished many imposing works.
Some of these boys decided to do what Don Bosco was doing – that is, to spend their lives in the service of abandoned boys. Therefore, in 1859 he selected and formed them into the “Society of St. Francis de Sales” and this was the origin of the Salesian Congregation. This religious order was divided into priests, seminarians and lay brothers. Among the first members were Michael Rua, John Cagliero (who later became a Cardinal) and John Baptist Francesia.
Besides the Salesians, he founded the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians and the Salesian Cooperators. He built the Sanctuary of Mary Help of Christians at Valdocco and founded 59 Salesian houses in six nations. He started the Salesian Missions in Latin America, sending Salesian priests, brothers and sisters. He published a series of popular books for ordinary Christians and for boys. He invented a System of Education, called Preventive and founded on three values: Reason, Religion and Loving kindness.
Very soon people saw in it an ideal system to educate the young. When somebody would tell Don Bosco the list of the works he performed, he would interrupt the person and immediately say: “I have done nothing by myself. It is the Virgin Mary who has done everything”. She had traced out his road in the famous dream he had when he was nine.
Don Bosco died on 31 January 1888, at dawn. To the Salesians who were keeping vigil around his bed, he said in a whisper these last words: “Love each other as brothers. Do good to all and evil to none… Tell my boys that I wait for them all in Paradise”.
Don Bosco was beatified by Pius XI in 1929 and canonised by him at Easter (1 April) 1934.
John Paul II called him “Father and teacher of youth” for his pedagogy, summarised in the “Preventive system”. Don Bosco, one of the most beloved saints in life, is still today one of the most invoked and popular for the graces that are obtained incessantly by his intercession.
Why Saint John Bosco is important
A reflection from someone in our young Catholic community
Throughout my life I’d heard many times of St. John Bosco, especially about the oratory and in the context of entertaining young people with games, music and dance.
However, I never really focused on Don Bosco as a real person and saint. I used to separate the oratory from Don Bosco; I knew that the two concepts were fully related, but I wasn’t aware of the reasons for it.
Only after many years – particularly after my studies – did I realize how the two things are linked and associated, like a binomial, where one could not disregard the other. In other words, that Don Bosco was the oratory!
Don Bosco cannot be seen and thought without youth, without his educational commitment. There is a vital link that unites him to the young: the passionate mission towards them.
Reading and studying his life, works and teachings, I came closer to him, more interested in his mission and spirituality, so much so that I started identifying myself in him and became inspired by him.
I realized the many things I had in common with him: first of all, the love for the little ones, the poorest and the weakest; secondly, the devotion and commitment to make the life of these young people easier and happier; the attitude of listening; last but not least, the humility.
Among the various obstacles that life had reserved for him, with perseverance and also thanks to Divine Providence he managed to persist and achieve his goals.
Also in my life as a teacher, I encountered several obstacles, young people marginalized by society, where family members or teachers were not always supportive. It was precisely there that I made Don Bosco’s teachings central in my life and I understood that his method, his approach would have been the only one effective.
Therefore, a simple frontal lesson became a dynamic, interactive lesson – not just notions but examples, not just doctrines but games, riddles, prizes and recognitions. This is how the path of the teaching, that I initially thought was presented to me as random in my life, had turned into a blessing and a vocation. Yes, because being a teacher for me is not a job but a call.
Very significant to me was seeing with my own eyes the places where St. John Bosco lived and worked: Turin, his city; Valdocco, where he taught and worked with young people; the church of Maria Ausiliatrice, that Mary herself asked Don Bosco to build and in which you can still see and live the Salesian spirituality and where the bodies of the first Salesian saints, including John Bosco, lie.
I owe so much to St. John Bosco, because he made me clearly understand the purpose of my life and strengthened my faith.