IT WAS THE YEAR 1815. The evil times were far from being over.
The evils of the times yet to come might soon have effaced the memory of the Feast and its implicit hope from Christian hearts. But She who is their unfailing succor would not permit it. Instead, She raised up a champion to propagate throughout the world devotion to Her as the Help of Christians.
The place was Becchi in the northern Italian state of Piedmont. Mystically the date was also 1815, August 16, to be exact. This was such a great day in that good year, in fact, that we believe the angels might have tolled a thunderous ovation on the church bells of Piedmont, had Napoleon not confiscated every last one for making his cannons. For this was the birthday of one of the greatest and most beloved of modern saints, Saint John Bosco.
The Making of a Saint
No one is born a saint. Heroic sanctity, which is what our Holy Mother the Church honors in her canonized children, must be achieved. It is achieved simply by total and unconditional surrender of the personal will to the Divine Will. The operations of God’s graces on the soul fulfill all other qualifying needs. On man’s part, one has only to continue perfecting this discipline to the end to win the crown of sainthood.
Anyone, therefore, can become a saint. It is never too late in life to begin, as Saint Augustine’s glorious example testifies. More commonly, however, the great saints have been set on the road to heroic sanctity early in life, usually by holy mothers. Our modern apostle of youth was just such a saint.
When Giovanni (John) Melchior Bosco was born, his mother consecrated him to the Blessed Virgin. This more than anything else explains his surefootedness along the high road of holiness. Saint John said as much himself in advanced years when he remarked that he never undertook any task without Our Lady’s guidance.
It is a fact that also tells us something of the rare virtue of his mother, Margherita Bosco. Indeed, this courageous woman, widowed scarcely two years after John’s birth and left as the impoverished provider for three children and her aged mother-in-law, played no small part in the making of the saint. True, Mamma Margherita was unlettered, yet in matters of faith there was none wiser. Her patient moral instructions and pious example were the celebrated school in which John Bosco acquired perhaps his highest wisdom.
“God always sees you.” “God knows even your most secret thoughts.” These are typical of the oft-repeated aphorisms Margherita dispensed to her children. And for little Giovanni they were all the prompting he needed to conform his every thought, every action, to the Divine Will.
The apostle of youth was himself such a model youth, in fact, that his early years alone are a treasure of hagiography. This is because even as a little boy his own model was Our Lord Jesus Christ. From the age of four, the life of a saint was visibly unfolding. Devotion to duty long before he had any duty. Acts of mortification concealed through well-practiced humility. Works of mercy that no amount of humility could conceal. Long-suffering and patience occasioned by his oldest brother’s surliness and jealousy. All were virtues scrupulously practiced from Bosco’s earliest age of free will.
Even in childhood John Bosco was already an apostle of youth. One has to marvel at the thought of this tyke assembling his little friends for hymns, prayers, and catechism lessons, repeating the instructions he had received from his mother. And we doubt not that he was a competent teacher, for God had blessed this child with a brilliant mind and prodigious retention. He once thoroughly amazed a priest by reciting from memory almost in their entirety two lengthy sermons he had heard at a mission. He was also blessed with remarkable physical prowess. Later, finding that prayers and sermons were not enough attraction for his companions, young Bosco struck on the idea of adding entertainment to his programs, and spent long hours mastering acrobatics, juggling, and magic. Children of Becchi were treated to amazing performances at the one-man show, but only if they would join in the feature act – recitation of the Rosary.
John, the apostle, frequently came home with a bloodied head from playing with tough companions. His mother objected to his associating with ruffians, but was appeased by the boy’s disarming logic: “You see, Mamma, when I play with them they are not so nasty; they don’t fight and use bad words.”
Here was truly a saint in the making. But the apostle apparent in him was shaped by what he called “dreams” – visions that came to him many times in life, guiding him to the monumental apostolate planned for him by the Help of Christians. The first such dream occurred when John was about nine. In it he saw himself near a large courtyard where a boisterous crowd of boys had gathered, many of them blaspheming. “On hearing these blasphemies,” the saint has recorded, “I immediately rushed into their midst, raising my voice and using my fists to silence them.”
