Saint John Bosco has inspired thousands of people, young and old, priests, brothers, sisters and lay people, to strive for holiness in their lives. The Church has recognised many of them as outstanding in holiness and deserving the titles of Saint, Blessed, Venerable or Servant of God.
Saint John Bosco, 1815-1888
Founder of the Society of St Francis de Sales, (the Salesians of Don Bosco) and co-founder of the Salesian Sisters, Giovanni Melchior Bosco was born at Castelnuovo d'Asti on 16 August 1815 into a peasant family.
His father, Francesco Bosco, died when John was two, and his mother, Margherita Occhiena raised her three sons, Anthony, Joseph and young John, alone. She was a wise educator, who made her family home a domestic church by exercising a gentle firmness and love, combined with boundless faith.
Through a series of events in his youth, not least a very powerful dream he had as a young boy, he learned to become a leader for the young people he grew up with, many of whom were very badly behaved. In order to relate to them he needed to develop certain skills. He learned that by combining entertainment with teaching and praying he could achieve positive results. Entertained by his magic tricks and balancing acts, the young people would gladly listen to a lesson or pray with John Bosco.
John began to feel the desire to become a priest from an early age, and as a seminarian, he began to apply the approach he had developed to educating and evangelising boys in the area. When he moved to the city of Turin, he found large numbers of young people who were abandoned and without hope in the midst of the industrial revolution. He was shocked at the conditions they endured and the things they did to enable them to eat, and to survive. This was the human cost of the industrial revolution, and the young priest found it unbearable.
The situation poor boys found themselves in and the lack of compassion and opportunity they faced, led many into criminal behaviour. His mentor, St Joseph Cafasso, known as 'the saint of the gallows' had taken John to visit boys in prison. He was devastated, and wrote "To see so many children, from 12 to 18 years of age, all healthy, strong, intelligent, lacking spiritual and material food, was something that horrified me." In the face of such a situation he made his decision: "I must, by any available means, prevent children ending up here."
In response, he created what was at first a wandering 'festive oratory' (held at different places on Sundays, when working boys had some free time). Eventually the oratory settled at Valdocco, a poor district of the city, where Don Bosco took in orphans, assisted by his aging mother, who left her home to support his work. Here, boys could learn a trade, get an education, have enjoy good company and healthy games, and become closer to God through religious instruction.
His approach became known as the Preventive System, using 'reason, religion and loving kindness', rather than threats and violence. He believed that education was at the heart of the solution, and that by accompanying boys at risk and making them realise they were loved, he could steer them clear of trouble and equip them to live a far better life.
As his work grew, assisted by many of the first boys he educated, and by some very wealthy local people who saw the value in his work, Don Bosco, with the support and guidance of Pope Pius IX, founded his congregation of men dedicated to the salvation and education of young people. It took the title the Society of St Francis de Sales, as Don Bosco was inspired by the charity and kindness of the 'gentle saint'. Soon after, together with St Mary Mazzarello, he founded the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, a congregation of women who could support girls suffering from the disadvantages of poverty, and a lay association, the Salesian Cooperators, who committed themselves to supporting the work.
He had a tremendous devotion to Mary Help of Christians, and placed his work in her hands from the beginning. When others talked to him of his fantastic achievements, he would always interrupt and say 'I have done nothing by myself. It is Our Lady who has done everything.'
Don Bosco died on 31 January 1888, aged 72. By then, there were 773 Salesians, eleven missionary expeditions had been commissioned, there were almost 150 Salesian missionaries in South America, and the work of the Salesians had already expanded to France (1875), Argentina (1875), Uruguay (1876), Spain (1881), Brazil (1882), Austria (1887) and England (1887).
His feast is celebrated on 31 January.
For more biographical information and downloadable liturgy, images etc, visit sdb.org