Today, January 31, is the Memorial of St. John Bosco, affectionately known as “Don Bosco.”
John Bosco was born on August 16, 1815 in Becchi, Italy. His father died when he was only two, leaving his mother to raise him and his two older brothers. He was raised to be devout and attended church regularly, also helping out on the family farm. The family was poor, but still shared what little they had with others worse off.
As a young boy, he came across a troupe of circus performers traveling through his region. He was attracted to their magic tricks and to their acrobatics, and even learned some of the tricks of the trade. One Sunday, he performed his own magic show to his childhood friends, who applauded him. Following the show, he gave a homily he had heard earlier that day and ended the performance with a prayer. Later, as a priest, Bosco would use his magic tricks to gain the attention of street boys, then offer a teaching of the gospel once he had their attention.
John discerned a vocation to the priesthood, but to be a priest required an education, and his poverty stood in the way. His older brothers, however, were hostile to his desire for the priesthood and beat him, hoping to beat his vocation out of the boy and keep him for work on the farm. At the young age of twelve, John left his home to escape the hostility of his brothers and eventually was employed in a vineyard. Two years later, he met Fr. Joseph Cafasso, a priest who was willing to sponsor John’s desire to be a priest. Cafasso himself would be canonized a saint by the Church. In 1835, John entered seminary and he was ordained in 1841.
Don Bosco’s first assignment was in the city of Turin. The industrial revolution had engulfed Turin, bringing progress, but also slums and poverty. Don Bosco visited the prisons of Turin, only to find many children incarcerated. He went to the streets and met young men and boys, using his magic tricks to gain their attention, then sharing the gospel with them. He also worked to find employment and lodging for the boys. His mother joined his ministry, becoming known as “Mamma Margherita” to the boys. The Church would declare her venerable in 2006. By the 1860s, Don Bosco and Mamma Margherita were responsible for lodging 800 boys.
Don Bosco would negotiate contracts for the boys and young men for whom he found work. At the time, there were many abuses in employment, including using apprentices for manual labor that had nothing to do with their apprenticeships, and also beatings. Bosco’s contracts forbade these practices and also provided for his boys to be off on feast days. Bosco also identified boys he thought might have a vocation to the priesthood, encouraging them and sponsoring the education of those who responded positively.
Don Bosco founded the Society of St. Francis de Sales, the Salesians, in 1859. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, Bosco’s order would be dedicat3ed to charitable work and the faith formation of youth. Don Bosco had a deep devotion to Our Lady, especially under the title of Mary Help of Christians. With Maria Domenica Mazzarello, he founded the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, dedicated to the care and education of girls. Bosco established Mutual Aid Societies to come to the help of workers who were out of work or were ill.
Don Bosco developed a form of educational discipline based on love rather than punishment that became known as the Salesian Preventive System. He published an 1877 essay entitled The Preventive System in the Education of the Youth that emphasized the values of reason, religion, and loving kindness, the goal of which was to produce, “good Christians and honest citizens.”
Though recognized more as a man of action than a scholar, Bosco was a prolific writer, with over 200 titles to his name, including A Compendium of Italian History from the Fall of the Roman Empire, which is very well respected by historians, and two biographies, one of his mentor, Joseph Cafasso, and the other of Dominic Savio, one of the boys Bosco taught, which was influential in Savio’s canonization.
Father John Bosco died on January 31, 1888. His cause for canonization found immediate support. Pope Pius XI, who knew Bosco, beatified him on June 2, 1929 and it was also Pope Pius XI who canonized Don Bosco on April 1, 1934. He is the patron saint of Christian apprentices, editors, publishers, school children, young people, magicians, juvenile delinquents, and the city of Piura, Peru.
St. John Bosco, pray for us.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.