Saint John Bosco
On Aug. the 16th 1815 at night fall in a humble house of Becchi (North Italy) was born John Bosco whom Urbano Rattazzi called “the greatest marvel of the 19th century”.
Little Johnny was the son of poor peasant folk who had been marked by the invisible Hand of God for the peculiar task of bringing up the future Apostle of Youth, the father of many orphans, the comforter of numberless poor; of him, who was to bring the light of the Cross of Christ to shine in places never before reached by the apostles or their successors, nor by the mighty Eagles of Rome.
His father, Francis Bosco, pious, honest and hardworking, resembled Joseph of the Gospels. In the last century Piedmont, and especially Chieri, was rich in this type of peasants who, though unlettered, were wise, just and devout. His mother, Margherita Occhiena, now remembered everywhere in the Pampas, along the Cordilleras of the Andes in Tierra del Fuego, under the simple name of “Mother Margherita”, was a silent woman, shrewd and prudent, the true model of a Christian mother.
Little Johnny absorbed these virtues with his mother’s milk; his father’s qualities were born with him. He never had him as an example, for Francis Bosco died in 1817.
In the last moments of his life, he called his wife to his bedside and said to her: “I die resigned to the will of God. I entrust our sons to your care, but most especially do I leave you Johnny”.
“I was hardly two years old”, says Don Bosco, “When my father died, and I do not remember his face, I do not know what happened to me in those sorrowful moments, but I have not forgotten, (and this is the first incident in my life that I do remember) how my mother said to me: – now you are fatherless!-everyone left the room where my father lay, but I would not go. My mother took up a bowl of eggs kept in bran and begged me sadly “come Johnny, come along with me”. “If father does not come with us, I will not go” said I, “Poor child replied my mother, come with me, you have no father any longer” and she burst into tears. Taking me by the hand she dragged me away, whilst I cried because I saw her crying; at this tender age, I could not have understood how great a loss was the death of a father. Still I always remembered the words “Now you are fatherless”.
In this way, the father of thousands of orphans, was orphaned at a tender age. To him who does not take things superficially, certain ordinary occurrences, which seem at first sight to be an irreparable misfortunes, become in the Hands of God experiences and apprenticeships bearing abundant fruit.
Here is the physical portrait of John Bosco as given to us by the pen of Don Lemoyne his biographer, from whom we take this description; “John was pleasant to look at; slim and agile, his head crowned by thick curly hair, dark brown in colour, his eyebrows of the same shade. His face was oval in shape, his cheeks full. The brow wide and serene. His eyes were most penetrating and changing in colour. His nose was good, the chin well modeled, the lips always calmly smiling.
His temperament was by nature excitable, as well as hard, unbending. He had great difficulty in gaining a mastery over himself. Of a serious deposition, firm of purpose, he spoke little and observed much. He took note of what people said, tried to understand the thoughts and the character of those around him thereby regulating his own conduct. Possessing much courage and plenty of skill, he had no trouble in following any art or handicraft practiced by others. So this boy, profited more than his brothers by the wise teachings of his mother, whose aim was ever to turn towards God every natural gift or talent; he grew up to be humble, pure, obedient and wise, his person radiating such an atmosphere of moral beauty, that to be near him was to feel contentment and joy”.
When he was nine years old, he had a dream that was like an initiation into his future lifework. This is how he tells it himself:
At the age of nine, I had a dream that remained for life engraved on my mind. I dreamt I was in the spacious courtyard of a house. This court was full of boys at play some of them laughing, some playing, many of them swearing. Hearing those blasphemies, I flew at them with my fists, crying to them to stop such words. At this moment, there appeared a man of venerable appearance, most nobly clad. A white mantle draped his person, and his face was so luminous that I could hardly contemplate it.
He called me by name and commanded me to take charge of these boys, adding “Not with blows, it is only by kindness and love that you will gain their friendship. So begin at once to teach them the evil of sin and the excellence of virtue”. Abashed and frightened, I replied that I was a poor ignorant child incapable of teaching religion to those youth. Now, the boys had ceased their quarrels, their noise and their swearing and had gathered about Him who spoke to me. Hardly knowing what I said, “Who are you, I asked who command me to do such an impossible thing?” “It is just because the thing appears impossible to you that you must make it possible by obedience and by learning” “Where can I go to acquire learning, I said,” “I will give you a teacher under whose care, you will grow to be learned”. But who are you who speak to me in this way”? “I am the Son of Her whom your mother taught you to remember three times a day”. “My mother tells me not to associate with people I do not know without her permission so you must tell me your name”. “Ask my name to my mother”.
And at the same moment, I saw at his side a Lady of beautiful appearance clad in a mantle, resplendent all over as though each part of it, was a luminous star.
Perceiving that my questions and the answers brought me no explanation I decided to approach, then She took me by the hand, very kindly and “Look”, She said, I turned and saw the boys were all gone, and in their place were a lot of goats, dogs, cats, bears and many other animals.
“This is your field, this is where you are to work”, went on the Lady. “Make yourself humble, strong and enduring and what you see now happening to these animals, you will have to bring about for my Son”.
I looked round and instead of the wild animals I beheld many gentle lambs, which came running and skipping about this Man and the Lady, as if to salute them.
