It is no surprise that teenagers have been canonized as martyrs. There have been many teenaged martyrs like fifteen year old Ponticus of Lyons (177 AD); sixteen year old Dojuko of Osaka, Japan (1597 AD); thirteen year old Kizito of Uganda (1886 AD). But a teenager canonized for heroic virtue rather than martyrdom, that’s another matter.
St. Dominic Savio is a modern youth who qualified.
Dominic was born near Turin, Italy in 1842, one of the ten children of a blacksmith. In the 1850s, St. John Bosco was beginning to establish in Turin his apostolate to homeless and neglected boys. Dominic’s pastor suggested to Don Bosco that Dominic might be a good aide. Bosco was, indeed, impressed when he met young Savio; so Dominic became in 1854 one of the first students in St. John’s new Oratory of St. Francis de Sales.
Though only twelve, Dominic already showed great personal and spiritual promise. He also demonstrated a fine spirit of leadership. In fact, he established among the “ragamuffin” students at the Oratory a group called the Company of the Immaculate Conception. In addition to having certain common spiritual projects, this group helped with the chores and assisted the priest in dealing with problem students. Interestingly enough, all the boys who belonged to Dominic’s “Company” joined the Salesian Fathers when Don Bosco founded that religious order in 1859.
Young Dominic, we say, had genuine gifts of leadership. He was active in the sports that were a part of Don Bosco’s educational regime. He had a cheerful, laughing disposition, and was a good storyteller, which especially pleased the younger boys. But he was also able to put a spiritual twist into his influence over the students.
One day two boys got into a bitter fight, and were at the point of throwing stones at each other. Dominic broke in between them and held up a little crucifix. “Before you fight,” he said, “look at this, both of you, and say, `Jesus Christ was sinless, and He died forgiving His executioners; I am a sinner, and I am going to outrage Him by purposely seeking revenge?’ Then you can start your fight – and throw your first stone at me!” It was a quick warning, and it worked. The fighters decided to make peace.
A bright boy like Dominic could have become stuck-up. That he did not is a tribute to St. John Bosco, who guided him well towards genuine holiness. He developed the art of self-denial, and God even granted him deep gifts of prayer. His whole program (one perfectly apt to a person of his age and situation) was to do as well as possible whatever he was called upon to do. “I can’t do big things,” he said, “but I want all I do, even the smallest thing, to be for the greater glory of God.”
If Dominic did not himself enter the Salesians in 1859, it was because God took him in 1857. The cause of his death was apparently tuberculosis. In his last hours of suffering, he was confused and delirious. Then suddenly he came to. He smiled and said, “I am seeing the most wonderful things!” Those were his last words. Pope Pius XII proclaimed him a saint in 1954.
Teenagers can be heroes. They have the idealism and good will. It’s up to us to give them the challenge.
–Father Robert F. McNamara