It was my privilege in 1934 to attend the canonization in Rome of St. John Bosco. The immense crowds in attendance testified to the great popularity of “Don Bosco”, this “modern” saint who had won such admiration in Italy and across the world as an educator of poor and rejected boys.
John Melchior Bosco was born in 1815 in Piedmont, northern Italy, the youngest son of a farmer. Losing his father when he was only two, John was brought up by his devout mother. Raising her family was a financial struggle, so the children knew the meaning of hardship.
Giovanni’s career would prove him a man of great administrative skill, but his gifts were not only natural but supernatural.
When he was only nine, for instance, he had the first of many vivid dreams that he firmly considered divine communications. In this first dream he saw himself in the midst of a crowd of fighting, cursing street-boys. He tried to calm them down, first by persuasion, then by flying fists. But a mysterious lady then appeared on the scene and said, “Softly, softly … if you wish to win them! Take your shepherd’s staff and lead them to pasture.” At that the boys in the dream turned into wild animals, then into lambs. Young John believed, from that moment on, that he was called to educate boys, not by harsh but by winning methods.
At once the nine-year-old started with the poor boys of his own village, gathering them together, teaching them catechism and bringing them to church. To attract them he learned acrobatic and “magic” tricks, and became adept at these attention-getters.
Desiring to become a priest, Giovanni entered the seminary of Turin. While a seminarian, he got permission of his superiors to work on Sundays among the neglected apprentices and waifs of that large city. During these years he met the future St. Joseph Cafasso, who was then the rector of a Turinese church. Cafasso dissuaded him from aspiring to the foreign missions. His calling, said the saint, was to be a missionary among city boys. Actually, Don Bosco would in the end become a true missionary by spreading his educational work begun at Turin all around the world.
After ordination, Don Giovanni began experimenting with a catechetical and recreational center for apprentices and poor boys, and also started a night school. When this center became overcrowded, he established two additional “oratories”. He also took in a few dozen homeless children. Next he launched a school, with workshops to train shoemakers and tailors, to which he gradually added cultural courses. By 1856 he had 150 resident boys in the school, plus 500 in the oratories. The money to build shelters for all these activities came from Heaven-knows-where.
Father Bosco had the marvelous gift of being able to control these lively pupils without any of the common methods of discipline, simply by positive means. Love, rather than formal punishment, was his secret. Meanwhile the young priest wrote many popular books, printed by the presses of his school.
Most of the work thus far was performed largely by Don Bosco himself, loyally aided by his mother. In 1859, to continue and expand his labors, he established a religious congregation called the Salesians, after St. Francis de Sales. By the death of the founder, the Salesians numbered 768, and they had already undertaken missionary work in other continents. Wherever they went, the Salesians, in addition to pastoral work, established schools at every level, trade schools in particular, printeries and bookbinderies, and hospitals. Don Bosco also established, in 1872, a religious order of sisters, the Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians.
Along the line, St. John Bosco had become noted as a preacher, and his reputation as a worker of miracles, especially healings, enhanced his influence both as an educator and a preacher. Because of his skill as a builder and financier of churches, Pope Pius IX entrusted him with the task of funding and building a church in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rome.
Thanks to his begging in France as well as Italy, Don Bosco succeeded in getting the church built; but he survived its dedication only nine months, dying on January 31, 1888. Forty thousand attended his wake in Turin, and all Turin, it seemed, took part in the funeral of this internationally important citizen.
“In his life,” said Pope Pius XI, who canonized Don Bosco, “the supernatural almost became the natural and the extraordinary, ordinary.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara