Dominic fulfilled in his short life the extraordinary promise that is present in every young person, the promise of God's life - giving grace at work in them while they are young. For Don Bosco, the young were not just some sort of potential adults, but he found them to be fully human beings with real capacities and real struggles which he believed were crucial for their own happiness and the happiness of others. His saying, It's not enough for young people to be loved; they must know that they are loved, is an insight that is true for human beings at all stages of their development.
In Dominic's life story which Don Bosco researched, wrote and published soon after his death in 1857, Don Bosco detailed the main features of Dominic's background and boyhood. As a boy, Dominic was a cheerful young person who enjoyed the company of his friends and who could endure the discomforts of walking 5 kilometers back and forth to school four times a day with a smile and a cheerful word. His parents and home gave Dominic a deep sense of his own self-worth and fostered his deep awareness of God.
He was the leader of a group of friends and he knew how to stay loyal and how to protect even the most troublesome ones from the consequences of their mistakes, like the incident where Dominic was punished for putting snowballs in the stove and managed to avoid his friends getting expelled. Don Bosco recognized these relationships as a key field for Dominic's growth and development and encouraged him not to neglect the moments of recreation and to spend time supporting and encouraging his friends in their games as well as in their work and in chapel.
For Dominic, friendship was worth taking risks for so he was prepared to put himself as the barrier between two friends who were about to battle out their differences by stoning each other.
He was prepared to work with his friends nursing the sick during the cholera epidemic that afflicted Turin during his stay at the Oratory when even the doctors and nurses were fleeing the city. In one extraordinary moment Don Bosco records that Dominic urgently demanded Don Bosco follow him and he led him to a man in a remote garret where he was desperate to be reconciled before he died.
Humanly speaking, Dominic showed his highest talent for friendship by leading his friends in his setting up of the Sodality of the Immaculate Conception during his last year at the Oratory as a way of taking their own initiative in supporting the atmosphere of for the good of the younger students in the Oratory. Dominic was then, an outstanding youngster who flourished in the atmosphere of the Oratory of Turin, taking more responsibility as he got older and more familiar with the place. For Dominic the critical moment of growth took place six months after his arrival at the Oratory. He heard Don Bosco preaching about becoming a saint and this struck Dominic as the moment to turn his life in a definite direction: I have a great desire and an urgent need to become a saint. My life would be a total failure if I did not become a saint - especially now that I know that it is easy and that one can be happy and be a saint too.
Don Bosco's advice was as follows: The first suggestion that Dominic was given to become a saint was to try and win souls to God, for there is no work in the world so holy as helping to save those souls for whom Jesus Christ shed every drop of his precious blood.
What amazed Don Bosco and his Mama Margarita was the boy's capacity to spend time with God and the depth of his engagement in his prayer.
Dominic described his experience as distractions that prevented him finishing his prayers: It is silly of me; I get a distraction and lose the thread of my prayers and then I see such wonderful things that the hours pass by like minutes.
However, Don Bosco was aware that this was probably the gift of mystical prayer and he carefully guided Dominic so that his engagement with his friends and companions, his service of others became the natural expression of his experience of God. Don Bosco guided Dominic away from physical penances that might have further undermined his health and encouraged a deeper engagement in the ordinary life of the Oratory, its classes, its life of prayer and recreation.
In this context of prayer we have to see Dominic's famous dream or distraction about England. John Bosco records that Dominic once recounted to him a vision he had:
...One morning as I was making my thanksgiving after Communion, a very strong distraction took hold of me. I thought I saw a great plain full of people enveloped in thick fog. They were walking about like people who had lost their way and did not know which way to turn. Someone near me said: 'This is England'. I was just going to ask some questions, when I saw Pope Pius IX just like I have seen him in pictures. He was robed magnificently and carried in his hand a torch alive with flames. As he walked slowly towards that immense gathering of people, the leaping flames from the torch dispelled the fog, and the people stood in the splendour of the noonday sun. 'That torch', said the one beside me, 'is the Catholic Faith, which is going to light up England'.
At his last farewell, Dominic requested John Bosco to tell the pope of his vision, which he did in 1858. The pope felt that this confirmed the plans he had already made concerning England.
It is clear that Don Bosco, not unfamiliar in his own life with the gifts of special insight, was deeply impressed by the young Dominic Savio.
Sadly Dominic's young life was to be cut short by ill health and his dreams of being a priest and becoming a missionary in England were never to be realized. His headaches and coughs caused Don Bosco concern so that he consulted a doctor in 1855 and sent Dominic home for the holidays. He was encouraged by Don Bosco to see his difficulties putting up with injuries, heat, cold, tiredness, and all the discomforts of weak health as the best way to do penance.
Don Bosco began in in-house secondary school course in 1855-6 and Dominic was one of the first students taught by the 17yr old cleric John-Baptist Francesia. He didn't have to cross the city to attend classes but again in the summer of 1856 Dominic was sent home on Dr Valuri's advice to regain his strength. He returned in August but then strangely asked to go home because his mother was unwell. It was a difficult pregnancy for Dominic's Mother and her safe delivery of Catarina, Dominic's baby sister was attributed to the green scapular he put round his mother's neck.
His health declined all that year and despite attending classes at Fr Pico's school he suffered from blinding headaches and a cough. On March 1st despite Dominic's protests, Don Bosco sent him home to Mondonio in the hope that he might recover. Sadly the current medical treatment for fevers was bleeding the patient, a torture he endured 10 times in the next few days and which probably resulted in his early death from pleurisy.
What can we learn from the brief life of Dominic Savio? That he was full of promise, that he was a great friend, that he grew in confidence and became a leader, and that he was truly a great human being and became a great saint. All of this could be said about so many young people. What made Dominic different was that he responded so completely to the graces that God gave him that what was ordinary and common place became extraordinary.
Fr John Dickson SDB May 2009