Suddenly a magnificent figure of a Man covered with a white mantle appeared and called John by name, saying: “You must win the hearts of these friends of yours not with blows, but with sweetness and charity. Set to work at once, then, to instruct them on the wickedness of sin and on the excellence of virtue.” Somehow not fully conscious of who this Sacred Being was whose face was too radiant to look upon, the dreamer objected that He commanded the impossible of one so young and ignorant. The Visitor answered: “Precisely because these things seem impossible to you, you must make them possible by obedience and the acquisition of knowledge.” And He promised, “I will give you a Mistress under whose guidance you will become wise, and without whom all learning is mere foolishness.”
But who was He? John had to ask. The Visitor replied, “I am the Son of Her whom your mother taught you to salute three times a day,” referring to the boy’s faithfulness in reciting the Angelus.
An instant later there stood at His side “a Lady of majestic bearing, clothed in a mantle which shed light all around.” Taking little John by the hand, the dream Lady showed him a new vision: “All the boys had disappeared and in their stead I beheld a herd of goats, dogs, cats, bears, and other animals.”
“This is your field of labor; this is where you must work,” the Lady instructed him. “Make yourself humble, determined, and strong. You must do for my sons what you will now see happen to these animals.” Looking again, John saw only gentle lambs bleating merrily as if to honor the Man and the Lady. Confused by it all, little Bosco began to cry. Putting Her hand on his head, the Lady said, “In good time, my son, you will understand everything.”
In time he would understand everything. In the meantime, however, Mamma Margherita could divine something of the dream’s import. “This may mean that some day my Giovanni will be a priest of God.” Having been her youngest son’s spiritual director thus far in life, she had long observed the boy’s levitical qualities anyway. And with John’s own awareness of his vocation, the two joined forces in intense prayer and sacrifice to secure the education he needed to enter the seminary.
The obstacles to be overcome in that ambition, and the sacrifices required of both Boscos to overcome them, were enormous. In fact, it is a seemingly miraculous story of itself – a story which, though too long to recount here, happily concludes in 1841 with John preparing for ordination. One of the thoughts he set down just before that blessed event was this: “No priest goes either to heaven or to hell alone. Faithful or unfaithful, he carries many with him. When it is a question of the salvation of souls I will always be prepared to humble myself, to suffer, and to act.”
On June 5 he was ordained, and for the first time was addressed with the pastoral name by which he would be lovingly known evermore, Don Bosco. “It is a pious belief that the favors asked by a priest at his First Mass are invariably granted,” the saint wrote in his memoirs. “I asked . . . for the gift of Efficacy In Word, in order to do good for souls.” That prayer, as we shall see, was answered in generous measure.
The reputation of one so brilliant, so gifted, so holy as John Bosco, was well known and drew several offers for distinguished assignments from which he could choose. Certainly the new priest, already having long devoted much spare time to teaching boys, fully realized by now that such was the lifetime work his early dream had foreshadowed for him. But how was he to know which assignment would open the door to that career? And should he be the one to choose, after all, if the Man in his dream had commanded that he enter his life’s work of doing the impossible by the door of docile obedience?
Hence Don Bosco’s reluctance in selecting from these assignments was due to his total surrender of self-will. He left it to the inscrutable ways of Divine Providence to lead him to his apostolate. With characteristic faith he turned to his confessor to discern God’s will in the matter. Wisely so, for his confessor was Don Cafasso – Saint Joseph Cafasso – Rector of the Ecclesiastical Institute in Turin, which was founded to train priests for parish work. Don Cafasso’s decision was that his spiritual son should continue theological studies at the institute while assisting the rector in his holy works.
As if Providence were reassuring Don Bosco that his faith in the decision was to be blessed, he soon met another holy man of renown, Saint Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, who cryptically – mystically – advised the young priest: “Don Bosco, your coat is too thin. Better get one of stronger material, for the days will come when it will be pulled about by many boys.”
That promise and the fulfillment of the dream began to unfold on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1841. Father Bosco was preparing to say Mass at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi when his meditation was rudely interrupted. The sacristan was gruffly ejecting a boy who had been loitering in the sacristy. The boy was ten-year-old Bartolomeo Garelli.
The ill-treatment given young Garelli was symptomatic of the times. The Industrial Revolution had been born, but was as yet in its awkward, struggling infancy. An impoverished Italy, trying to recover from the miseries unleashed by an earlier and evil revolution, was too optimistic about industry’s miraculous promise. They came by the thousands, hungry Italians, seeking work in busy Turin. Many of them were children. Many, like Garelli, were orphaned. But very few could find work. The rest were left to their own designs to survive. That almost invariably meant by illegal means. Harsh disciplinary attitudes of the epoch toward youth only became more harsh as a reaction to the prevalence of rampant juvenile crime.
