Feast day: 31 January
John Bosco, also known as Don Bosco, was born on 16 August 1815 in the hillside hamlet of Becchi, in a region of Italy called Castelnuovo d’Asti which was renamed Castelnuovo Don Bosco, in honour of the saint. He was the youngest son of Francesco Bosco and Margherita Occhiena. John Bosco was born at a time of great hardship in Piedmont due the the ravages of the Napoleonic wars. The Boscos were farmhands in the service of the Moglian family. His father died when John was only two years old and his mother was left with three boys to rear. She had a strong influence on him and supported his ideals.
When he was nine he had a series of dreams which would steer the course of his future life, which he recounted in his memoirs. In the first he saw a group of poor boys playing and blaspheming and a man in rich robes said to him: “You will have to win these friends of yours, not with blows but with gentleness and kindness.”
He always acted as referee when his classmates fought, and they were afraid of him because he could judge their characters. When a group of travelling entertainers came to the nearby hills, he studied the perfomances of the jugglers and acrobats and subsequently put on shows of his own. These would begin and end with prayer.
Poverty prevented him from going to school, and he became a shepherd. He was impressed by sermons he had heard at a parish mission and resolved to become a priest. However this was considered a profession for the privileged classes and he was discouraged by his brother Antonio, who said John was just a farmer. Eventually, after quarrels with this elder brother, he left home and eventually found work on the wine farm of Louis Moglia. He managed to do some study on his own and two years later in 1830 he met a young priest called Joseph Cafasso, who saw his natural talent and supported his first schooling. His mother managed to earn enough money to finance this. In 1835 he entered the seminary at Chieri, next to the Church of Immacolata Concezione. In 1841, after six years of study, he was ordained a priest on the eve of Trinity Sunday by the Archbishop of Turin.
After his ordination John went to Turin, where Cafasso headed the Institute of St Francis of Assisi, which provided higher education for the diocesan priests. Industrialiation was drawing people from the country and creating slums where poor people lived. John accompanied his mentor in visiting prisons and was concerned at the recidivism of the young offenders. He began to work with orphaned and abandoned boys, teaching them catechism and helping them to find work. When he completed his studies Cafasso secured an appointment for him as almoner to the Rifugio, a girl’s boarding school, so that he could remain in Turin. His others duties included visiting prisoners, teaching catechism and helping out in many country parishes.
John found that the traditional methods of parish ministry were inadequate and that another approach was needed. He began to look for jobs for the unemployed. Some of the boys were homeless and slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories. He tried to provide lodgings in his house and suffered all kinds of theft. However he did not give up and he and his mother “Mamma Margherita” began to take in orphans. The number sheltered grew from 36 in 1852 to 600 in 1861 and to a maximum of 800 somewhat later. However, complaints were made to the authorities about noise and that the priest’s meeting with the boys might lead to revolution and the group was evicted.
In the Salesian archives there are the first contracts of apprenticeship to be found in Turin. All of them are signed by the employer, the apprentice and Don Bosco. He knew that conditions were harsh for the boys and tried to make life easier for them. He obliged the employers to engage them in their acknowledged trade, instead of taking advantage of them and using them as slave labour. They were to correct the boys verbally rather than beating them and they were to be given rest on feast days and an annual holiday. However the situation for the apprentices remained precarious.
John Bosco had a friend in the Justice Minister of Piedmont, Urbano Rattazzi. He was anti-clerical and was putting through legislation to suppress the religious orders. However he encouraged Don Bosco in his idea of a “Congregation of St Francis de Sales.”
Don Bosco was alarmed at the influences of the French Revolution and called Voltaire and Rousseau “two leaders of vicious incredulity.” He strongly supported the authority of the Pope. He was dismayed that the Kingdom of Sardinia was suppressing monastic orders and confiscating church property and he wrote to King Victor Emmanuel. The King did not respond but later said that Don Bosco was to be left alone. This may have been because several members of the royal family had died and Victor Emmanuel may have felt this was divine retribution.
Opposition to Don Bosco came from many quarters. Traditionalist clergy accused him of stealing the young and old people from their parishes. His gathering of large numbers of young men was regarded by the authorities as a recruiting ground for revolution. He fell foul of the Marquis de Cavour, Chief of Police in Turin, who saw his open air catechisms as a threat to the state and was very suspicious of Don Bosco’s support for the pope. Several attempts were made on his life.
Supported by boys he had helped, Don Bosco with the aid of a highly experienced priest formed the Society of St Francis de Sales. This was the origin of the Salesians who would carry on his work. Don Bosco chose this saint because he was inspired by his humanity and kindness which he wanted to imitate in his work. The congregation was divided into priests, seminarians and lay brothers. He also worked with Maria Mazzarello and a group of girls in the hill town of Mornese. In 1871 he founded “The Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians”, who would do for girls what the Salesians were doing for boys. He also founded a lay group to perform the same work.
The Salesians sent missionaries to Argentina. Don Bosco would have liked to become a missionary himself but was prevented from dong so by his mentor Cafasso. He had a dream where he saw missionaries being massacred but a second group of his own Salesians were unharmed by the warriors, who listened to what they had to say. Don Bosco searched to find the country of his dream and eventually settled on Patagonia, Argentina. The Bishop of Buenos Aires indicated that he would be pleased to receive the Salesians. Don Bosco requested volunteers and there was a good response. The Salesians subsequently sent missionaries to many other countries.
Don Bosco gave an address on the systems of education at the opening of the St Peter’s Youth Centre in Nice. He used the term “Preventative System in the Education of Youth” and published an essay in 1877 under that title. He included in this the initial daft of the Rule of the Salesian Congregation. He espoused the values of reason, religion and loving kindness, with the aim of producing “good Christians and honest citizens.” It was not innovatative but it drew on contemporary criticisms of the outdated punitive educational systems in Europe. He wrote extensively, including contributions to the Salesian bulletin. He was an excellent historian and wrote ”A Compendium of Italian History from the Fall of the Roman Empire”, which was regarded highly by scholars. He also wrote many biographies, including one on his mentor Cafasso and one on a student Dominic Savio. The biographical memoirs of St John Bosco, compiled by Giovanni Lemoyne, now published in English in nineteen volumes, give a comprehensive account of the practical work of the saint and include Don Bosco’s own memoirs.
He died on 31 January 1888. Pope Pius XI, who had known him, promoted his cause, beatifying him in 1929, and canonising him in 1934. He was given the title ”Father and Teacher of Youth”.
St John Bosco, pray for us.