Still in my dream. I began to cry and begged the Lady to speak plainly, for I could not understand the significance of these things. Then, she put her hand on my head and said, “In good time you will understand everything”. After this, some noise woke me and everything disappeared. I was amazed, it seemed to me that my knuckles ached from the knocks I had given and that my face was sore from the cuffs received at the hands of those ruffians. The personages seen, the things said and heard filled my mind to such an extent that I could sleep no more that night.
In the morning, I immediately told my dream to my family, first to my brothers who laughed, then to my mother and grandmother. Each one gave my dream his own interpretation: my brother Joseph said: “You will be a shepherd of goats, sheep and other animals”. Antony said sharply “Perhaps he will become robber chief”. My mother “Who knows but that he might become a priest”. And my grandmother, who could not read but knew the scriptures, gave out the final verdict “One should not take notice of dreams”.
It was my grandmother’s way of thinking, but still I could not get the dream out of my mind. Things, that I will tell of presently will give this some significance. I always held my tongue about this dream, my family never gave it a thought but when in 1858 I went to Rome to confer with the Pope on questions concerning the Salesian Congregation, he made me tell him everything that in any way seemed supernatural that had happened to me, then I related for the first time this dream I had had at the age of nine. The Pope bade me to write it down in detail in its literal sense, and leave it as an encouragement to the members of the congregation whose organization was the reason of my visit to Rome”.
In this dream of Don Bosco, we see the whole future of his life: his vocation, his inspiration, his methods and his success. This was not only dream, numerous were those that formed such a curious characteristic, of this wonderful man, who in middle of the XIXth century during a life full of practical work was for ever dreaming.
Don Lemoyne says that the name of Don Bosco and the word “dream” are synonymous. Whatever value, one accords to such phenomenon which lasted over sixty years of his life one is tempted to ask oneself, “What work of genius was ever anything but the pursuit of a dream?”.
The first dream determined the lifework of the great educator of youth. Long before this, he had felt that his vocation was that of caring for the young. Later he writes: “To get boys together, to teach them their catechism, was a bright dream of mine from the early age of five. This seemed to me to be the only thing worth doing in life”. And truly the fascination he exercised over other children was marvelous. As soon as they saw him, they would run to hear him talk. His stories, his pretty ways and his appearance charmed them. He loved them with a strangely tender love and suffered to see them neglected and less beloved by others.
One day, his observant mind made him notice the conduct of the clergy, whom he nevertheless respected and admired for their zeal and courage. He spoke of it to his mother: If I were a priest, he said, I would act differently. I would try in touch with the boys, I would call them to me, I would love them and get them to love me. I would say good things to them and give them good advice; I would consecrate myself entirely to their eternal salvation. How happy I should feel, if I could speak oftener with my Provost. “What can one do” answered his mother, “they are men full of learning, full of serious thoughts, they have difficulty in adapting themselves to a boy like you!”. “But what difficulty would they have in saying a kind word to me? in stopping for a moment to speak to me?”. “And what would you have them say to you?”. “Some word that would do me good.” “Don’t you see they have many things to do in the confessional, in the pulpit and with all the other duties of the parish”. “But we boys are also their parishioners”. “Yes, that is true, but they have no time to lose”. “Did Jesus lose time when He called the children to him? When he chided the Apostles for wanting to keep them away, and to let them come for such was the Kingdom of Heaven?”. “I will not say you are wrong, I think you are right, but what can you do?”. “I, oh you will see, if I can be a priest, I will give my life to the boys. They will never see me cold and serious; I will be the first to speak to them.
Such was the ideal of this wonderful child: love of boys, for whose good God had created him.
This ideal filled his thoughts during his childhood and helped him to prepare for his first communion with much fervour and extreme joy.
Our John was eleven years old when he first met new chaplain of Murialdo, Don Joseph Calosso struck by the grace and bearing of this boy, he took a special interest in him questioned him and was astonished by his answers, his intelligence, his memory and his solid piety. He asked him: “Would you like to study?”. “Very much indeed” answered the boy. “What hinders you from studying?”. “My brother Antony”. “Why will he be not let you to study?”. “Because he says I am wasting my time and he wants me for the work of the fields”. “To become a priest”. “And why do you want to be a priest?”. “To teach religion to so many of my companions, who are not naturally bad, but will become so if no one cares for them”. And so the conversation went on, and Don Calosso saw with what kind of a boy he had to deal. He kept him in sight, he invited him to his house, first taught him to be an acolyte and when later the difficulties brought up by his brother Antony had been solved by the help of his mother, the kind chaplain gave him lessons regularly.
Shephered –Artisans –Juggler.
Still this brother Antony was against his being occupied with books, instead of attending to the work in the fields. He began with reproaches and unkindness and ended by persecuting the boy with bad languages and blows.
Mother Margherita, for the love of peace, and to prevent any more misfortunes, decided to send little Johnny away from his home, hiring him out to some good peasants as a farm hand.
This was no easy task in winter time. The boy went first to Serra Di Buttigliera, then to Moriondo to some friends, but he was too shrewd not to feel himself unwanted there and he came back home. His mother sent him to the farm of Moglia. He arrived there towards evening.
