St. John Bosco: Father and Teacher of Youth
(16 August 1815 – 31 January 1888)
It was an ordinary day. John Bosco, the newly ordained priest was in his first weeks of his priestly ministry. He was preparing to celebrate Holy Mass in a little church in Turin, a city in northern Italy. Father Bosco heard commotion just outside the sacristy. When he peeped through the window he saw the sacristan roughly handling a youngster who refused to assist Mass. Because he did not know how to serve Mass. With his solemn vestments Father Bosco rushed to the scene to rescue the timid boy.
The sight of a kind priest brought ease to the little lad and he had an unusual statement. The priest told the sacristan, “Why do you mistreat my friend.” But the angry man retorted, “Don Bosco, how can an ignorant and uncouth boy like this one can be a friend of a priest?” Father Bosco placing his hand on the boys shoulder and gained his confidence and he asked him to see him after the Mass.
After the Mass the jovial priest asked the boy, “Do you know how to whistle?” The boy blushed brightly and loudly showed his expertise in whistling. “What is your name and who are you?” asked Don Bosco. The boy said he is Bartholomew Garalli and he came to the city looking for job after having abandoned by his parents. Don Bosco took him to his residence and knelt down with him and recited the little prayer ‘Hail Mary’. He agreed with him to teach him catechism and Garelli could visit him often.
Don Bosco would muse about this incident as the beginning of his ministry with the poor and abandoned youth. Garelli became a starting point to work with young people who are in need of material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual help. Indeed God blessed the work of his hands. Today the sons and daughters of St. John Bosco (or more commonly called Don Bosco, meaning Father Bosco) numbering over 30,000 work in over 130 countries leading the youth to God in the youth offering them pastoral and educational services.
St. John Bosco was born in a little village near Turin, Italy in the year 1815 to a poor peasant couple. The family was pushed to an extreme poverty due to the premature death of the father. Though very intelligent Bosco lacked means to go to school. From his early childhood he had an exordinary liking for young people. He enjoyed their company and loved them to death. God also gave him many gifts of nature and grace. From his early childhood he was a musician, an acrobat, a story-teller and a handyman who could put his hands in anything.
As a little child he could gather around him numerous children and kept them mesmerised with his captivating stories and amazing tricks and acrobats. The only condition to be around him is they ought to pray rosary with him and listen to the re-telling of the Sunday sermon he heard in the church. After his adventurous acrobats little John Bosco would come home with injuries and his mother would advice him not to play with mischievous children of the village. The little boys quick reaction would be, “Mother, please do not stop me from being with these children, because, when they are with me they behave well and they do not offend God.” God instilled in John Bosco early in life love for youth and called him to dedicate his life for their welfare.
In spite of immense poverty of the home John Bosco never lost the thought of becoming a priest. His experience of losing his father and struggling of basic things in life only motivated him to work for the abandoned young people. Furthermore he was motivated in a dream at the age of nine in which Jesus and Mary appeared to him and told him that youth are the field of his mission. He never lost sight of this exordinary intervention of God.
After much struggle in education eventually he was ordained a priest in 1841 and went through a period of pastoral preparation to work for the young. It was during this period he met the little boy Bartholomew Garelli and started his pastoral work among the young. Later in life he would write that ‘my mission with the young started with one boy and with one Hail Mary.’ Once again he struggled to find a suitable place and enough means to care for the young and put up his house which he called “Oratory”, meaning a place of prayer. It was again a moment of trail and discernment of pastoral mission. He moved from place to place with young boys finding a place to settle down.
But every moment of difficulty for him was a special moment of God’s inspiration and revelation. During this period of ‘wandering oratory’ he fell seriously sick and his helpers feared for his life. When he recovered and experienced the great love that his young boys showed him. They had asked God to take their life rather than their Spiritual Father. Having moved by the great love of his boys, he said, “For you I study, for you I work, for you I live and for you I am ready even to give my life.” He understood that giving his life for young people is surely his path to holiness.
As Don Bosco’s works grew, more priests and lay helpers came to help him. Though they came from different sections of Italy, they soon realized that Don Bosco had an educational system of his own, which he called “the preventive system.”
Essentially it means to prevent a boy from becoming bad. It is based on Christian charity. Its double foundation is reason and religion: in other words, a sense of understanding between teacher and pupil, engendered by daily contact, friendly chats, and an interest that is felt; and secondly, a sense of religion fostered by the sacraments of confession and holy communion. According to the saint, where other systems of education have failed, this system of kindly understanding and manly, sincere religion has more than succeeded.
The system is not new, though in Don Bosco’s hands it achieved a freshness all its own. While it compensates for errors committed by youngsters, who are often changeable and always forgetful, it does not condone the errors; instead, it uses them as steppingstones to the formation of a solid character, permeated by Christian principles of Christian character. The Salesians in their establishment try their best in following this principle and it does bear fruit.
Witnessing the initial success of Don Bosco’s work Pope Pius IX asks him to begin a religious congregation so as to consolidate his work and ensure the continuation of this much needed youth ministry. Thus the Salesian Society began, which later was named, “Salesians of Don Bosco.” In 1875 he selected the best of his sons and sent them to Argentina for missionary work, thus beginning the great expedition of Salesian Missions. With God’s grace it the society stands as the largest missionary society.
Though being involved in enormous activities Don Bosco was a man of prayer. He was able to temper his activity with deep, ceaseless, and fervent piety. In fact, the energy of his work came from this carefully tended fire of prayer in his soul. And God rewarded him in a wonderful way. Toward the end of his life, his prayers wrought miracles. His blessing carried astonishing powers. Sometimes he was seen rising in ecstasy during the Mass. But, with characteristic humility, he labored to feed his ministry with prayer; so much so that Pope Pius XI said of him that he prayed every moment of his life. Subsequent Popes honoured his holiness as ‘Holiness made simple’. The youngest saint Dominic Savio is the product of Don Bosco’s method of work.
Having spent all his energy for the youth, for the congregation and for the universal Church he was completely worn out. He died on 31 January 1888 leaving a great legacy. His ideals, his spirit, his constant activity continues through his sons and daughters. On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1934, Pope Pius XI declared Don Bosco a saint; the Pope styled him “a giant of sanctity.”
Feast Day on: 31 January.