Visiting Turin’s institutions with Don Cafasso, Saint John saw the bitter fruits – prisons housing great numbers of youngsters caught in a life of crime from which escape seemed hopeless. The Holy Catholic Faith, said Bosco, was the only answer to the plight of these youths. And he was determined to ransom their pitiable souls with the rich treasures of the Faith.
That task began with the ill-treated Garelli boy – a heart to be won “not with blows, but with sweetness and charity,” as the Master had said in the dream. Don Bosco rushed to Garelli’s rescue in the church sacristy, befriended the boy, and learned that he, like so many of Turin’s waifs, had virtually no spiritual upbringing. Worse still, though he wanted to study catechism, he, like others, was too embarrassed by his age and illiteracy to do so. Again the Master’s command sprang to John Bosco’s memory: “Set to work at once to instruct them on the wickedness of sin and on the excellence of virtue!” Following Mass, the saint set to work teaching Bartolomeo Garelli. Next week young Garelli was back at the sacristy; this time he brought six friends. The dream was coming true.
“Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me”
Doubtless, no one in Christian annals, save the Good Shepherd Himself, was so naturally or so deeply loved by children as Don Bosco. He possessed, it would seem, a singular grace from heaven in that regard. Utterly irresistible was the charm he held over little ones. A kind word, a gentle smile, even a mere glance from the saint often was sufficient to capture the most calloused heart – so has said many an enchanted victim.
This helps explain why the tiny Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales – the name Father John gave his band of urchin pupils – which humbly began on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1841, swelled week after week. Word of the kind and holy friend of all boys never stopped spreading to spiritually starved wanderers of Turin and beyond, who came in ever-increasing numbers to learn the beautiful truths and mysteries of the Catholic Faith. But more than just religious grounding was offered. Every Sunday was also a holiday at the poor yet happy Oratory. “My dear boys,” the holy priest told them, “play, jump, enjoy yourselves as much as you wish so long as you do not sin. Don Bosco is the most lenient man in the world, but in the face of offenses against God he becomes inexorable.”
Saint John was totally devoted to his boys not just on Sundays, but every hour of every day. He would visit them on their jobs, nurse them in illness, counsel them in their problems, help them to find employment, beg for clothes and shoes to dress them, and in short, attend to their every need, spiritual and temporal. Most of all, he prayed for them endlessly. All the while, of course, he still had his assigned duties to perform.
It must be remembered that Father Bosco’s inspired ways with youth ran directly counter to prevailing attitudes of stern discipline, and therefore occasioned many a problem for him. When, for example, he completed his advanced studies, he accepted a post as assistant chaplain at a girls’ orphanage. The saint took up residence at that refuge and used his small room and adjoining hallways there to assemble his Oratory, now numbering some three hundred rollicking boys. To make matters worse, he expanded the curricula and began holding classes on weekday nights, drawing a storm of protest from neighbors who were fearful of the unruly elements in the priest’s following. Don Bosco was given an ultimatum: Either to quit the Oratory or to resign his post. He left the refuge. Poor Saint John was now as homeless and penniless as many of his students.
But then, Christ had no place to rest His head either. Like the Divine Teacher, therefore, John Bosco, undaunted, led his disciples of the Oratory into the countryside. Each Sunday the festive group set out early for some new location. One of the boys left this account:
Those happy days are engraved on our memories; piety and joy reigned among us, and influenced our future lives. Arrived at some church . . . Don Bosco asked leave to celebrate Mass. Permission was always granted and then at a signal the noisy band gathered to attend with a celerity and unanimity that amazed bystanders. Catechism followed, then breakfast. The grass or rocks served as tables; forks were unnecessary. . . . Those who had extra shared with less fortunate boys and Don Bosco fed those who had none. It is true, bread failed now and then, but gaiety and a good appetite never.
Like Our Lord again, the holy priest on several occasions multiplied the little, by miracles, to feed his multitudes. In fact, once, when a sacristan forgot to put enough Communion hosts in the ciborium for Consecration, Don Bosco, realizing the oversight only as hundreds of boys approached to receive Our Lord, miraculously multiplied the Consecrated Hosts.
The account resumes:
Continuing our walk, we stopped somewhere to chant Vespers; the itinerant Oratory already possessed a good choir. Catechism was heard a second time. The Rosary was recited while walking. And at sunset we marched again into Turin, fatigued, but with light consciences and contented hearts.