Coming into the yard where the whole family was busily preparing willow sticks for the vines, he heard a voice demanding: “Whom do you want, my boy?” “Lewis Moglia” “I am he, what do you want?” “My mother has sent me to you as a servant”. “Who is your mother and why does she send you away from home so young?”. “My mother’s name is Margherita Bosco; seeing that my brother Antony ill-treated me and beat me, she said: take these two shirts and these two hankerchiefs and go to the Bausone and look for a job, if you find nothing, go to the farm of Moglia which is between Mombello and Moncucco, there speak to the farmer. Tell them your mother sent you, and I hope he will take you in”. “My poor boy, replied Lewis Moglia, “I cannot engage you, it is winter time and he who has farmhands pays them off. Be patient, go back to your home”. “Take me out of charity, cried John, “pay me nothing, only let me stay with you”. “But I do not want you in my house, you will not know how to do anything”. John burst into tears, and through his sobs he kept saying: “Take me in, take me in, I will sit down here on the ground and I will not go: No, no, do not send me away!” And he actually began gathering up the willows with the other workers in the yard. The farmer’s wife, Dorothy Moglia, touched by his tears succeeded in persuading her husband to take the boy into the house, at least for a few days. John Bosco become a shepherd of flocks.
In the Old Testement, we see the great Patriarchs, high priests, kings, mighty and inspired, were chosen from among Shepherds. Providence must have found the method good, for we see it continued in the New Testament. Superiors of great religious families and even occupants of the See of Saint Peter are taken from the flocks, they fed or from fruitful meditations on the banks of streams, or from quiet hour spent under poplar trees or on the slopes of fertile valleys.
After about two years spent on the Moglia farm, in the month of December 1829, thanks to the interest taken in him by his maternal uncle Michael, he was able to go home to attend Don Calosso’s school, who very willingly took him into his house.
Don Calosso died on the 21st of November 1830, so after only one year of study, during which Johnny had made good progress, he was again stranded. Still he never lost courage. He put his faith in Providence, and he had a tender devotion for Our Lady.
Every day, he went on foot to Castelnuovo, where he found a course of studies somewhat similar to that of a high school in our days. For all the five classes, there was, but one teacher.
After a time his mother, not liking to see him walk about 14 miles daily, put him to board with a tailor named John Roberto, who gave him for lodging a space under the stairs. He wasted no time in the tailor’s house and soon learned his trade. This helped to pay for his board and as this tailor delighted in music; he learned both music and singing. Finding he had some spare time he used to visit the workshop of one Evasio Savio, a locksmith by trade, and soon he became familiar with the forge, the anvil and the hammer.
Later on, he sat at a shoemaker’s bench. From some friendly carpenters, he learned how to plane, to saw, to make furniture, some of which, when his name became famous all the world over, was pointed out with much pride as being the work of his hands.
Tailor, musician, locksmith, shoemaker and carpenter. He followed the example of St. Paul who to be able to preach the Gospel in the daytime without being a burden to any one, used to make wicker baskets at night. In this way, John found honest and useful ways of earning something towards the pay for his board and also for his books without troubling any one. He was then 15 years old.
At Montafia, on the feast of Saint Peter its Patron, he saw the famous greasy pole erected on the piazza. Many a youth of the place and those from the neighbourhood tried and again to climb it, but without success, the noise of the crowd which filled the square grew ever louder, and after cries of encouragement came hoots of derision.
John came forward. He knew that one of the prizes attached to the top of the pole, was a purse containing 20 lire (a good sum in those days) he thought this would be useful to himself and decided to try his luck. He was victorious. Once on the top of the pole, which rocked unpleasantly, he stretched out his hand and took the purse, leaving all the other objects, so as to allow the game to go on.
Visiting fairs in the neighbouring villages, he often saw jugglers and mountebanks plying their trade on the public squares. He had an inspiration, he would learn their tricks so as to show them off at Becchi, where he hoped to bring together a certain number of boys to whom he wished to teach the catechism. So he watched attentively every movement of the charlatans, and was soon proficient in turning somersaults, walking on the rope, and in many perilous acrobatic feats. He could show various tricks and even make dead chicken come back to life.
The boys with whom he came in contact were greatly impressed. They admired- his ability and his skill, but were astonished by his mastery of many trades, they enjoyed hearing him sing, and wondered at his prodigious memory, while his kind heart was open to everyone.
All these advantages were grand capital but it would have to be made to bring in profit.
He needed means. Mother Margherita gave him a small table and a piece of rope. What could one do with a rope and a table? He knew how to do great things with them. He stretched the rope between two trees on the meadow, and began his exercises. These attracted interest and soon many wanted to try their skill against his.
Clever and witty he soon equalled the best jugglers. But the play and the fun were but means of attracting the boys whom he then called to him for their religious instruction; a few ‘lessons, a short sermon to the point, and much singing and prayers. If any of his audience grew impatient and grumbled under his breath that he wanted no sermons and the prayers were too long, John would stand up on a chair and with commanding gesture and in a resolute voice cry out at him: “So that is how you feel? Go, but remember, if ever you come again to see my tricks I will turn you out. I will never allow you to set foot on my meadow”. Under such a sentence, every one sat still and listened to his words. A hundred years later, some thousands of his sons, before thousands of spectators in all parts of the world, will renew this scene, and using the same system, will attract savages and cannibals and turn them into so many sons of God.
In this way the dream of Don Bosco is for ever coming true.
The result of his studies at Castelnuovo of Asti had not been great, given the conditions under which he had to study. When John got admitted himself to a public school at Chieri he was admitted into the first class. But four months later, he was moved up into the third class, where he always remained at the top. The biographers of Don Bosco tell of many episodes of this life, but in reality they all show us only his superior intelligence, his tenacious memory, his great diligence, which served to earn for him the admiration and the affection of all his masters.
