St. Dominic Savio
(1842-1857) Italy Died Age 14
Dominic was born on April 2, 1842, the son of a very poor blacksmith. He went to school near his home for as long as possible. Later, he walked a six-mile round trip to attend a school in a nearby town. One day, while the teacher was out of the room, two boys brought in a lot of snow and trash and stuffed it into the only iron stove which was heating the room. When the teacher returned, he was so angry that the two guilty boys claimed that Dominic had done it. The teacher gave Dominic a severe scolding, telling him that were this not his first offense, he would have been immediately expelled. Dominic said not one word in his own defense but stood in front of the class and hung his head while the teacher scolded. The next day, some of the other boys probably tattled. At any rate, the teacher learned the truth of the matter. He went immediately to Dominic and asked why he had not answered the charges made against him. Dominic said that he knew the teacher would have expelled the other boys and he wanted them to have another chance. “Besides,” said Dominic, “I remembered that Our Lord was unjustly accused and He said nothing.”
Even at this early age, Dominic had begun the practice of the virtue which was later declared heroic at his beatification. From the time he was a small child, he had been very religious. He pleaded to help the Priest at Mass when he was only five, but more than simply observing religious customs and practices, Dominic lived his religion for the entire span of his brief life.
Once Dominic overheard two boys planning a rock fight. They had become very angry with each other and were going to fight it out. Dominic tried his best to talk them out of this idea which was quite dangerous but nothing would sway their determination. He could have told the teacher but he felt this would only have served to postpone the fight. Finally, he made the boys agree to one secret condition which he would tell them about just before the fight. Dominic went with the boys and helped them make their preparations by piling up rocks. When the boys were ready to begin, Dominic held up a small crucifix and reminded them that Christ died forgiving sins but that they were going to fight a dangerous fight to get even for a minor slight. “Now,” said Dominic, “throw your first rock at me. That is my condition.” At this demand, one of the boys said, “But Dominic, you have never hurt me or done anything to me and you are my friend.” “You will not hurt me, a poor human, but will you, by your actions, hurt Jesus Christ who is also God?” asked Dominic. The boys hung their heads in shame and dropped their stones. Dominic never mentioned this incident and we would have no record of it had not the two combatants told their friends.
Dominic Savio had decided to become a saint. Immediately he went to the chapel to pray. He refused to play any games with the other boys and put on a long, serious face. For two days Dominic remained in this sober attitude. Finally, Don Bosco, his teacher, called him and asked if he were sick. No, Dominic assured him that he felt particularly well and happy. Then why, asked Don Bosco, had Dominic refused to play his customary games and why the sober expression? When Dominic explained his great desire to become a saint, Don Bosco praised his decision but counselled him to be cheerful and not to worry; serving God is the way to true happiness.
The lesson bore its fruits. Dominic became an apostle of good cheerfulness with the other boys. One day, as he was getting acquainted with a new-comer to the Oratory, he explained to him his programme. “Here we make holiness consist in living as joyfully as we can. We take care to avoid sin – that great thief which robs us of the grace of God and peace of soul; we neglect no duty and so seek God with all our hearts. Begin from now and take as your motto these words: Servite Domino in laetitia: Serve the Lord with holy joy.”
His Love of the Sacraments.
Experience proves without question that the greatest source of spiritual help lies in the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. Boys and girls who receive these Sacraments frequently grow from childhood to maturity, and so to the end of their lives, always models of Christian virtue. Would to heaven that children might understand this truth and put it into practise and also that their teachers might help them to persevere with it!
Before he came to the Oratory, Dominic had been going to Confession and Communion once a month, as was customary in most schools but here he went more often. One day he heard a sermon in which the preacher said: “Boys, if you wish to persevere on the road to Heaven, I advise you to go often to Confession and Holy Communion. Choose a confessor to whom you can unburden yourselves freely and never change him unless it becomes necessary to do so.”
Dominic well understood the importance of this advice. He began by choosing his confessor, whom he never left during the whole of his stay at the Oratory. In order that this Priest should know him thoroughly, he insisted on making a general confession. At first he went to confession every fortnight, then once a week, each time receiving Holy Communion. His confessor, in view of his extraordinary progress in spiritual matters, advised him to communicate three times a week and at the end of a year he allowed him daily Communion.
