Had the Lord found an instrument less fit than myself, ready to put full trust in His Divine Providence, He would have chosen him in my stead and would have been served much better than by me. If the Lord had not helped me, I should now be nothing but an obscure priest in some mountain hamlet. – St John Bosco
Saint John Melchior Bosco was a man of bold courage; although his contemporaries tended to think him excessively outspoken and brash. Fortunately the Lord does not judge by the world’s standards, and St John Bosco, or Don Bosco as he is more fondly know, was just the instrument which God chose to use to found a religious family dedicated not only to helping and educating the young and the disadvantaged, but to journeying with them and sharing in their lives in a most familial way.
Born on August 16, 1815, in the small Italian hamlet of Castelnuovo d’Asti. he was the pride and joy of his parents Margaret and Francis. His father died when he still a toddler and his mother was forced to work long hours in order to support them. She would later remarry giving him two brothers, Anthony and Joseph.
As a child he worked as a shepherd, watching over his family’s sleep. In his free time he practiced magic tricks and jugglin and amazed his friends with his ability to walk tight ropes and to do acrobatics.
At nine he had a dream which was an indication of his future work. Don Bosco himself recounts
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 your 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 to 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.”
“Ask your mother.”
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, gentle, 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 had meant because I was so utterly 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. I was completely bewildered. Somehow my hands still seemed to ache and my cheeks still stung because of all the fighting. Moreover, my conversation with that Man and Lady so disturbed my mind that I was unable to sleep any longer that night.
In the morning, I could barely wait to tell about my dream. When my brothers heard it, they burst out laughing. I then told my mother and grandmother. Each one who heard it gave a different interpretation. My brother Joseph said, “You’re going to become a shepherd and take care of goats, sheep and livestock.”
My mother’s comment was, “Who knows? Maybe you will become a priest.”
Dryly, Anthony muttered, “You might become the leader of a gang of robbers.”
But my very religious, illiterate grandmother had the last word, “You mustn’t pay any attention to dreams.”
The little John Bosco understood his calling though, as did his mother; he would have to go to school to be able to become a priest. Father Calosso, his parish priest, recognized his exceptional intelligence and began tutoring him in Latin.
Anthony, his other brother, found it difficult to watch John go to school everyday while he, the eldest, went to labor in the fields all day long. His feelings turned into a deep resentment and eventually it became impossible for them to be able to live together peacefully. Margaret knew that this mean that John had to leave if he was to have any chance of continuing his education.
Margaret knew a family that owned a farm that was in need of a farm hand, so with some food and clothing, and his precious school books bundled under his arm, John headed to the Moglia farm where he obtained steady work.
In 1830 his beloved friend and teacher, Fr Calosso, died. As a result John had to return home. Margaret, in order to keep the peace, divided up the farm and gave Anthony his own share. For his part, John would walk three miles each way to school, and labored in different trades.
God was preparing little John Bosco to be a future teacher of the young, so even though he held many jobs such as an assistant in a blacksmith shop, a cobbler shop, and a tailor shop and worked as a waiter – jobs which would seem pointless in the life of a priest – he was learning so that he could share his knowledge with other.
The hardship and poverty of this time period cannot be enough emphasized. It was a time when child labor was common and abusive. John lived under a flight of stairs at one point, studying his school books at night after an exhausting day’s work using dim candle light. His shoes were worn, his meals poor, but he made many friends and studying was a luxury many children did not have.
With the support of his spiritual director and friend, St Joseph Cafasso, at the age of twenty John Bosco entered the seminary. He was noted for his piety, cheerfulness, and generous heart. Finally, after six additional years of study, on June 5, 1841 John Bosco finally became a priest at the hands of the bishop of Turin, and could finally be called by the Italian title “Don”.
Don Bosco celebrated his first Mass in the church of St Francis of Assisi in Turin, a place where he would often offer Mass after that. It was there that on December 8, 1841 he met a young and spindly Bartholomew Garelli, a local homeless boy.
Garelli had wandered into the sacristy seeking anything but religion. It was freezing out and he needed some warmth! The sacristan chased him out, but Don Bosco reprimanded the man and had him bring the boy, who was now terrified, back to him. Don Bosco’s kindness won the teenager over and soon he brought more friends to Don Bosco.
Don Bosco ended up offering Garelli and his friends food, games, and catechism lessons. They were attracted by his obvious love for them, paired with his talent for magic tricks and juggling. Their numbers grew so great that Don Bosco had to rent field after field as they often outgrew them or were kicked out for being too noisy; it became a “Wandering Oratory” as Don Bosco called it.
Soon others like Don Borel were attracted to his work with the young men who could be found begging, gambling, and loitering on every street corner of Turin. The government saw the boys as a nuisance at best and a threat to the order of the city at worst, and did nothing to help them. Young men who were lucky enough to find work labored long hours, in terrible conditions, and for little pay. Sickness and disease were rampant, often augmented by malnutrition. Their clothing was insufficient, their shoes most likely stolen and falling apart. Not only were most of them homeless, most of them were orphans coming as from as far as France and Sweden looking for work; they had little hope, no money, and no family.
Don Bosco realized that there, with those young men, was the answer to his dream as a nine year old boy. If only he could win their trust he could instill in them a sense of faith in God, but they needed not only spiritual bread, but literal bread for their stomachs. They were starving and he needed funds to take care of them. Don Bosco began to beg, knock on doors, preach, and plead with the people of Turin to help him to care for all of these boys.
Soon other helpers were added to Don Borel and Don Cafasso continued to encourage and guide him in his work. God always provided what Don Bosco needed to help the boys, even if it sometimes required a miracle (like multiplying food or money). Although his faith was extraordinary, Don Bosco always contended that he did not have enough. Workshops were opened and Don Bosco was able to pass on the trades which he had learned to his boys.
Don Bosco’s work with the young grew, and through many trials, assassination attempts (as some thought him a revolutionary opening workshops and not making the boys work more than eight hours a day; surely he was training an army to overthrow the government!), and frustrations, he was able to obtain a tract of land and a little shed to build a chapel in on the Pinardi farm. This soon became the motherhouse of the Salesian order, as the Oratory grew into a boarding and day school.
The name “Salesian” was first used in a conference with his helpers by Don Bosco on January 26th of the Marian year, 1854. During that year Pope Pius IX would declare the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and Saint Dominic Savio would join the Oratory.
During 1855 Don Bosco saw great growth in the work of his Salesians. The cleric Blessed Michael Rua professed his first vows in Don Bosco’s presence, and Father Pestarino founded the Daughters of Mary Immaculate in Mornese, who would later form the first Salesian Sisters. With the assistance of St Mary Mazzarello the Salesian Sisters professed their first vows in 1872.
After many small steps and great risks, the Salesian Congregation was finally formally approved by the Holy See on April 3, 1874. The remainder of Don Bosco’s life consisted of opening a house in Nice, France, sending missionaries to South America, and traveling to raise money for the building of the Basillica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin and of the Basillica of the Sacred Heart in Rome. The Salesian Family expanded quickly and in 1876 the association of his first helpers, the Salesians Cooperators, was finally approved.
In January 1888 Don Bosco took to bed with a fever. The doctors said that his body was completely exhausted. His spiritual children gathered around him, and his last words were ones that assured his Salesians that Mary Help of Christians was with them in their work. He admonished them to always love one another and to live in the Salesian Family Spirit.
Don Bosco died on January 31, 1888 and left behind 773 Salesian priests and brothers and 393 Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. He was canonized on April 1, 1934 by Pope Pius XI.