Not less sincere was the love of his schoolfellows for him; with them he founded the “Fun Club” whose aim was to keep ever bright, to avoid sin and to attend to one’s duties.
On the 25th of Oct. 1835, he passed his examinations in rhetoric and was admitted into the Seminary. He put on clerical habit in the parish of Castelnuovo of Asti. For a moment, he had wavered between the garb of a Franciscan friar and that of a priest, but the advice of Don Cafasso and another dream he had at this time, determined him to enter the Seminary of Chieri.
His friendship with the cleric Aloysius Comollo, a young man truly angelic, aroused in him both fervour of virtue and of perfection, all the more precious because it was concealed. As a matter of fact, as a cleric, Bosco always tried to avoid anything that might attract attention to himself, and this he continued to do all his life.
In the Seminary, he also formed a society for the strict observance of the Rule and the conscientious fulfilment of pious duties and of study.
On 5thJan.1841, he was ordained priest by Mons. Franzoni at the Palace of the Archbishop in Turin. His real mission, the sublime apostolate for the saving of the young, for the reconstruction of society began on that day.
During the spiritual exercises which preceded his ordination he had made some firm resolutions. It is well to record some of them as they will be useful to the young. Never to be idle. To suffer, to work, to humble ourselves in every way whenever there is a soul to save. To take as a guide the gentleness and kindness of Saint Francis of Sales. To be always satisfied with one’s food, as long, as it is not harmful to the health. To give some time every day to meditation and spiritual reading. To spend at least a quarter of an hour in preparation for and thanksgiving after Holy Mass, and also for a short visit to the Blessed Sacrament.
He spent the vacation of that year in assisting the Rector of Castelnuovo of Asti in his sacred ministry.
He had now to make a decision, numerous proposals reached him and his mother: he was offered a tutorship in a nobleman’s house, the post of chaplain and schoolmaster at Murialdo, they also wanted him as a help to the Rector of Castelnuovo of Asti. Before deciding on any thing, Don Bosco consulted Don Cafasso, who advised him not to accept any of these posts, but to go to Turin and enter the college of Saint Francis of Assisi, and there to concentrate on the study of moral Theology and on the art of preaching. So, Don Bosco went to Turin and to the college on November 3rd.
The Blessed Cafasso, who could see far into the future used to say of him, as early as 1841 “He is destined to become the apostle of Turin”.
About this time, he had a prophetic word from Saint Joseph Cottolengo, who died shortly after, he, one day, took up a bit of Don Bosco’s coat and said to him: “This cloth is much too light, you must use heavier stuff for your clothes, so that boys can hang on to you without tearing them. The time will come when many will want to hang on to you”.
During his stay at the college, he studied to become a confessor. His conviction, his knowledge of men and the example of Don Cafasso made him the apostle of Confession. With boys, especially, his first step will always be urgent advice to go to confession.
Count Charles Conestabile tells a little story which is a revelation of the educational system of Don Bosco, based as it was on the Sacrament of Penance: “One day as I was visiting Don Bosco, I found him at his desk looking through a list of several names”. “Here”, said he, “are some little rogues whose conduct is far from perfect”. I, then, knew little of Don Bosco’s system and asked him if he had decided on any punishment. “None, said he, here is what I will do. This one for instance, and he indicated a name, is the greatest scamp of all, but he has a heart of gold. I will look for him at recreation and, I will ask about his health. He will certainly answer that he is in perfect health”. “Then, you are in every way pleased with yourself, my friend?” I will say. He will be abashed, then will blush, and look down. Then I will say kindly: “You see, my son, something is wrong with you, if your body is in perfect order, perhaps your soul is not at peace? How long is it, since you went to Confession? Soon after this boy will be at the confessional, and I am pretty sure I will have no complaints of him”. “I listened in silence; overcome by the charm of these words so full of apostolic kindness, I seemed to have discovered the secret of how this humble priest had been able to bring about such a mighty work”.
One often heard from the lips of Don Bosco: “To be a priest is to keep constantly before one’s eyes the duty to God’s chief interest, the salvation of souls.” This was the programme of his life. Although his principal interest lay in his work, he was always the soul of his own great family, the unwearied priest, who became every thing to every one who had need of him.
He was the equal of Father Guala in visiting the sick, in his care for prisoners, he was worthy of the Blessed Cafasso. They called him “The priest of the gallows” in Turin. Preacher and confessor in the prisons of the town, in the various colleges of which Turin has many a confessor in the numerous hospitals especially at the Cottolengo and the Saint Louis, he spent such energy that his labour seemed marvellous. Often he was asked to preach outside Turin he found time for that too, so that his words brought forth abundant fruit in Milan, Monza, Alba, Ivrea & Mondovi. Who could find one among the fervent Catholics of Turin of the last generation, who did not at least once in his life confess his sins to Don Bosco? And beyond the Alps?
On his journeys through France, and these were about ten, the scenes of Ars and of Lourdes were repeated. Marseilles, Avignon, Lyons, and above all, Paris, were the fields of his apostolic zeal.