All of which was well and good while the seasons permitted, but winter was now approaching. The good Father rented some rooms for his classes and said Mass at a nearby church. The arrangement, unfortunately, lasted only as long as the patience of the landlord and neighbors. The Oratory had to move again – and then again, and again. Poor Don Bosco and his raucous band were turned out of one place after another, and the weight of worry and responsibility for the huge flock, in the face of uncertainty, was beginning to take its toll on the priest:
I used to feel my heart break when I thought of that immense crowd of boys, such a rich harvest for the priesthood. I was alone without any help, at the end of my tether, my health was suffering, and I no longer knew where I could take my boys. I hid my grief and walked by myself, and perhaps for the first time I felt tears spring to my eyes. “O my God,” I cried, raising my eyes to heaven, “show me a place where I can gather my boys next Sunday, or show me what I am to do.”
“Take up thy Cross”
Small minds sometimes have a large capacity for imagining the worst about others, especially about the good. What little was publicly known of Don Bosco’s revolutionary methods with youth was not only generally disliked; it was grossly suspected. It was suspected precisely of being revolutionary! For the moral perversities of anticlericalism heavily influenced attitudes of the times. Religious orders were banished. Priests were routinely distrusted. But a priest who held “devilish” powers over street gangs had to be “dangerous.” No doubt he was organizing a force to overthrow the Masonic “liberators” who were now running the government, so the consensus ran.
All kinds of false accusations were made against the saint, which prompted government authorities to begin their long siege of harassing the Oratory. Though they certainly tried hard enough, the authorities never found any evidence of wrongdoing – not even by perverse standards of the leftist government. Yet the harassment continued and increased over many years, causing no little grief for Don Bosco.
Even many of his fellow priests failed to understand the apostle. Some tried to pursuade him to abandon or at least limit his thankless work with youth, which had only brought ridicule and suffering. He had become obsessed by hopeless idealism, they told him. “Not at all,” replied Father Bosco, “I see things plainly as they are. Presently we shall have churches, vast playgrounds, priests, helpers of all kinds and thousands of boys.” In fact, such was his confidence about these goals that he freely and frequently spoke of them as accomplished realities.
“Pity!” many thought within themselves. “His mental state has grown worse than was suspected.” Two clerics subsequently appointed themselves authority for committing the “mad” priest to an asylum. All the arrangements were made in advance. A carriage having been secured for the purpose and its driver given careful instructions, the two priests called on Don Bosco and invited him to join them for a ride. Their victim seemed obliging enough and without suspicion. But, politely bidding his hosts to enter the carriage first, he fastened the door behind them and shouted to the driver to be off quickly. The two flustered clerics had a difficult time convincing attendants at the asylum that they were not the insane party that was expected!
Building a Dream
Don Bosco, of course, was not crazy. His new-found certainty that, in the face of desperate circumstances, he would nonetheless build a thriving religious community for boys came from another of his dream visions. In 1845, Our Lady showed him where the famed Turin martyrs – Solutor, Adventor, and Octavius – were put to death. The Queen of Martyrs told him: “I wish God to be honored in a special way in this holy place.”
Saint John wrote: “She placed Her foot on the very spot where the first martyr fell . . . I then saw a numberless throng of boys come forward. A huge church appeared on the spot pointed out by Our Lady. . . .” In the vision were also shown him many priests and lay brothers who as a religious congregation would help him in his apostolate. But their success and unity, Our Lady plainly revealed to Her dreamer, would depend upon one thing above all others: Obedience.
The first realities of the dream came into being when a man named Pinardi rented Don Bosco a large, decrepit shed. At last, the Oratory had a home – what was to become, in fact, its permanent home.
But, just when the future of the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales seemed secure, the inscrutable Hand of Providence dealt a disastrous blow. The tremendous toil and suffering of the previous two years had taken their toll on poor Don Bosco. Not long after occupying the Pinardi shed, the saint arrived home from a strenuous day and collapsed. He had pneumonia.
He was put to bed immediately, but his condition only grew worse as the days passed. By the end of a week, death was imminent and the Last Sacraments were administered. Knowing that only a miracle could save the life of their beloved Father, the Oratory boys stormed heaven with their prayers. On through the nights, Rosary followed Rosary with no interruption. By day, the older boys went to their jobs fasting, giving no heed to the strains of their employment. (Many, for example, did construction work, hauling heavy loads of brick up levels of staging.) Some of the boys vowed perpetual acts of penance that would have left even monks of the desert fainthearted. But the saint’s life continued to slip away.