Dominic was very pleased with this state of things. “When I am at all worried,” he would say, “I go to my confessor, who shows me what is God’s Will; for Jesus Christ Himself assures us that the confessor speaks with the Voice of God. Then when I want something important, I go to Holy Communion, when I receive the same Body that Our Lord offered up for us on the Cross, together with His Precious Blood, His Soul and His Divinity. What more is wanting to complete my happiness until the day when I shall see face to face Him whom I see now on our altars only with the eye of faith?”
Before his First Communion, Dominic had made four promises and wrote them in a little book which he often re-read. He wrote:
1. I will go often to confession and I will go to Holy Communion as often as I am allowed.
2. I will try to give Sundays and holy days completely to God.
3. My best friends will be Jesus and Mary.
4. Death rather than sin.
The fourth promise was to be Dominic’s motto for the rest of his life. Time and again, he asked God to let him die before offending Him by committing a mortal sin. Dominic knew some pretty rough boys and was often in a bad part of the town. However, to the end of his life, he never committed a mortal sin. In fact, he led a saintly life.
His Love of Penance.
Dominic’s youth, his delicate health and the innocence of his life, alike dispensed him from all species of mortification but as he knew that innocence is difficult to preserve without doing some kind of penance, the path of mortification seemed to him to be strewn with roses.
By mortification, I do not here mean bearing patiently with the contradictions and insults of others nor the continual mortification of the senses at all times, during prayers, at lessons or recreations, for this was habitual with Dominic. I mean bodily mortification. In the fervour of his soul, Dominic resolved to eat and drink only bread and water every Saturday, in honour of Our Blessed Lady, but his confessor forbade it. Next he wished to fast during Lent but after a week, his director came to hear of what he was doing and put a stop to it. He begged at least to be allowed to go without his breakfast but this also was forbidden, for all these mortifications would have had a very bad effect upon his health.
As fasting and abstinence were forbidden him, Dominic sought about for other means of mortifying himself. He put bricks and pieces of wood in his bed so that even in his sleep he should not be comfortable. He also wanted to wear a hair shirt. Being forbidden also to do these things, he had recourse to yet another stratagem. During the autumn and winter he kept his summer bed-clothes so that in January he still had the thin blankets that had served him in mid-summer. One day when a slight indisposition had forced him to stay in bed, the Rector came to see him. Noticing that the boy had rolled the sheet round and round himself, he drew nearer and saw that the bed had only a light covering.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked, “Do you want to die of cold?” “No,” was the reply, “I shall not die of cold. Jesus in the manger and on the cross had less to cover Him than this.”
Nevertheless, he was strictly forbidden to do any penance whatsoever until he had obtained the consent of his superiors. This order he obeyed, though sadly. One day when he met me he said: “I really don’t know what to do. Our Lord says that without doing penance we cannot reach Heaven and I have been forbidden all penance; how small are my chances of Paradise!” “The penance that God asks of you is obedience.” “Won’t you allow me to do some other penance as well?” he pleaded. “Yes, bear patiently the insults of others and endure uncomplainingly heat, cold, wind and rain; when you are tired don’t be ill-humoured; when you are ill, thank God.” “But these are necessary sufferings.” “Then make a virtue of necessity, endure everything for the love of God and you will be sure to gain merit in His sight.” At these words Dominic seemed satisfied and went happily on his way.
Dominic was so unaffected in his demeanour that only his teachers and intimate friends realised that this modesty was the fruit of great efforts, helped by grace. It was a heroic effort for him to mortify his sight, for he was by nature quick and observant. He confided to his friends that when he first began to practise it, the effort was so great as to bring on violent headaches. And yet he achieved such a complete mastery of his eyes that it was the opinion of all who knew him, that never once did he so much as give an unguarded glance or indulge his sight to the least degree. “The eyes,” he would say, in his spiritual talks to his friends, “are windows. As you need only see what you wish to see through a window, so with the eyes; they may show us an angel of light or the spirit of darkness, both equally anxious to possess our souls.”
One day, one of the boys brought with him a magazine in which were some indecent and impious pictures. He was quickly surrounded by other boys anxious to see these horrible drawings. Dominic also ran up, but as soon as he perceived what the true nature of the pictures was, grew indignant, took the magazine and tore it into little pieces. At this abrupt interruption, the others looked at one another in silence. Dominic kept quiet for a few seconds and then explained his action.
“What are you thinking of? God has given you eyes that you may admire the beauty of His works; and you are using, or rather abusing, them to look at these abominations. Have you forgotten what so often Our Lord says: that a single harmful look can soil our souls? And here you are feasting your eyes on that filth!”
