God, it is said, sends the world saints when they are most needed-not men and women of “general holiness,” but specialized experts who fit into the pattern of the times and are capable of giving God’s tone to their century.
And so it was that on August 16, I8I5 when one era was closing in Europe with the exile of Napoleon, and the Industrial Revolution was clanging another open, a man was sent by God whose name was John or popularly known as Don Bosco. He came to the scrubby stone cottage of Francis and Margaret Bosco on the hills of Becchi, at the foot of the Italian Alps.
John was the youngest son of the Bosco couple. When he was little more than two years old his father died, leaving the support of three boys to his mother. She was a woman of character and tenderness. Fathomless was the love she showed her sons, not in coddling words but in deeds; innumerable were the lessons in upright living, Christian fortitude, and fear of God, which she taught by her example. A pillar of goodness, she stood before them as sturdy as the very Alps. At her knee John first heard the voice of the Master calling him to a special assignment. It was a low insistent voice, an urge that once in a while manifested itself in a sudden outburst.
In 1825, when he was nine, John had the first of a series of dreams which would play an influential role in his outlook and work. This first dream “left a profound impression on him for the rest of his life”, according to his own memoirs. John now knew his vocation. But the priesthood meant studies, and poverty prevented him for further education. John’s early years were spent as a shepherd, and he received his first instruction from a parish priest. His childhood experiences are thought to have inspired him to become a priest.
On a cold morning of February 1827, John left his home and went to look for work as a farm-servant. At 12, he found life at home unbearable because of the continuous quarrels with his brother who doesn’t want him to be a priest. Having to face life by himself at such a young age may have developed his later sympathies to help abandoned boys. After begging unsuccessfully for work, John ended up at the wine farm of Louis Moglia. Although John could pursue some studies by himself, he was not able to attend school for two more years. In 1830 he met Joseph Cafasso, a young priest who identified some natural talent and supported his first schooling. In 1835 John entered the seminary at Chieri, next to the Church of the Immacolata Concezione. After six years of study, he was ordained priest on the eve of Trinity Sunday by Archbishop Franzoni of Turin.
On becoming a priest (1841) he chose as his life’s programme: “Da mihi animas cetera tolle” (“Give me souls, take all the rest” Gen. 14: 21). He began his apostolate among poor young people with the founding of the Oratory, which he placed under the patronage of St. Francis of Sales.
He Led Young People to Meet Christ
By means of his educational style and pastoral practice, based on reason, religion and loving kindness (the Preventive System) he led young people to reflect, to meet Christ and their brothers and sisters, to the study of the faith and to apostolic, civil and professional commitment. St. Dominic Savio stands out among the most outstanding fruits of his work.
Such generosity of spirit could not go unrewarded by God, for whom this priest slaved the 72 years of his life. Besides providing for his work, God gave him the gift of miracles. With his blessing, Don Bosco cured people disease. After his prayers on their behalf, the deaf heard, the lame walked, and once, a dead boy was raised to life. He had the gift of prophecy. He could read consciences, and used this gift to assist penitents in confession. He could foretell one’s vocation, as well as one’s future.
All these gifts were so common that Pope Pius XI said, “In Don Bosco the extraordinary becomes ordinary.” They were given to him in partial reward for his exceptional self-sacrifice and as a seal of divine approval of his work.
Don Bosco often told his young people that being a saint was easy. His holiness was attractive because it was rooted in charity and exceptional purity that drew people to him. Though he sometimes did extraordinary penances, he would never allow them to his boys. “Sanctity is easy!” he would say. He told his Salesians and the young people that God wants us to be happy and to rejoice in the love of Jesus. Just do your duty in school, at home, at work the best you can. Offer you life to God: the happy times and the sad or challenging things: life sends many opportunities to join in the sufferings of Jesus: bad weather, disappointments, physical illness, sorrow these will make you saints. St. Dominic Savio, one of his students who died at the age of 14, is Don Bosco’s proof to the world that holiness is not a monopoly of the monastery or of the desert. It belongs everyone, the young and the old.