Convinced that it was God’s will, he wanted to die. His close friend and assistant Don Borel at last saw the problem and begged the dying priest to pray for his own cure. But Don Bosco would only answer: “May God’s holy will be done!”
“Now I know you will get well,” said Don Borel. “Your own prayer was all that was needed.” Sure enough! Death immediately began to retreat and, after a period of convalescence in Becchi, Don Bosco resumed his great apostolate.
This time he was joined by saintly Mamma Margherita, who sold her earthly possessions to share in his life of poverty. Hundreds of Oratory boys claimed her as their own beloved mother until her death ten years later.
The Oratory Grows
It was, as John now realized, indeed God’s will that he should live – live to devote his whole life to youth. And the saint responded to the Divine Will with this solemn pledge: “As long as a thread of life is left to me, I will devote it to the spiritual and temporal good of my children.” No matter how closely one may scrutinize the life of this phenomenal man – and perhaps no man’s life has been given so thorough an account – never once will it be found that he slackened in that resolve even for a moment.
Boys continued to find their way in increasing numbers to Don Bosco’s spiritual shelter in Turin’s Valdocco section. Nor was any ever turned away for lack of space or means to provide for new additions. So by 1847 more than six hundred were attending classes at the Oratory, far too many for the old Pinardi shed, which already had been enlarged twice. Also, by this time the saint had begun boarding the homeless at these humble quarters. A second and then a third Oratory, therefore, were soon opened in other parts of Turin. Meanwhile, more classes were added to the school curricula. Shops to teach the boys a wide variety of trades were opened. And, while the facilities were poor, the quality of education being offered left nothing to be desired. It was recognized even by bitterly anti-Catholic government officials as the finest, producing the best instructed students in all of Piedmont.
In 1851, Don Bosco purchased the Pinardi house and began construction of a church dedicated to his patron, Saint Francis de Sales, on the site of the old shed. The following year, the Pinardi house was torn down to make way for a new dormitory. And so it went, the special Bosco apostolate always growing, always seeking and finding new means to save young souls.
But what is so amazing about this growth is not merely the superhuman effort of the holy priest who brought it all about, but that he began every one of these new projects with absolutely no money. He had complete faith in Divine Providence and in Mary, Help of Christians, that somehow the money would be provided. And somehow it always was, oftentimes in most miraculous ways.
Secrets of Success
That the festive Oratories were renowned as the finest schools for boys in Piedmont is due simply to the fact that Don Bosco was the greatest educator of modern times. And his secret of envied success in that field is embodied in the pithy wisdoms with which he counseled his assistant priests: “Make yourselves loved if you wish to be obeyed. Be fathers, not superiors.” Or for another: “Without affection, there is no confidence. Without confidence, no education.” These thoughts are the essence of what John Bosco called the preventive system of education as opposed to the repressive system. But he hastened to caution those who would imitate it, that its foundation was Catholic charity and religion, without which it could not succeed.
But why did he sacrifice his life for youth? For two reasons, both of which are summarized by the two mottoes that were prominently displayed in his room. One was from Christ Himself: “Only one thing is necessary: to save one’s soul.” And the other was from Don Bosco’s patron, Saint Francis de Sales: “Give me souls, away with the rest.” In other words, he saw saving others’ souls, especially young ones, as the certain means of his own salvation. For, as he frequently stated, to help save souls is the greatest act of charity one can perform. He therefore asked every new boy who came to the Oratory “to be my great friend.” And only one thing was necessary to become Don Bosco’s great friend: “You must help him to save your soul; the rest matters little.”
In that purpose he urged each one to ask the Help of Christians every day for the grace needed for salvation. And he encouraged all to make the Blessed Sacrament the center of their lives. “If you wish Our Lord to grant you many graces, visit Him often. If you wish the devil to assault you, visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament but rarely.”
Every soul in Don Bosco‘s care, no matter how great the number grew, was given his heavenly guidance. God had blessed him with the special grace of being able to discern the state of a conscience merely by looking at the person. At recreation times, he would be seen moving among the crowds of boys, stopping to whisper in each one’s ear words of spiritual counsel or encouragement that were appropriate to that one soul. “Jesus is waiting for you to visit Him in the chapel.” “Discontinue such and such a habit.” “Courage! Invoke Mary, and She will help you.” “Endeavor to make a good confession, and you will have great joy.” “Avoid those bad companions.” And so forth. He would also leave little notes containing similar counsels under the pillows of boys he knew to need closer spiritual attention. And in every instance the desired .effect immediately could be read on the youngster’s face.
