The Life of St. John Bosco
One day Venerable Joseph Cottolengo met a young cleric. After they had exchanged a few words, Cottolengo said: “You are an excellent man, come into the Little House of Providence and work will not be wanting to you.” The one thus invited was the Venerable Don John Bosco.” The inscription over the entrance of the “Little House”: “Charitas Christi urget nos”–“The Charity of Christ presseth us” (2 Cor. v. 14) made a strong impression on him, and when he came into the reception room and read above the picture of the Blessed Virgin the words: “Infirmus eram et visitastis me”–“I was sick and you visited me” (Matt. xxv. 36), he was moved to tears. While going through the institution Don Bosco was highly edified and deeply impressed by everything he saw and heard. But one thing filled him with distress. He saw so many poor young people in the infirmary, who lay there wasting away and hopeless. It was the first time he clearly realized that vice alone had devoted them to death in the springtime of life. “You must save the young from vice,” said a voice within him. This thought indeed often enflamed his heart, but now it was his fixed purpose to work out this noble end in effect.
When Don Bosco was departing, Cottolengo took hold of his sleeve and said: “The cloth of your cassock is too weak and thin. You must get a cassock of stronger and better wearing cloth or it will be torn. The time will come when many people will be hanging on by it.” Cottolengo prophesied truly. Don Bosco is one of the greatest apostles of youth, the most successful teacher of the nineteenth century. And not merely this–he is a saint. In Don Bosco’s life the power of the supernatural becomes, so to speak, tangible. A brief glance at his achievements will convince us.
John Bosco, the son of simple farming people, was born at Becchi, a village in the district of Murialdo, province of Turin, on August 15, 1815. He was a very lively boy, eager to learn and skillful in everything he undertook. His father died when John was only two years old, but his mother was a truly remarkable educator and knew well how to develop the good dispositions of her children. As a boy John displayed a strong inclination to piety, of which he made absolutely no concealment. His apostolate among the young began even before he had begun his studies. As he tells us in his notes, he had a vision when he was nine years old in which his future vocation was clearly sketched before him. Afterward the vision often returned and with increased clearness. He used to gather the boys of the neighborhood and entertain them with games and pleasing stories, but he always added an instruction in catechism and ended with a prayer or hymn.
In 1826 a priest of the neighborhood, Don Calosso, undertook to instruct John Bosco in Latin, but unfortunately the teacher died two years later and the study was interrupted. After two years more, however, the widow Bosco succeeded in overcoming all difficulties and sent her son, then fifteen years old, to the public school at Castelnuovo, and in the year after, to the college at Chieri. Bosco’s principles on intercourse with his schoolmates at this time are interesting, and give us an insight into his character.
He writes: “I had divided my schoolmates into three classes–good, indifferent, and bad. Absolutely to avoid companionship with the bad as soon as I learned them to be such; to converse with the indifferent, if politeness and decency required; to admit companionship with the good but friendship only with the best, if I found any such, was my resolute determination.”
The first to approach him were the bad, and they met with an energetic repulse. Among the rest he soon won respect; they sought him by preference. He established a union, “Cheerfulness.” Every member was obliged to contribute to the promotion of cheerfulness by means of books, amusements, and games. Whatever caused sadness was penalized. Whoever did not perform his scholastic and religious duties, whoever swore or used bad language was expelled from the union. John was the soul of it. He took care that religious instruction was had and frequent reception of the Sacraments. On Sundays and feastdays, though still a student, he devoted himself to the boys of the city.
On October 30, 1835, Bosco entered the seminary of Turin and on June 5, 1841, he was ordained. For further improvement he now went to the Practical Seminary for Young Priests, the Institute of St. Francis of Assisi, where his trusted friend and confessor, Venerable Joseph Cafasso, was at work. The latter also had spiritual charge of the prison. Don Bosco often accompanied him and thus became acquainted with a great deal of the misery into which vice plunges mankind. He would prevent vice with all his strength–but how?
On December 8, 1841, while Don Bosco was vesting for Mass, a ragged urchin slipped into the sacristy. The sacristan harshly ordered him out. But Don Bosco asked the intruder to stay till after Mass. He then found by questioning that here was a parentless boy of fifteen who could neither read nor write and knew little or nothing of religion. Don Bosco began forthwith to give Bartholo Garelli–this was the boy’s name–some religious instruction, and when the lad was departing, he asked him to return soon. Garelli had never in his life been treated with such friendliness and cordiality. He soon returned, but not alone, bringing with him other comrades as poor and ignorant as himself. In two months there were twenty who regularly gathered in the sacristy of St. Francis of Assisi. Such was the origin of the Oratory of St. Francis of Sales. The crowd growing from Sunday to Sunday soon numbered three hundred. Don Bosco now devoted the greater part of the day to them, prepared games, made excursions and arranged for church celebrations in common. He was not without his difficulties, however. He was obliged often to change his meeting-place and when he could do so no more he held forth in the open air in the Valdocco quarter. He was at length able to buy a shed which he changed into a chapel.