How did he become an educator? How did the work of the Salesians begin? On the day of the Immaculate Conception in 1841, he was in the sacristy getting ready for Holy Mass, when he heard a noisy dispute between the sacristan and a boy. He saw the former rush at the boy with a broomstick and beat him till he took to his heels. Much displeased, he sternly called the sacristan to order and then called the boy. He approached him trembling, but Don Bosco asked him gently: “Have you already heard Mass?”. “No”, answered he, “Very well, said Don Bosco, then come and hear it and I will tell you afterwards something that will give you pleasure’’.
Having said Mass and finished the usual thanksgiving Don Bosco took the boy into the choir and smiling kindly at him, to reassure him, asked. “My friend, what is your name?”.‘‘Bartholomew Garelli’’. Where do you come from?”. ‘From Asti”. “Is your father alive?”. “No he is dead”. “And your Mother?”. “She too is dead”. “How old are you ?”. “Sixteen’’. ‘’Can you read and write?”. “I know nothing”. “Have you made your first Communion?”. “Not yet”. “Have you been to Confession?”. “When I was a child”. “Do you go to catechism?”. “I dare not”. “But why?”. “Because my companions, much younger than myself, know it and I know nothing, and am ashamed”. “If I taught you the catechism privately, would you like to learn it?”. “I would certainly like to’’. “Would you like to come to this room?”.”I would come willingly, if I am not beaten for coming here”. “Be sure no one will ill-treat you, you will be my friend and will have only me to deal with. When would you like to begin?”. “When you please”. “This evening”. “Yes”. “Perhaps at once?”. Don Bosco knelt down and said an “Ave Maria” he then gave Bartholomew Garelli his first lesson, he taught him how to make the sign of the Cross, and the reason for which God had created him.
In this choir, on the 8th of Dec. 1841, the day of the feast of the Blessed Virgin, with this simple lesson on the catechism began the work of the Oratories (Sunday Schools) for young men.
Next Sunday Dec. 12th 1841, Garelli brought six other boys with him. And Don Cafasso sent two more. These first ones brought others to join them. In a short time, there were more than a hundred of them. They got a name which became, historical; they were called “Don Bosco’s ragamuffins.”
Here, it began to manifest itself the wonderful power he had received from God, that of being: The real Educator of Youth. When we see to day Salesian schools on every side opening their doors to thousands and thousands of students, when we see Christian families and not these only, vying with each other in entrusting their sons to these schools, we understand how perfectly successful has been the system which was based on the word “love”, taken in its strictly Christian sense. Love that manifests itself in gentleness and fatherly benevolence.
In order to be successful with the young, Don Bosco used to tell his followers, “You must be careful to be always courteous with them, you must teach them to love you, you must make them understand that you are truly interested in their welfare; correct them with patience and charity towards their faults; abstain from ever hitting them. Get to like that which pleases boys, so that instead of considering you as superiors they can look on you as on fathers, brothers and friends; ‘ and then instead of fearing you, they will love you. Without familiarity, you cannot show affection and if you do not show affection you will get no confidence. He who wants to be loved must show love. Jesus Christ became humble with the humble and took on himself the infirmities of men”.
Never did an educator show such love of the young. In this way, did Don Bosco commence his method of education. His way? Questioned one day on this point, he said. “You want to know my system? But even I do not know it! I have always gone ahead just as God inspired me, or as circumstances demanded”. But instead of answering in this way, he could have handed his questioner a copy of the Gospel and said. “Herein is written the whole of my system”. If one remembers this one can understand the wonderful development of the work of the Salesians. Everything that conforms to the teaching of the Gospel is sure to bring forth fruit. If the pedagogical method of Don Bosco has succeeded better than any other, even the best devised by others before him, it is only a proof that his system is nearest to the spirit of the Gospel. Truly up to now, the only system that was followed in all institutions, even in those directed by Religious Orders, was the system so called “repression”, which consisted in laying down laws and then of punishing the transgressors, always keeping a certain distance between superiors and subordinates, between master and pupil. Don Bosco evolved a quite different system, opposed to the former, which took the name of “preventive”. It consisted in gently letting the duties be understood and then watching over the pupils, so as to make neglect impossible. This method is based on love, on religion, on reason and has two marvellous means at its disposal, confession and Holy Communion.
Up to that time certain Jansenistic principles which had penetrated even into the sanctuary, kept the Tabernacle almost always closed owing to an erroneous conception of respect’ due to the Blessed Sacrament. Don Bosco opened the Tabernacle to his sons, he wanted every one at all times to look within, he made Jesus more familiar to his children, and the children loved God more easily and learned to keep good. This educator was also a redoubtable reformer.
The means used by Don Bosco for spreading abroad his educational and reformatory work were the school, the workshop, and the press. Through the school, he could spread those sound principles which society seemed to have forgotten. He took from the masses, hundreds, later on, thousands of boys whom he made into good priests, clever professors, doctors, lawyers, judges, soldiers, all of them sound Christians. In the schools, he prepared for himself those valiant helpers, who after his death continued his wonderful work.
The workshop served him to get other thousands of children prepared for life on the same saintly-ideals and provided with such professional skills as to enable them to become shoe-makers, tailors, bookbinders, booksellers, and joiners. These workshops became in time schools and from them came annually thousands of clever artisans who spread in the world, the principles which they had learned in the Oratory. To the work of the schools and workshops he added that of the press. This he found to be a powerful means of education not only of his pupils but of people in general. The apostolic fire of his soul could in this way be spread abroad. About a hundred publications, came from his own pen. This seems to us to be marvellous work, when we consider his busy-life and how little time, he could give to the difficult art of writing. Later on he thought that every Salesian who gave himself up to study should also give the utmost importance to religious propaganda. By means of writing and through the Salesian printing presses multitudes of publications have appeared and have done untold good.