There are many verified accounts about Don Bosco’s extraordinary faculty for mystically divining consciences, and all are as fascinating as they are varied. Some include instances in which a priest, acting as superior in the saint’s absence, would receive a letter from him written days earlier to inform the priest of certain acts of mischief being performed by errant boys at the Oratory at the very moment that the letter was read! Indeed, it is known that the holy man could actually smell the spiritual foulness of mortal sin on a soul – an odor which he described as horrible.
Patron of Catholic Publishers
Textbooks suitable for Catholic education were extremely hard to come by under the stringent limitations imposed by the anticlerical government. This naturally led our resourceful Apostle of Youth to write his own. And, as can be imagined, he always managed to impart Catholic lessons and values, regardless of how remote they might have been to the subject actually being taught. We find in one of his arithmetic texts, for example, this problem: “A son spends two francs a week in smoking tobacco and five francs playing billiards. How much would he have at the end of a year, if he abstained from such habits?”
In all, John Bosco published over a hundred works on a remarkable variety of subjects, including a history of Italy, an ecclesiastical history, biographies, plays, devotional writings, humorous writings, and even a Catholic almanac. Contrary to the literary fashions of contemporary writers who labored to compose flowery tomes to challenge the loftiest intellects, Saint John worked at writing in the clearest, simplest language that a child could understand. Yet he did so with a brilliance so widely envied that, in fact, he revolutionized literary styles.
But he is invoked as a Patron of Catholic publishers for greater reasons. “The spreading of good books among the people,” he wrote, “is one of the means to preserve the reign of the Savior in so many souls…. Good books are all the more necessary nowadays since irreligion and immorality avail themselves of this weapon to spread havoc throughout the fold of Jesus Christ, and to draw the unwary and the disobedient to perdition.”
Since shortly after his ordination, Don Bosco had applied himself to the practice of compiling substantial arguments in defense of the Faith, which in those times was increasingly under attack. The practice led him to fill many notebooks with his masterful expositions. In later years, largely by stealing from what little sleep he allowed himself, he published numerous writings to counter the flood of falsehoods that had gained currency. He even launched for that purpose a periodical entitled Catholic Readings. The following is taken from one of its numbers:
The Catholic Church is the only Church founded by Jesus Christ. No one can call himself a Catholic and still reject the Pope. Disaster awaits one who cuts himself off from the Vicar of Christ; he will become an outcast without salvation. One who does not have the Church for his mother cannot have God for his father.
Let the same Faith, the same commandments, the same sacraments, and the same charity unite us all in life and in death. Above all, let us take advantage of the sacrament of Penance, the powerful means instituted by Christ Himself to confer the merits of His passion and death on our souls, to free them from the clutches of the devil, and to shut the gates of hell while opening those of heaven. Amen.
In another issue he wrote:
My dear friends, the enemies of Catholicism, and especially the Waldensians, are doing their utmost to undermine our beliefs. We exhort and urge all who cherish the Faith of their fathers to join us in defending this most precious gift of God. Help us to spread Catholic Readings so that we may unmask deceit and heresy and safeguard the Catholic Faith of our people. It alone has the whole truth. Without it one cannot please God. Outside of it no one can be saved.
Perhaps it was his writings more than anything that won wide acclaim for Don Bosco. He was in great demand everywhere to preach and hear confessions. And, having received faculties from the pope to hear confessions quocumque ecclesia et loco – in any church in the world – he accepted as many of those invitations as time would allow.
Indeed, John Bosco, unlike other saints who have challenged the evils of their days, is clearly exceptional in having achieved so much fame and honor during his lifetime. His reputation carried across all of Europe, even to the remote French parish of Ars and its holy curate Saint John Marie Vianney. Another distinguished personage travelled all the way from Venice just to meet him. This was Monsignor Guiseppi Sarto, now honored as Pope Saint Pius X. Monsignor Sarto was invited to dine at Father Bosco’s humble table. Yet the meal was too meager even for this saint, who afterwards had to visit a nearby restaurant to ease his hunger! But, as well known and loved as Don Bosco had become through his writings and reputation, he also made many enemies at the same time.
