January 31: Saint John Bosco, Priest—Memorial
Patron Saint of apprentices, boys, editors, laborers, magicians, students
Canonized by Pope Pius XI on April 1, 1934
Liturgical Color: White
My sons, in my long experience, very often I had to be convinced of this great truth. It is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him. Yes, indeed, it is more fitting to be persistent in punishing our own impatience and pride than to correct the boys. We must be firm but kind, and be patient with them. See that no one finds you motivated by impetuosity or willfulness. ~Letter from St. John Bosco
The youngest of three sons, John Bosco was born into a poor family in northwest Italy in the rural hamlet of Becchi. His father, a farmhand for a neighboring family, died when John was only two. His mother continued to raise her sons with much love and affection.
Until the age of twelve, John spent most of his time trying to support the family by working as a shepherd and farmhand like his father. His family’s poverty made it difficult for him to obtain a good education. His learning came from his lived experience, homelife, and the sermons at church that he listened to attentively.
At the age of nine, John had the first of many dreams that would greatly influence him. In his dream, he came across a group of rough boys who were talking and cursing. John became angry with them and raised his fists to threaten them for their cursing. Suddenly, a man appeared in his dream who was radiant like the sun. The man said to John, “Conquer the hearts of these, your friends, not with violence but with charity. Begin at once. Teach them the evil of vice and the excellence of virtue.” When John asked the man who he was, the man replied, “I am the Son of the lady I will send to be your teacher.” With that, the Blessed Mother appeared in the dream and began to teach John about his future mission of caring for boys with kindness.
John began his “ministry” when he was only ten. He would attend the shows of entertainers who performed juggling, magic tricks, and acrobatics. John studied their shows and then attempted to imitate them for other boys, always including prayers within the show and lessons he learned from Sunday sermons.
As was typical with many boys, John and his brother were always fighting with each other. This was one of the reasons that John decided to leave home at age twelve to look for work. A few years later, John caught the attention of a newly ordained priest and future saint, Father Joseph Cafasso, who saw his intellectual gifts and assisted him with his education. By the time John was twenty, Father Cafasso, with the help of some money from John’s mother, helped him enroll in the seminary. After six years of study, at the age of twenty-six, John was ordained a priest.
After ordination, Father John joined his mentor, Father Cafasso, in Turin to continue his studies at the Institute of Saint Francis where Father Cafasso was in charge. The two also engaged in ministry to the poor and imprisoned, cared for girls at a boarding school, and assisted in country parishes. It was in the prisons that Father John became aware of the number of boys who needed help. Of this experience, he later wrote in his Memoirs, “I saw large numbers of young lads aged from 12 to 18, fine healthy youngsters, alert of mind, but seeing them idle there, infested with lice, lacking food for body and soul, horrified me. Public disgrace, family dishonor, and personal shame were personified in those unfortunates.” He thought to himself, “Who knows?…if these youngsters had a friend outside who would take care of them, help them, teach them religion…they could be steered away from ruin…” Many of them were repeat offenders, and Father John’s heart was drawn to help them. His dream from when he was nine years old began to come to fruition as he sought to teach them, encourage them, listen to them, and befriend them as a mentor and spiritual father.
Father John’s plan was to found an oratory to provide structure and purpose for these boys. He helped them get jobs by teaching trades. At the same time, he provided them with food and shelter, taught them catechism, and gave them moral guidance and hope. Within ten years, Father John was assisting as many as 800 boys in need.
Less than a decade later, in 1861, some of the boys Father John mentored wanted to follow in his footsteps and assist other boys. Therefore, Father John founded the Society of St. Francis de Sales with a priest, seminarians, and a high school boy. The Salesian Order was formally approved by the Vatican in 1869. In 1871 Father John expanded his mission by founding a Salesian religious order of women called the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians to care for girls. Finally, in 1874 he founded the Salesian Cooperators, a lay organization that worked with the male and female Salesian Orders.
Saint John Bosco saw a need as he encountered troubled, imprisoned, poor, orphaned, but good-hearted young boys. He followed his inspiration not to be harsh with them, but to offer them loving discipline, friendship, education, skills to support themselves, and a family within his oratory. This loving concern for these young boys overflowed into the hearts of many others, and God used this saintly man to save the souls of many by raising up an army of workers to care for them.
Ponder those in your life who are troubled, abandoned, disgraced, or struggling in other ways. Strive to imitate Saint John Bosco by seeing the good in them and helping to draw that goodness out so that they will find hope in the midst of their struggles with despair.
Saint John, your heart was a merciful one, and it was touched by the plight of many suffering boys living in poverty and imprisonment. You loved them with the heart of Christ and brought them hope. Please pray for me that I may see Christ in all people, never condemning or judging, but working to build them up as a loving minister of God’s compassionate heart. Saint John Bosco, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.