Today’s the first day of the triduum in honor of St John Bosco’s 200th birth anniversary. To honor this great a saint whom I have come to consider as a father, I am sharing this essay which I wrote when I was in the philosophate, some seven years ago. First of Three parts
“I’m 16… and I don’t know anything!” so said a ragged urchin.
The boy’s name was Bartholomew Garelli. He entered the church building to seek warmth from the biting cold, but was shabbily treated by the sacristan because he had refused to serve Mass. Don (Don in Italian is a title accorded to priests) John Bosco, then a 25-year old priest who was preparing for the Mass, witnessed how the sacristan bullied the poor lad. Wasting no time, he intervened by telling the sacristan that ‘his friend’ did not merit such blows.
After some quick warm informal exchange, Don Bosco bid him goodbye and asked him to come back the following Sunday with his friends. This simple encounter took place on December 8, 1841 and Don Bosco considers this as the launch of his ministry in caring for the young people.
He would carry out this work up until his death at the dawn of January 31, 1888 at the age of 73 years old. That time, 250 houses of the Salesian Society, the congregation he founded to continue his work, have been established in various parts of the world caring for more than 130,000 young people.
As an appreciation for his work with the marginalized young people of his time, Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1934 and 100 years after his death, Pope John Paul II conferred on him the distinctive title “Father and Teacher of the Young.”
Not a walk in the park
However, it’s not easy for Don Bosco to achieve these feats. He didn’t have any school to begin with when he first set off for the mission. However, it was not really a problem at first since he only had a couple of young people to deal with.
In 1884, he began to gather poor and abandoned youth. He found places for them to play in, taught them catechism and heard their confessions. After teaching them, he would take them to one of the churches in the city. There, he would say Mass for them. Since they would meet on Sundays and feast days, this gathering is called “Festive Oratory.”
For three years, Don Bosco taught catechism to the boys in rooms attached to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. He and his lads were also allowed to use the courtyard of the Church for their games and recreation. He himself took part in their games. He is not a prim priest who would forbid his charges to run, jump and make noise. Don Bosco is an ever-youthful priest in the midst of the young people!
However, when the members of the festive oratory swelled to about 300 strong, the real problem started to show itself. Don Bosco and his friends would be ‘homeless,’ as it were, without a roof to shield them from rain, snow or bitter winds. To offer his boys a vast space that would serve as a playground, Don Bosco and his boys would hike to out-of-town destinations. As they would walk from one place to another, Don Bosco’s friends’ behavior never failed to edify people, even the monks.
The life of a priest in a prominently 19th Century Catholic Italy may have been a bed of roses since the most religious of people, and even those who were not, would continue to be good benefactors to them. In fact, a rich benefactor offered Don Bosco to work for her hospice in exchange of a handsome remuneration package. But Don Bosco politely declined the offer musing that she can pay someone to work for her abandoned girls, but no one will take care of his poor boys.
A special mission
Don Bosco was from a poor family. He lost his father to pneumonia when he was barely two years old. His mother, Mamma Margaret, now a Servant of God, singlehandedly provided for him and his other two siblings.
In his autobiography, he accounts that Mamma Margaret’s greatest care was to instruct “her sons in their religion, making them value obedience, and keeping them busy with tasks suited to their age.” She herself taught the little Johnny to pray. And as soon as he was old enough to join his brothers, they recited their prayers together, including the rosary. She continued to do this until Don Bosco reached the age when she judged him able to use the sacrament well on his own.
He was nine years old when he received a mission through one of his dreams that would have a strong impact in his entire life. He saw a multitude of boys fighting and cursing as they played. A Man of majestic appearance told him: “With meekness and charity you will conquer these friends.” And a Lady just as majestic added: “Make yourself humble, strong and robust… At the right time you will understand everything.”
This dream gave him direction. Realizing that he has a special mission for the young, he enriched himself with skills (e.g. acrobatics and juggling, etc.) that would attract young people towards him. He recalled that everyone would flock around him to hear him deliver stories which he would draw from books, sermons, catechism lessons.
When he was only ten years old, he started to take interest in taking care of children. He was aware that he had the ability of gauging the personalities of his companions merely by looking at them. This gift won him the love and esteem of the boys his own age.
When he told his mother that he wanted to become a priest, she replied “The most important thing is the salvation of your soul… But I wish to make this very clear to you: if you become a priest and should unfortunately become rich, I will never pay you a single visit. Remember that well.”
Don Bosco took these words of his saintly mother to heart. He was ordained a priest on June 5, 1846 at the age of 26. His becoming a priest has led way for him to see closely the sorry state of the many young people who were working in a fast-becoming-industrialized city: child labor was rampant, the poor young working in the sweatshops of Turin, and education was affordable only to the middle and higher classes. But still, the city was a refuge to people coming from the rural areas. Opportunities became a tempting offer for everyone, especially for the young people. Consequently, young people, dreaming of a better future, flocked to the city. The young were left to caring for themselves. No guardian to fend for them, they were exposed to the ills of the society.
On his free time, he went to the prisons to take care of the spiritual welfare of the inmates. He was horrified to see large numbers of young lads aged from 12 to 18 all mixed up with adult offenders. His heart went out to them. He became a very good friend to some of them and he was able to hear their stories. He noted that most lads who were discharged were resolute in their disposition to do better but he was disgusted that in only a short time, they would land back again in the prison shortly after being released.
He blamed this phenomenon to the fact that the young had nowhere to go to. Some of them, thrown out by the society and not a few were even rejected by their own family, were practically left to their own resources. And then he thought “If these youngsters had a friend outside who would take care of them, help them, teach them religion on feast days… Who knows but they could be steered away from ruin, or at least the number of those who return to prison could be lessened?”
This matter he referred to his spiritual guide, Fr. Joseph Cafasso, who like him also became a saint. Fr. Cafasso gave him the go signal and the inspiration to realize his idea into a concrete reality. But everything, he left to God’s mercy.
 St. John Bosco, Memoirs of the Oratory.