The attachment of the boys to Don Bosco and their confidence in him were wonderful. Though only wild and utterly neglected street arabs, they were perfectly submissive to his will. Many people, of course, shook their heads at it, and complained to Cavour that the enterprise was dangerous. Some even considered Don Bosco insane and endeavored to have him confined in an asylum. But the great friend of youth, Archbishop Fransoni, always protected him and he did not lose courage. The work made giant strides. In 1847, supported by his admirable mother, Don Bosco erected, in Valdocco, a boarding-school with a manual training department. The institution increased year by year. The means for the new building were supplied entirely by voluntary contributions, often in a miraculous way. New oratories were erected in two districts of the city and entrusted to the care of priests of a spirit like to his own.
Don Bosco had next to consider the obtaining of competent assistants. Many of the boys who had enjoyed his admirable training showed talent and a desire for the priesthood and wished to assist him in his opportune labors. Thus was naturally evolved the design of forming a religious society. He called it “The Pious Society of St. Francis of Sales.” Don Bosco considered the gentleness of the holy bishop of Geneva an ideal for apostolic effectiveness. When he afterward extended his care to girls, a congregation of women was founded under the title of “The Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians.” Both congregations developed rapidly and received the Papal approbation in 1874. To these was finally added a sort of third Order–the Salesian Co-operators.
The fame of Don Bosco had long passed beyond Turin. In one Italian city after another his sons founded oratories. Foundations in Austria, France, and Spain soon followed and in 1875 there set out the first expedition to Argentina. They have since spread over the whole of South America.
Don Bosco stands out particularly great as an educator. Hundreds of wild street arabs waited upon his slightest wish, followed with the most exact punctuality a daily order and all this almost without any use of punishment. What we hear related of the fidelity and zeal of his pupils is almost incredible. One of them, Dominic Savio, died at fifteen in the repute of sanctity and the process of his beatification is already begun. But not only under his personal guidance were Don Bosco’s boys so exemplary–they remained the same in later life, especially in the fulfillment of their duties to the Church and to their country.
If we would learn the secret of this success we must at once admit Don Bosco’s profound understanding of the souls of the young. He knew that radically every one has noble traits and that it is the environment, bad example, and evil reading that awaken the sinful passions. Therefore, it was always his first endeavor to guard the young from moral contagion. He treated each one according to his individual character to develop the germ of goodness in it and was a declared enemy to mechanical imitation of models. He carefully avoided every artificial formality and all harshness as hindering true confidence from growing up between superior and subject. On the contrary he was always communicative and amiable. He won authority by fatherly love and condescension. Almost all his pupils went to confession to him.
Another aid to his educational skill was solid instruction in religion. With many who follow the paths of vice and are estranged from the Church the chief cause is ignorance in religious matters. In books, periodicals, and in daily conversation they meet with a thousand objections which are begotten in ignorance. Don Bosco was fully convinced that religion alone can give men moral support and that no natural maxims can suffice and endure against the allurements of sin. Therefore he most severely condemned the separation of religion from education. “Frequent confession and communion and daily Holy Mass are the foundation on which is supported the education of youth from which threats and punishment should be as far removed as possible,” he said.
It was chiefly his divinely inspired devotion to his pupils that made the young idolize Don Bosco. Only a man whose very life is penetrated by the worth and beauty of a youthful soul for which Christ poured out his Heart’s blood has this unceasing, unselfish spirit of sacrifice. An apostle of youth must renounce his own comfort. And Don Bosco was a saint.
Without dwelling on his heroic virtues, let us merely mention that eye-witnesses relate many miracles worked by him. One recalls involuntarily the miracles related in the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. With Mary, Help of Christians, his prayers were most powerful. No sickness was so stubborn, no sinner so hardened that Don Bosco’s prayer was in vain. He may justly be called the “thaumaturgus” (wonder-worker) of the nineteenth century. A panegyrist calls Don Bosco “the representative of the Church in the century of machinery and expansion.” The ideal of a priest is truly incorporate in him. “Da mihi animas, cetera tolle,” he often repeated –“Give me souls, take the rest”–noble words of a Christian ideal as contrasted with the egoistic spirit of the age.
Don Bosco had a deep insight into the needs of his time. He was in touch with all the elements of social life. His keen spirit of enterprise knew how to use all the weapons which modern circumstances demanded in warfare against enemies that endangered the temporal and spiritual welfare of the young. Three things in particular he kept before his mind–the school, labor, and the press. His opportune manual training and industrial schools sent into every position of life thousands of youths whose main business was the fulfillment of their religious duties. His Sunday oratories and evening schools saved innumerable souls from peril and gave them the necessary knowledge and the healthiest recreation for soul and body. “Servite Domino in laetitia”–“Serve ye the Lord with gladness” (Ps. xcix. 2) was a maxim with him and he never neglected the encouragement of youthful gaiety.
On January 31, 1888, this great life came to an end. The whole Catholic world mourned in his death the loss of a saint and a great benefactor. Even the hostile press found only words of praise for the noble Don Bosco. He was buried in the mission house of Valfelice near Turin, since the government would not permit his interment in the church of Mary, Help of Christians, which he himself had built. His funeral cortege was one of the most magnificent the world has ever seen.
No one was surprised when Don Bosco manifested his universally known goodness after his death. The necessary documents for the process of his beatification were soon prepared. In 1907, Pius X published the decree opening the Apostolic process. He was canonized April 1, 1934 , Rome by Pius XI. His Feast is January 31.