Saint John Bosco, Priest

John Bosco was born in 1815 in the village of Becchi in the Piedmont district of northern Italy, and grew up on his parents’ small farm. On the death of his father when John was only two years old, his mother Margaret and her three boys found it increasingly difficult to support themselves. Even as a small boy, John had to help his brothers on the farm. He was remembered as a happy and imaginative child who liked to entertain his friends with juggling and walking on a tightrope, but would insist on beginning and ending these sessions with a prayer.

As he grew older, he began to think of becoming a priest, although poverty and lack of education seemed to rule this out. A kind priest, recognising the boy’s intelligence, taught him to read and write. By taking odd jobs in the village, and through the help of his mother and some kind neighbours, John managed to finish his schooling and was then able to enter the diocesan seminary in Turin.

As a seminarian, he devoted his spare time to looking after the poor boys who roamed through the slums of the city. Every Sunday he taught them catechism, supervised their games, and amused them with stories and tricks. His kindness soon won their confidence and they became regulars at his Sunday School.

Upon becoming a priest (now called, ‘Don’), Bosco knew very clearly in what direction his vocation was to be lived. The Industrial Revolution was spreading into Northern Italy, resulting in a great deal of poverty, turmoil and revolution on the streets of the city. Young people lived awful lives, whatever the cost to themselves or others. He was shocked at the conditions they endured and the things they did to enable them to eat, and to survive.

This was the cost of the industrial ‘improvement’ that would eventually produce the high standards people would later enjoy. The young priest, Don Bosco, clearly saw his vocation when he visited the prisons. He wrote:

To see so many children, from 12 to 18 years of age, all healthy, strong, intelligent, lacking spiritual and material food, was something that horrified me.

In the face of such a situation he made his decision and wrote:

I must, by any available means, prevent children ending up here.

He knew that a new approach was required. He needed to show there were better ways for these healthy intelligent young people to lead their lives.

Following his ordination to the priesthood in 1841 at the age of 26, he became assistant to the chaplain of an orphanage at Valocco, on the outskirts of Turin. However, he did not stay there very long. When he was refused permission to allow his Sunday School boys to play on the orphanage grounds, he resigned. He began looking for a permanent home for them but no “respectable” neighbourhood would accept the rowdy youngsters. Finally, in a rather rundown part of the city, where no one was likely to protest, the first oratory was established and named after Saint Francis de Sales.

At first, the boys got their schooling elsewhere but, as more volunteer teachers came forward, it was possible to hold classes at the oratory. Enrollment increased so rapidly that by 1849, there were three oratories in various places in the city. By now Don Bosco had been considering founding a religious congregation to carry on and expand the work. Surprisingly, this proposal was supported by a notoriously anti-clerical cabinet minister named Rattazzi. He had seen the results of John’s apostolate and, even though an Italian law forbade the founding of religious communities at that time, Rattazzi promised government support.

Don Bosco went to Rome in 1858 and, at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX, drew up a rule for his new community, the Society of Saint Francis de Sales (more popularly known as the Salesians). Four years later he founded a congregation for women, the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, to take care of abandoned girls. Finally, to supplement the work of both congregations, he organized an association of lay people interested in supporting their work.

When others talked to him of his great achievements, he would always interrupt and say:

I have done nothing by myself. It is Our Lady who has done everything.

Exhausted from touring Europe to raise funds for a new church in Rome, Don Bosco died on January 31, 1888, at the age of 73. He was canonised in 1934 by Pope Pius XI.

The work of John Bosco continues today in over 1,000 Salesian oratories throughout the world. He is remembered for his warmth of manner, and in his belief that to give complete trust and love is the most effective way to nourish virtue in others. His success can be summed up in the words spoken of his chosen patron, St Francis de Sales:

The measure of his love was that he loved without measure.

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