Freemasonry in Italy was joined in its menacing purpose by its close kin, Carbonarism, a poor man’s Freemasonry of sorts. That purpose was officially stated by the Carbonari in these words: “Our final purpose is that of Voltaire and the French Revolution, the total annihilation of Catholicism and of the Christian idea itself!” Such were the rabid powers that controlled the government in those times. In 1849, they drove Pope Pius IX into exile along with many of the Church’s hierarchical leaders and religious orders. Later, they would seize the Papal States, and ultimately, Rome itself.
In the climate of perverted ideas of liberty that prevailed at the time, Protestant sects enjoyed full freedom to attack the Church and to spread their errors. It was becoming increasingly common to find deluded Catholics in Italy – and elsewhere – embracing sectarian doctrines and helping to infect others with them.
Don Bosco’s preaching and writing were tremendously effective remedies to this spiritual poison. Always disarmingly charitable in his words, he never inveighed against the heretics, but simply confuted their falsehoods with gentle yet compelling expositions of the true Faith. Unable to gainsay his irrefutable teachings, many of the sectarians converted. Others retreated in defeat to distant towns. But some began plotting to kill him.
From 1852 on, Saint John was the target of assassination, first by fanatical members of the Waldensian sect and then by revolutionaries. Some attempted to poison him; others attacked him in gangs; and others still tried to lure him into nocturnal ambush under the ruse that someone was dying and needed a priest. Once he was shot at, the bullet so narrowly missing its mark that it pierced a corner of the saint’s cassock. Another time he was attacked by a man with a knife, feigning madness, who admitted he had been hired for the job by Masonic revolutionaries.
Some of the luckless assassins learned unhappily that the meek priest possessed phenomenal strength and could use it. But unfortunately Don Bosco did not always escape the attacks unharmed. In one encounter his shoulder and his thumb were badly smashed under crushing blows from a club.
Heaven did not leave him unprotected however. A huge gray dog, whom Don Bosco came to call “Grigio,” began appearing at the holy man’s side when he returned home late at night through Turin’s dark streets. This four-legged guardian angel saved Saint John’s life many times, arriving out of nowhere and disappearing just as mysteriously.
While the persecution of Don Bosco by rabid enemies of the Faith long continued, the attempts on his life abated somewhat after 1856. The reason perhaps was that these monstrous deeds were backfiring, provoking public indignation against the anti-Catholic causes that incited them. After all, Turin was deeply indebted to Reverend John Bosco and his Oratory boys who, during the awful cholera plague of 1854, demonstrated truly extraordinary heroism and sacrifice in administering to its abandoned victims. But where one evil force slackened its wrath somewhat, another took up the heinous cause.
For not just sectarians and revolutionaries were driven to rage by Don Bosco’s powerful writings. Early in 1862, the devil himself began tormenting the poor man, scattering his manuscripts, rattling his furniture, igniting ferocious blazes in his fireplace, raising his bed high off the floor to slam it down again violently, and, in short, doing every conceivable thing he could to rob the greatly overworked and exhausted priest of what little sleep he allowed himself. As time went on, the devil intensified his torments by appearing to the saint in all his hideousness and venting his terrifying fury at him. But Don Bosco patiently endured it all, having discovered that when God permitted the demon to assault him, he was compelled to leave off tempting the Oratory boys.
The Salesian Order
It was in 1859, during this period of persecution just described, that Don Bosco founded his religious congregation of priests and brothers, called Salesians after the patron of the Oratory, St. Francis de Sales. The order, founded at the insistence of Pope Pius IX, was approved in 1874. Missionaries were already being sent to Argentina as early as 1875. Before his death, Don Bosco had the joy of seeing thirty-eight houses of the order established in the Old World, twenty-six in the New, a pledge that the heaven-inspired work of the Oratory would continue.
Our beloved saint had also founded in 1872 a congregation of women called the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, for the care and education of needy girls. This he did in conjunction with St. Mary Dominic Mazzarello, who was raised to our altars in 1950. This order of nuns has become one of the largest congregations of women religious in the world today. Even before the death of the holy foundress, the order had spread not only to France, but even as far as South America.
Today Salesian houses are located far and wide, and include elementary and high schools, colleges, seminaries, hospitals, vocational schools, and foreign missions, all a monument to the holiness of St. John Bosco, and St. Mary Dominic Mazzarello.