The founder of the Salesian institutions
The “urchins of Don Bosco” continued to grow in numbers. At first, he had only brought his attention to bear on the older ones, nearly all of them apprentice-bricklayers. But even, these could soon find no room in the choir where they had been first assembled. Father Guala understood the necessity of some permanent place for recreation and gave Don Bosco permission to use the courtyard belonging to the College. But now, the time had come for Don Bosco to leave the College of Saint Francis of Assisi. Following the advice of Don Cafasso, he chose out of the many places offered to him, that of Spiritual Director at the Hospital of Saint Philomena, near the Refuge founded by the Marchesa di Barolo in Valdocco. In this way, he could remain in Turin and so continue his work with his young friends.
At that time, Valdocco was outside the town, it would be easier to assemble more boys in the meadows and amuse them there. This removal was preceded by one of those strange dreams which is best recorded in his own words. “On the second Sunday in October in the year 1844” so we read in his recollections, I had decided to tell my boys that the Oratory would be transferred to Valdocco. But the uncertainty of place, means, and people gave me much thought. I went to bed on the eve of that day with an anxious heart. In the night, I had a dream that seemed to be a continuation of the one, I had at Becchi at the age of nine, I tell it here literally: I saw myself amid a number of wolves, goats, kids, lambs, sheep, rams, dogs, birds. They all made a noise together, an uproar such as to inspire fear in the most courageous. I wanted to escape, but a Lady, very well dressed, in the manner of a shepherdess bade me follow in attendance on this strange flock, while she led the way. We wandered through many strange places, we made three halts, and at every stopping place, some of the animals changed into lambs and their number grew continually. After walking some distance, I found myself in a meadow where the animals skipped about and fed together without attempting to harm each other. Feeling tired, I wanted to sit down by the road side, but the Shepherdess bade me continue on my way. I walked for a short while longer and found myself in a spacious courtyard surrounded by cloisters, at one end of which stood a church. Here I observed that four-fifths of the animals had become lambs. These soon became most numerous. At this moment, appeared several shepherds. They multiplied and took care of the first ones. As they grew in numbers, they divided so as to go farther out in search of other strange animals and to guide them into other folds. I wanted to go away, but the Shepherdess told me to look to the South. I did so and saw a lofty and beautiful church. An orchestra of music, both instrumental and vocal, invited me to sing Mass. Near this church was a white banner on which in capital letters were these words: “Hic domus mea: inde gloria mea”. “This is my house, from here comes my glory”. In my dream, I wanted to ask the Shepherdess where I was, what meaning I was to take from my walk, the house, the church, and now this other church. “You will understand it all,” she answered, “when with your bodily eyes you see in fact that which you see now with the eyes of your mind”.
With his mind’s eyes, Don Bosco saw that night, what he would really see later: Valdocco, the big home, the two churches, an immense number of strange animals, which were those rogues of Turin, changed into gentle lambs, the sons of Don Bosco, and at the head of it all, guiding them, showing them what to aim at in life, protecting the miraculous conversions, the Divine Shepherdess, She whom Don Bosco made known to all the world under the name of “Our Lady Help of Christians”.
The Oratory moved from the neighbourhood of the College to that of the Refuge in Valdocco. The first Chapel was blessed there on 8th Dec.1844 and dedicated to Saint Francis of Sales.
From the Refuge, they moved to the Cemetery of Saint Peter in Chains. From the Cemetery, they went to the church of Saint Martin near Molini Dora called the Molassi. From the Molassi to the Casa Moretta, but were obliged to leave this also. They, then, camped in a meadow of Valdocco. They could hardly demand less than that of Providence, but from there too they had to go.
The Marchioness Barolo had asked him to remove from the vicinity of her Refuge these 300 boys who made so much noise. The maid-servant of the Chaplain of Saint Peter in chains could not bear to tie racket made by the ragamuffins of Don Bosco and persuaded her master to expel the Oratory. The residents of Porta Palazzo in the vicinity of which were the Molini Dora, horrified by this disorderly crowd, got the Municipal authorities to turn them out.
For the same reason, they had to leave the Casa Moretta, even the landlord of the meadow, this last refuge of the Oratory, declared that the trampling of this new kind of flock ruined the roots of the grass. At this point, Don Bosco burst into tears.
Everything seemed dark around. The constant persecution of men actuated by meanness or jealousy added to the numerous difficulties presented by the thing in itself. Many friends abandoned him, the authorities were hostile, a rumour was circulated to the effect that he was not in his right mind. They even attempted to put him into an Asylum. In this hour of his need, Don Bosco felt the provident hand of God, the hand that is ever extended at the time invisibly marked by Him, Who has ordained that: “The garland with which a Saint is crowned, is made of thorns, and is watered with tears’’.
In this meadow, from which he was being turned out, he feared it would not be the last time, surrounded by hundreds of boys in tears at the thought of being abandoned by him, he knelt down under the vault of blue sky, and seemed a Patriarch of the Old Testament demanding God’s blessing on himself and his sons unto the last generation.
It is an historic and beautiful scene, ineffable and so affecting as to disarm the incredulous. Don Bosco prayed among his sons, and for them.
