Saint John Bosco: Father and Teacher of Youth
“Having nothing, he obtained all things, and however wild his projects seemed in the eyes of the world, in the end they were accomplished.” Those profound words serve as a perfect tribute and testament to the incredible life of Saint John Bosco. To the scores of boys, young men, and other troubled souls that he tirelessly watched over while in the service of God, he was known simply as “Don Bosco.” As one friend put it, “His days were crushing, his nights reduced till there was very little left. When his sons begged him to take a rest-‘in Heaven,’ he said, ‘not on earth. When the devil rests in his work of ruining souls, then will I rest from fighting for them.’” Until he drew his final earthly breath on January 31, 1888, a date which is commemorated as a Feast Day to Don Bosco in the Roman Catholic Church, he never wavered in his mission. “Tell the boys that I shall be waiting for them all in Paradise,” he said in his final message. Ordained a priest in 1841, Don Bosco began ministering to boys and young men in the city of Turin, Italy. Many of these individuals were living on the rough streets. Lacking work and education, Don Bosco was broken-hearted to discover just how many of these boys ended up in prison before the age of 18. It was not just Don Bosco’s mission to save them from an empty future, it was his calling.
Don Bosco experienced many prophetic dreams throughout his life, but the one that turned out to be the key to his entire existence occurred at the age of nine. In the dream, young John Bosco was placed in a yard with a group of unruly boys. Although he initially shouted at the boys and began to hit them in an effort to steer them away from their bad behavior, a majestic figure in white appeared by his side and told him, “Not with blows, but with gentleness and charity, you must take care of them and win their hearts. Teach them the beauty of virtue and the ugliness of sin.” That majestic figure was then joined by his mother, who took John by the hand and showed him as the boys turned into wild animals. “This is your work,” she told him. The animals then vanished, replaced by lambs that happily flocked around the man and his mother. Who were these two figures? It was Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. As Don Bosco would come to understand later in his life, his destiny on earth was rooted in this dream and its meaning.
In Don Bosco, boys in need found a spiritual father and a faithful teacher. Through his compassion, humor, patience, understanding, and most importantly, through his works, they found hope and purpose. Dealing with endless financial woes, often moving from one place to another, and even facing attempts on his life, Don Bosco worked tirelessly to provide his boys with food, lodging, education, work opportunities and training, and religious instruction. To ensure that this work could continue and spread, he went on to found the Society of Saint Francis de Sales (also known as the Salesians of Don Bosco), which expanded to England, France, Spain, and South America before his death. Don Bosco also worked with Saint Mary Mazzarello to found a similar group for girls in the form of the Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians. “If you want to be loved,” Don Bosco told his disciples, “you yourselves must love, and make your children feel that you love them.”
For all that he accomplished in changing so many lives for the better, Don Bosco attributed it all to Mary, Help of Christians and Her intercession with God. As he wrote toward the end of his life, “Some day you will learn what a privilege it is to be in a Salesian House. I tell you that if a boy or young man comes into one of our houses, Our Lady, Help of Christians takes him under her very special protection.”
Don Bosco was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday 1934. Some 80,000 people from around the world were present for the special occasion. “God gave him largeness of heart as the sand on the seashore,” wrote Pope Pius XI about the beloved saint. Pope John Paul II later declared Don Bosco “Father and Teacher of Youth” on the 100th anniversary of his death. He is also the patron saint of young people, apprentices, and Catholic publishers and editors.