Saint John Bosco (1815-1888)
Getting to know ‘the man’
St. John Bosco, the marvel of the 19th century, is remembered as a man who dedicated his life to the service of abandoned and marginalized young people. He challenged the way young people were treated in the desperate poverty that existed at that time in the city of Turin, Italy. Thus altering the course of history. He was driven by first-hand experience of the effects of dreadful poverty and hunger on the young people he came across, he was determined to change their condition. Others were inspired to follow him in responding to the needs of the young. He founded a Religious Order in the Catholic Church, called the Salesians. This order was established in the poverty of a city we consider it to be one of the most prosperous in the world today.Relevance for today
Poverty, hardship and hunger are nothing new, not least for young people. However, most of Europe has improved beyond all recognition since the Industrial Revolution. St John Bosco would be pleased at the progress that has been made. But as we approach the millennium, there are still so many young people in poverty, both material and spiritual, even in Europe but especially in other parts of the world – those largely untouched by the progress we know in our continent. It is the privilege of the Salesians founded by Don Bosco to continue his work for young people who are poor, wherever they may be.
Don Bosco was born in a village called ‘Becchi’ in 1815. When he was only two years of age he lost his father and was brought up by his mother, Margaret. Through a series of events in his youth, not least a very powerful dream he had as a young boy, he learned to become a leader for the young people he grew up with, many of whom were very badly behaved. In order to relate to them he needed to develop certain skills. He learned that by combining entertainment with teaching and praying he could achieve positive results. Entertained by his magical balancing act, the young people would gladly listen to a lesson or pray with John Bosco.
Everyone needs a dream, a vision to inspire them. Don Bosco, when he was very young, had a dream. A Man and a Lady, both of great majesty instructed him to prepare himself for a great battle. The battle appeared to be on behalf of a multitude of poor, unruly and neglected children. He was told in this dream that he had the traits and skills to conquer the unruliness of these children, and make them his friends.
This powerful dream continued to be a guiding force throughout his adolescence. It inspired him to become a priest. This involved six years of intense studying. In 1841, just short of his 26th birthday, he was ordained 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.
Upon becoming a priest, Don Bosco realised how he needed to live out his vocation. The Industrial Revolution was spreading into Northern Italy, there was a great deal of poverty, desolation, turmoil and revolution on the streets of the city. Young people had been abandoned and lived in hopelessness. They lived their awful lives whatever the cost to themselves or others. He was shocked at the conditions they endured and the things they did to enable them to eat, and to survive. This was the cost of the Industrial ‘improvement’ that would bring us all the high standards we have enjoyed this century. The cost of this progress in human terms was unbearable. Don Bosco, the young priest, became completely focused on his vocation when he entered the prisons. He wrote: “To see so many children, from 12 to 18 years of age, all healthy, strong, intelligent, 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 children ending up here.” Don Bosco now saw how his dream and the guidance it gave were needed. He knew a new approach was required. He needed to show there were better ways for these healthy intelligent young people to lead their lives.
Don Bosco was more than just a dreamer. He knew that education was the key to helping these young people. He sought to teach them (many could only learn after their day’s work and not all wanted to), and to get fairer treatment for them with their employers. He looked to help other young people who still slept under bridges and on the streets. Even when they stole from him, as some did, he never gave up hope. He never lost his confidence in youth. Don Bosco started technical schools to educate the young people in skilled jobs like printing, bookbinding and mechanics. In those days, these were the skills that would guarantee better conditions and a better future for them. He started the Salesian Missions in South America. He published numerous works. And he continued his work on his system of education, a style which was immediately recognised as an ideal way to improve educational standards and to get the best from the young.
Don Bosco was an educational practitioner rather than an educational theorist. He wrote very little about his educational principles and it is impossible to understand his approach to education without reference to the story of his life. His early childhood experiences were influential upon the development of his work and he actively incorporated the lessons of his own life experiences into his pedagogy. Don Bosco’s capability to attract numerous boys and adult helpers was connected to his “Preventive System of Education”. He believed education to be a “matter of the heart,” and said that the boys must not only be loved, but know that they are loved. He also pointed to three components of the Preventive System: reason, religion, and kindness. Music and games also went into the mix.
Don Bosco never worked alone. He inspired a whole lot of people around him to work for the salvation of the miserable young people he saw around Turin. Salesian family is nothing but a movement of people from all walks of life wanting to do good to the young with the charism of Don Bosco. He had several priest friends. There were zealous priests like Don Cafasso and Don Borel, some older boys like Buzzetti, Rua, Cagliero, and Gastini, and Don Bosco’s own mother, Mama Margaret, as she was affectionately known. Even some local politicians helped him out while others hindered his efforts. In 1859, Bosco selected the experienced priest Don Alasonatti, 15 seminarians and 1 high school boy and formed them into the “Society of St. Francis de Sales.” This was the nucleus of the Salesians, the religious order that would carry on his work. The Salesian Congregation was divided into priests, seminarians and “coadjutors” (the lay brothers).
Next, he worked with Don Pestarino, Mary Mazzarello and a group of girls in the hill town of Mornese. In 1871, he founded a group of religious sisters to do for girls what the Salesians were doing for boys. They were called the “Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.” In 1874, he founded yet another group: the “Salesian Cooperators.” These were mostly lay people who would work for young people like the Daughters and the Salesians, but would not join a religious order.
It is not surprising then that Don Bosco’s work, spirit and spirituality quickly spread throughout Italy, then Europe and South America, soon after his death. The number of Salesian priests and brothers were merely 773. Today there are about 16,000 Salesian priests and brothers (SDB), 18,000 sisters (FMA), and tens of thousands of lay people working in every continent and most countries of the world to continue the spirit and mission of Don Bosco amongst the young.
John Bosco had a great admiration for St Francis de Sales (1567-1622). Francis, who was born near Geneva, 21 August 1567, was patron saint of Piedmont and Savoy and much loved by John Bosco. He admired his joyful, optimistic spirituality and because of the gentleness of his approach, he chose him as patron of the Congregation. He wished his followers to be filled with the spirit of Francis de Sales – a kindness that was all-embracing, a gentleness that was strong, a love that was humble and a faith that was steadfast. For Francis there was no ‘religious elite’; holiness was possible for everybody no matter their position, stage or career in life. Francis used a simple metaphor to sum up his work when he said: ‘you catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than a barrel full of vinegar.’ In other words: Love is stronger than violence or force of any kind. John Bosco fully agreed and he named his Congregation after Francis de Sales, hence the name ‘Sales-ians’.
After a life of achieving so much for young people, Don Bosco died at dawn on the 31st of January 1888 at the age of 73. When others talked to him of his fantastic achievements, he would always interrupt and say ‘I have done nothing by myself. It is Our Lady who has done everything.’ Today the Salesians of Don Bosco continue this great work operating on the principles Don Bosco left us.
Born – August 16, 1815, Castelnuuovo, Piedmont, Italy
Died – January 31, 1888 (Aged 72), Turin, Italy
Beatified – June 2, 1929, Rome by Pope Pius XI
Canonized – April 1 1934, Rome by Pope Pius XI
Feast – January 31
Attributes – Priest, Educator, Confessor, Father, Teacher and Friend of Youth Contribution for Salesian Province of New Delhi