As he got on his feet, he saw a man approaching who offered him a kind of outhouse not far off. It was a low and unplastered building belonging to the Pinardi house; this he rented for the sum of 320 lire yearly.
Here on the lowlands of Valdocco, which had seen the martyrdom of Turin’s patron Saints SS. Solutore, Avventore and Octavius, into this miserable building which had been turned into a chapel, and dedicated like the first one to Saint Francis of Sales, on the next Sunday, Easter Day, the Oratory entered in triumph with Don Bosco at its head. They entered and remained there for good. This was on Easter Day of the year 1846.
In this plain now rises the dome of the great Basilica of our Lady Help of Christians. It is surrounded for thousands of square yards by the spacious buildings of the Major Chapter and of the Administration of all the Salesian Institutions. Here Don Bosco died. Here, today flock together from all the world over the illustrious and the unknown sons of this gigantic-organization. Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, bishops, priests, coadjutors, nuns, and lively boys.
The history of the work of the Salesians since they settled at Valdocco to this day, is both known and admired by all the world.
Their work overseas
The Oratory or Sunday School of Valdocco was the first one, but soon others arose in the city of Turin. In 1847, was formed the one of Saint Aloysius in the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II where today the beautiful tower of Saint John the Evangelist rises to heaven. In 1849, another oratory was opened at Vanchiglia and then little by little one at Martinetto, then at Valsalice, at the great International Seminary in via Cabotto and then the one in Borgo Saint Paolo and at Monterosa. And from Turin, it went all over Italy. Every town of any importance has now a Salesian house. From Italy, they went forth to the conquest of the world.
The vision of his work overseas also came to him in a dream. “I seemed to be” so he related to some of his intimates in 1876 “in a wild and unknown region, I was in an immense desert plain. On the far horizon, rose a range of rugged mountains. I saw crowds of men wandering over them, they were half naked and of an extraordinary size and stature. Of most ferocious aspect, with long and rough hair of a dark bronze colour, big mantles made of animal skins covered their shoulders. For arms, they carried a sort of long lance and a sling. These crowds of men scattered here and there, offered a different sight to the spectator. Some ran after wild beasts. Some carried on the end of their spears, pieces of raw meat dripping with blood. On one side one saw them fighting among themselves, on another, they fought with soldiers clad in European uniforms, and the ground was covered with bodies. I shuddered at the sight and then there appeared at the end of the plain many figures whom I knew from their garb to be missionaries of different orders. These tried to preach the word of God to the savages. I looked attentively but could recognise none of them. All at once, the savages threw themselves on the missionaries and with barbarous fury and infernal joy, killed them, quartered them, cut them to pieces, and struck the pieces of flesh on their spears. Then from afar off, I saw a company of other missionaries advancing gaily towards the savages, preceded by a troop of boys. I trembled to think they were coming to their death. I hurried towards them, there were priests and clerics, and I looked well and saw they were Salesians. “What is all this?” I cried. I did not want to let them advance, I was on the point of stopping them, when I perceived that the sight of them seemed a joy to the savages, who put down their arms, were ferocious no longer and received our missionaries with every sign of courtesy. The missionaries started reciting the Rosary and the-savages making way for them responded to the prayer. Then, they deposited their arms at the feet of the Salesians and knelt down, when one of our missionaries intoned the hymn “Praise Mary all faithful tongues” all the crowds continued the hymn with such a loud voice that in terror I awoke.
“I had this dream four or five years ago and it made a lasting impression on me, because I thought it-must be a sign from heaven.’ Nevertheless, I did not understand its meaning properly, I felt, it had to do with foreign missions to the heathen, and this had always been one of my greatest desires”.
The first request for Salesian missionaries reached Don Bosco in 1874 from Buenos-Aires. On 11th Nov. 1875, the first ten missionaries of Don Bosco left Turin under the guidance of Don Cagliero. The sending out of missionaries continued in the following years, and grew ever more frequent.
The sons of Don Bosco are now to be found in all the Republics of Latin America, from Mexico to Cape Horn, and also in North America. There are some in South Africa, some in the Congo; in Tunis, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Anatolia, in India, in Thailand, in China and in Japan.
We will not attempt to give statistics of the work of the Salesians, We will also pass over the development of their work and of that of the splendid institutions which rose up from it, from the Community of the Daughters of Our Lady to the army of male and female cooperators, the so called Third Order of the Salesians. From the Salesian Bulletin now printing 5,00,000 copies in 17 different languages, to the flourishing union of teachers, professional men and artisans. From the International Federation of old boys, which has 300 sections, to the Association of former pupils of the Daughters of Our Lady, a godly army of Salesian souls scattered all over the world.
We will rather note briefly the works of this great man. The life on Don Bosco is a long succession of miracles. The humble little peasant of Becchi becomes the founder of one of the largest religious societies in the world. Poor Don Bosco, poor in the “literal sense of the word, builds splendid churches, thousands of Oratories, colleges, hospitals, institutions. His wonderful work, spreads outside his country, to places in which he never set foot, his name calls forth from the most savage men the admiring cry of “Long live Don Bosco”.
Don Bosco worked many miracles. In 1848, when “two boys of the Oratory once missed divine service in order to go for a swim, Don Bosco, who was then at S. Ignazio, gave them two such hard blows on their “backs, that they never forgot them”.
