Friday, January 30, 2015

Saint John Bosco: Hero of Youth

On Jan. 31, we celebrate the feast of St. John Bosco or “Don Bosco,” a 19th century Italian priest who worked to improve the education, vocational opportunities, and faith of youth during the industrial revolution.

Giovanni (John) Melchior Bosco was born in 1815 to a poor farm family in the hillside hamlet of Becchi in northern Italy.  When he was born, his mother consecrated him to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the age of two, John lost his father. He was raised by his mother, Margaret Bosco, a hard-working woman who selflessly struggled to raise John and his two older brothers on her own. Following their father’s death, it became necessary for John and his brothers to complete the farm chores previously performed by their father to support the family.

At age nine, John had a vision that foretold his vocation. In the dream, he was encircled by a crowd of boys who were fighting and cursing. He tried to calm them, first by reasoning with them, then by hitting them. Suddenly, a mysterious lady appeared, who directed him, “Softly, softly…if you wish to win them! Take your shepherds staff if you wish to lead them to pasture.” Her words transformed the children from vicious beasts into gentle lambs.

It was this vision, which he referred to as a “dream”, that persuaded him that he was meant to lead and to help other boys. He began teaching catechism to the children in his village, first by entertaining them with acrobatics and magic tricks, at which he became quite accomplished. One Sunday morning, when John saw an itinerant acrobat and juggler amusing the children, he challenged him to a match and beat him at his own tricks. Then he marched off to church, followed by his audience of admirers.

From a young age, John worked long hours as a shepherd, tending his flock in the fields. Thus, he had a very informal education. A priest taught him to read and write. At sixteen, he entered the seminary and was so poor that his clothing had to be furnished by charity. He studied theology in Turin and there he volunteered to help abandoned and neglected homeless boys and young men, many who were uneducated and without work. The industrial revolution had lured large numbers of people into the city to look for work that was often demanding and in short supply. Don Bosco was stunned to see how many boys ended up in prison before the age of 18, and how they were deprived physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He was determined to do something about it.

In 1841, at the age of 26, he was ordained a priest on the eve of Trinity Sunday in Turin and became known as Father Bosco or “Don” Bosco, a traditional title of honor for priests in Italy.

 Don Bosco’s first assignment as a priest was to serve as an assistant chaplain at a home for girls, which allowed him to help his boys in his spare time. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1841, he established the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales – the name he gave his band of boys. With assistance from the founder of the girls’ home, Marchesa Barolo, a wealthy philanthropist, he was able to set up a combination Sunday school / recreation center for his boys on the grounds owned by the Marchesa. However, the boys were unruly, boisterous and sometimes even picked flowers from the garden, which was very upsetting to the Marchesa, so she quickly changed her mind.

The Marchesa now gave him an ultimatum – to give up his work with the boys or to resign his post at the orphanage for girls. He immediately resigned and chose to serve the boys – who now numbered several hundred.

For more than a year the group was regarded as a nuisance by the property owners of the town and no suitable meeting place could be found. Finally, Don Bosco found an old dilapidated shed to use as a meeting place.

As if all this weren't enough, John Bosco developed a severe case of pneumonia and nearly died. When he recovered, he went to live in a rundown room near the meeting place. His mother graciously served as his housekeeper and assistant. Don Bosco opened a night school and two more youth centers in Turin, and began to build housing for destitute boys.

Next, he built a church, which he named St. Frances de Sales, followed by the construction of another home for his growing family. The boys he enrolled as boarders were of two different types: young apprentices and craftsmen, and other youths whom Father Bosco perceived to be future helpers, with possible future vocations to the priesthood. He managed them all and taught them well without the need for punishment.

Father John Bosco spent his spare time writing appealing, high – interest level books for boys, which were virtually non-existent at that time. He worked late into the night, writing historical books and faith – based books.

On January 26, 1854, a group of men met to form a new apostolate based upon practical works of charity. The group took the name of Salesian after the great bishop of Geneva, St. Frances de Sales. In 1858, John went to Rome, taking the rules of the Order with him and received preliminary approval from Pope Pius IX.

Sixteen years later, he received full approval. His next great accomplishment was the founding of an order of women to care for girls and to provide for their needs. In 1862, he organized a group of twenty-seven young women, whom he named the Daughters of St. Mary Auxiliatrix, the Helper.

As he grew older, his health weakened and on the morning of January 31, 1888, he died in Turin. His last words were: “Tell the boys that I shall be waiting for them all in Paradise.”

He was beatified in 1929 by Pius XI, and was canonized in 1934, also by Pius XI. St. John Bosco is the patron of: boys, apprentices, laborers, editors, publishers, and youth.

Favorite St. John Bosco Quotes

"Do you want Our Lord to give you many graces? Visit Him often. Do you want Him to give you few graces? Visit him seldom. Visits to the Blessed Sacrament are powerful and indispensable means of overcoming the attacks of the devil. Make frequent visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and the devil will be powerless against you.”

“This was the method that Jesus used with the apostles. He put up with their ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity. He treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalized and still others to hope for God’s mercy. And so He bade us to be gentle and humble of heart.”

“Your reward in heaven will make up completely for all your pain and suffering.”

"All for God and for His Glory. In whatever you do, think of the Glory of God as your main goal."

"Everything and everyone is won by the sweetness of our words and works."

"Every virtue in your soul is a precious ornament which makes you dear to God and to man. But holy purity, the queen of virtues, the angelic virtue, is a jewel so precious that those who possess it become like the angels of God in Heaven, even though clothed in mortal flesh."

When asked about the secret of his success with young people, he simply answered: "love.”

~ copyright Jean M. Heimann January 2015.

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