“But,” objected one boy, “it was only a joke.” “A fine joke you’ll think it when you’re burning in Hell!” “I didn’t see any such great harm in them,” protested another. “So much the worse. Not to see any harm in those horrors, argues that your eyes are used to such sights and such an avowal makes your sin greater. Do you not know that the holy patriarch Job, though old and infirm, declared that he had made a contract with his eyes, that they should never rest on anything but that which was chaste and holy?”
At this they all held their peace: nor did anyone else feel inclined to cross swords with one so able in defence and attack.
To the custody of the eyes, Savio also joined that of the tongue. Whenever anyone else was speaking, whether they were right or wrong, he would keep silence, often even breaking off what he had been saying, to give others an opportunity for speech. His masters and other superiors are unanimous in declaring that they have never had an occasion to reproach him for a word spoken out of season, either in school or during study or in church. More than that, if any one of his school-fellows picked a quarrel with him, he would keep his temper and restrain his tongue.
One day, he had warned another boy of a bad habit he had but instead of taking the warning in good part, the boy lost his temper and overwhelmed Dominic with reproaches, finally beating and kicking him. Dominic could have returned this with interest, for he was the bigger and stronger of the two but be chose to take a Christian’s victory and though his face grew red, controlled himself and merely said: “You have behaved badly but I forgive you. Try not to treat others so.”
How can we sufficiently praise Dominic’s mortification of his other senses? I shall content myself with citing a few examples of his severity with himself.
In winter, he suffered with chilblains on his hands but however painful they might be, he was never heard to complain. On the contrary, he seemed to take pleasure in them. “The bigger they are,” he would say, “the better for the health,” and by ‘health’ he meant that of the soul. Some of his school-fellows assert that in the bitter cold of winter, he was in the habit of walking slowly so as to suffer and do penance.
In boarding schools, there are always some pupils who grumble either at the length of the church services or complain of the school regulations, or else of the cooking. They are a real cross for their superiors, for they foster a spirit of rebellion amongst the other pupils. Far other was the conduct of Dominic. Never was he heard to grumble at the weather, or at the quality of the food; indeed, meal-times were for him another opportunity for mortification, for he would gladly accept any morsels rejected by the other boys as being too salt, or not salt enough, or underdone, or overdone, declaring that they were exactly to his taste.
It was for him an agreeable pastime to clean the shoes, brush his friend’s clothes, do the humblest services for those who were ill, sweep and other like menial tasks. “Everyone does what he can,” he would say, “I am not able to do much but I do all I can for the greater glory of God; and I hope that in His Infinite Goodness, the Lord will look kindly on my poor efforts.” So, eating what was distasteful to him, giving up what he liked, keeping the custody of his eyes even in little things, giving up his own will, enduring with perfect resignation sufferings mental and physical; such were the mortifications that Dominic practised all day and every day. Anxious as he was to die to himself in order that Christ might live in him, he assiduously took advantage of even the smallest opportunity to enhance his merit in the sight of God.
His Devotion to Our Lady.
Among the many graces with which God had been pleased to enrich Dominic’s soul, not the least was his fervour in prayer. He had got so into the habit of conversing with God that even in the midst of the noisiest games he would recollect himself in Him and raise his heart heavenwards in pious ejaculations. He had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother of God and every day practised some mortification in her honour. On his way to school, he never let his eyes dwell on any person of the opposite sex but kept them on the ground. Once, when he had been forced to admit having thus missed seeing something that his school-fellows were all discussing, one of the boys lost his temper with him and exclaimed: “What do you think to do with your eyes if you never use them?” “I hope to use them to behold the beauty of our Heavenly Mother, when I shall be worthy to see her in Paradise.”
He had an especial devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Every time he entered the Church, he knelt in prayer before her altar. He asked of her the grace to keep his heart free from all intemperate affection… “O Mary,” he prayed, “I wish always to be thy child. Obtain for me that I may die rather than commit a sin against the virtue of purity.”
Never in robust health, Dominic became quite ill in March of 1857 with what the doctors diagnosed as an inflammation of the lungs. The treatment in those days consisted of blood-letting or slitting a vein and letting ‘excess’ blood drain out. In the space of four days, the doctor cut Dominic’s arm ten times. Far from helping, this probably hastened his death. He died quietly in his home on March 9, 1857. His last words were – “What a beautiful thing I see.”
“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.”