A Model for Youth
The brightest jewel in the crown of St. John Bosco, and the heroic model of youthful virtue for our day, is Dominic Savio, proclaimed a Saint by Pope Pius XII. Even before he came under the influence of the “Apostle of Youth” at the age of twelve, Dominic had learned to love prayer, and had endeavored always to live in the Presence of God. At the time of his First Holy Communion, at the age of seven, he adopted a motto that revealed a wonderful spiritual maturity, “Death rather than sin.”
“I was quite impressed to see such wonderful workings of divine grace in a boy so young,” wrote Don Bosco, years later, recalling his first acquaintance with the holy lad.
Dominic had completed his elementary school education, and was brought by his pastor to the great educator of boys at Turin. The year was 1854. For three years he was to remain under the spiritual guidance of Don Bosco, while preparing himself for seminary training.
He consecrated himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary at this time, and made a promise to observe perpetual chastity. Fearing that, through the weakness of his human nature, he would fail Our Lady in this resolve, he begged the saint for heavy penances.
To this request Don Bosco replied, “The penance God asks is obedience. Do the penance of daily bearing with injuries, suffering, cold, heat, tiredness.”
Dominic was a true disciple of his master and soon exercised a profound influence over his companions, even the more unruly ones. His very presence discouraged bad language and unseemly behavior. Placing his own life in danger, he once ran into the midst of a group of boys, engaged in a bloody fight with stones, and broke it up. He carried on an apostolate that included catechism instruction and encouragement in frequenting the sacraments.
This apostolic work continued until, in the year 1856, he suddenly fell ill. When ordered home by physicians, he prophetically remarked, “I will never come back.” Once home, his state of ill-health gradually became more serious, until, on the morning of March 9, 1857, he felt constrained to ask for the Last Sacraments. Later the same day, when prayers for the dying were being recited, he responded clearly to each invocation. Shortly thereafter, his countenance suddenly filled with joy as he exclaimed, “What a beautiful sight I see!” and breathed forth his pure soul to God. Dominic Savio was canonized in 1954, just one hundred years after his first meeting with his beloved spiritual father, Don Bosco.
Last Years and Death
But now, age, and unremitting labor were taking their toll on the health and strength of Don Bosco. By 1883, he had lost the sight of one eye; that of the other was dim. As he walked, he must now lean upon a cane, or on the arm of a friend. Despite his infirmities, he courageously undertook a begging tour of France, since it was only by his own powerful presence that he could gain the enormous sums of money so necessary to the support of his undertakings. As he travelled from city to city, he said Mass, preached, heard confessions, blessed medals, signed photographs, never sparing himself in the pursuit of souls. On and on he went: Hyēres, Toulon, Marseilles, Avignon, and finally Paris, where his reception was a momentous triumph. To the thronging crowds he said, “I bless you all, my friends; yes, all, and I bless France!”
After Paris, he made his way to Amiens and Lille, Dijon and Dole, until, spent with exertion, he finally arrived home at Turin.
His condition now caused alarm to the new Pope, Leo XIII, who bade him urgently to name a successor. Don Bosco chose Don Michael Rua, who henceforth would carry the entire burden of the venerable founder’s work.
A resurgence of strength the following year enabled the intrepid apostle to go to Spain.
Here he established a Salesian house, collected funds, and as always, preached and worked miracles as he went.
By 1887, his eyesight had practically failed, and his legs were so weak that they could no longer carry him about. In a room adjacent to his, a small chapel was set up. Here he continued to offer the Holy Sacrifice until December of the same year. Henceforth he received Holy Communion at the hands of one of his sons.
Confined to his room, he received all with his characteristic generosity, for, although his body was worn with labors, his mind was as clear and bright as in his youth. As December passed, however, it was evident that he was failing rapidly. Now for the last time would he hear the confessions of his boys and give them fatherly counsel.
Don Bosco longed for paradise. His usefulness on earth was spent. He would not now join with his heart-broken followers as they begged for his recovery. He lingered on, however, for another month, his body paralyzed throughout. It was on January 29th, the feast of his patron, St. Francis de Sales, in the year 1888, that his last agony began. On the following day, priests and students filed into his presence to receive the pardon and blessing of the dying man. Just after the morning Angelus had rung on the 31st of January, Don Bosco, at the age of seventy-two, went forth to his eternal rest. His deathbed was surrounded by his loyal children, the fruits of a laborious life; their only consolation now, the memory of his last words, spoken a few days earlier before his powers had failed: “Tell my boys I am waiting for them in heaven.”