On Christmas Day of the same year, in order to put right an oversight of the sacristan, he multiplied the hosts in the pyx, saying calmly to one who questioned him that the miracle of the Consecration of ‘the Host’ was ever so much more wonderful than the multiplication. In 1849 he confessed a boy said to be already dead and gave him absolution.
In the same year, on the Day of “All Saints” occurred the famous and well remembered multiplication of the chestnuts. Another multiplication occurred later with some nuts.
Joseph Morelli, mayor of Caselle, visited by Don Bosco, was miraculously cured of gangrenous ossification. A banker Senator Antonio Cotta, when at the-age of 83 years he was given up for dead, was cured after a visit from Don Bosco to whom he promised help for the Oratory. On May the 5th 1867, he took the crutches of a poor woman of Caramagna, and having made her pray to the Blessed Virgin, put the-crutches on her shoulders and sent her home with the-words: “Go and always have great devotion to Our Lady, Help of Christians. At Frohsdorf in Austria he instantly cured the Count of Chambord, the son of the Duke of Berry, whom all the papers had reported to be in a dying condition. The young Marquis Emanuele Fassati, another of those cured by Don Bosco accomplished with his own hands the ceremony of putting the last brick into the Cupola of the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians. In Florence, where she was later called by the Salesians “the good mother of Florence” the Marchioness Uguccioni Gherardi, obtained from him the miraculous cure of her child, whom all the doctors had given up for dead. Numberless are the signs that assure us that he knew the date of the death of his boys, this date he now and then predicted clearly, as in the case of Don Boggero of Villafranca.
The fame of his sanctity soon became public and from numbers of those whom he had cured came testimonies, often written declarations, stating that the sole presence of Don Bosco sufficed to bring peace and perfect serenity to the spirit. As an episode, it is worth mentioning Grigio, the mysterious dog, that appeared at the side of Don Bosco every time, he ran in to any risk, and disappeared as soon as the danger was over. One evening in 1852, Don Bosco was going home quite alone when he saw coming towards him a large dog more like a wolf, with a long muzzle and ears erect. He felt frightened at first but seeing the dog friendly, he patted it. The handsome animal accompanied Don Bosco to the door of the Oratory and then disappeared. ‘This occurred more than once. Every time he was late and had to pass alone through the fields of Valdocco, a well-known meeting place for sinister characters, he -saw the dog Grigio appear from one side -or the other of the road. It happened more than once, that Mother Margherita, anxious at not seeing him come home, would send some one to meet him, and in this way many people saw the mysterious dog, though they did not know where he came from or to whom he belonged, but he always appeared at the right moment. One can truly say that Grigio three times saved the life of our Saint, when scoundrels lay in wait for him in the dark, late at night, near the Oratory and attacked him, either to rob him or out of hate, or perhaps sent there by his enemies.
“Every now and then”, confessed Don Bosco, “I thought of trying to find out where that dog came from and to whom he belonged and then I reflected.What does it matter from where you come as long as you remain my good friend? I only know that this dog was a real providence to me in the many dangers that I encountered”.
The temple erected in Rome in honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was Saint John Bosco’s swan song. This Temple did really belong to him, for the three million lire, that went to the buiding of it that had been collected by him in his many tiring journeys. The Salesians were now permanently established in Rome itself. The Church had approved his work in general and his Congregation in particular. Pope Pius IX and later Leo XIII had received him repeatedly. They had encouraged him and blessed him. The Oratories were now a hundred. Salesian missions were developing miraculously and Don Bosco could sing his “Nunc dimittis”.
Already on his return from Barcelona, in 1886 Dr. Combal who had visited him, said to Don Rua: “If he had worked no other miracles his present existence is one. His body is worn out, it is a dead organism which continues to work. He eats hardly anything and lives. For me, this is the greatest of miracles.
In October 1887, his state of health caused serious anxiety. On December 4th, he could not celebrate Mass.
On Christmas Eve, he asked for the Holy Communion as Viaticum. The same day he said to Don Viglietti: “Will you please look in the pockets of my coat; there you will find my pocketbook and my purse. I think there is nothing inside them, but in case any money is found give it to Don Rua, I want it to be said: “Don Bosco died without a penny in his pocket”.
On Christmas night, he received Extreme Unction. He suffered for another month, never ceasing to receive visitors, to give orders, to give blessings. On January 31st 1888 at one O’clock in the morning the death struggle began. At a quarter to five he gently passed away. He was 72 years, six months and fifteen days old. That day, he appeared to many persons, and comforted them and consoled them in their sufferings. The whole world mourned at the news of his death. His mortal remains, after being reverently kissed by 100,000 people were triumphantly carried to Valsalice where in, the last year of his life he had erected a large Seminary for foreign Mission.
Two years after his death his cause of Beatification was introduced. Seven years later, after 562 sittings, the diocesan process was finished, and its act containing 34 folios of 1,000 pages each were forwarded to Rome. On June 2, 1929, the little shepherd of Becchi was conferred the title of Beatus. And five years later, on April 1, 1934, Pius XI, who, as a guest of Don Bosco in 1883 had witnessed at first hand the sanctity of his life, raised the great Apostle of Youth to the supreme honours of the Altars. It was towards 10:30 a.m. of that memorable day that the Holy Father solemnly declared DON BOSCO inscribed in the catalogue of the Saints, whilst 50,000 voices mightly shook the Basilica raising to Heaven the great hymn of thanksgiving the Te Deum.