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Catholic Heroes . . . St. John Bosco

June 7, 2022 saints No Comments


Don Bosco (1815-1888), who became a spiritual father to hundreds of fatherless boys, lost his own father at the age of two. The youngest of three brothers, one a stepbrother, he was born to Francis and Margaret Bosco, peasant farmers in Italy. His father caught pneumonia and died suddenly, leaving his wife a widow at 29 to care for her elderly mother-in-law, and three boys. Even grimmer, there was a terrible famine and no food. But as a woman with a firm grip on her faith, she would later become Venerable Margaret Bosco and would raise her son John to be a saint.
Little John Bosco, for that was his given name, had a dream at the age of nine. This had a profound influence on him. He dreamt of blaspheming youth, and suddenly saw a Man in white. The Man said: “I am the Son of Her whom your mother taught you to salute three times a day,” referring to his faithfulness in reciting the Angelus. The Man led her to a Lady, the Blessed Virgin, whose message was to conquer in meekness, love, and charity. Overwhelmed, he didn’t understand it all yet, but the Lady said in time, he would.
Growing up, he also witnessed a circus troupe performing and was fascinated by its acts and the way they kept children engaged. He learned some of their tricks and would perform them for kids, then say a rosary or a homily. In this way he discovered his calling to be a priest.
But when he tried to study, his stepbrother was very hostile. Things became so bad that John had to move away for a couple years at the young age of 12 to work in the vineyards. Eventually he returned to studies. Later, a priest took pity on him and given his excellent grades (he got through his studies with alacrity), took on his priestly education. This priest was Fr. Cafasso, later known as St. Joseph Cafasso. John was rapidly surrounding himself with holy models — or was God bringing them together?
When he had become a priest in Turin, Don Bosco — for so priests were called in Italy — would visit those in prison. Shocked at the number of males under 18 who were imprisoned, he felt called to help the young boys. He felt they were not really bad, but that no one had reached them soon enough to evangelize and help them. Already a chaplain to young girls, he started reaching out more and more to the boys as well.
He had a knack for combining healthy play with a healthy spiritual life. A boy who came for shelter to his church was turned away by another priest but he brought him back. He asked Bartholomew Garelli if could serve Mass. The boy said he didn’t know how. So Don Bosco asked if he could whistle. The boy laughed and said of course. Then Don Bosco asked him to stay for Mass. This caught the boy’s interest so much — along with the free food plus shelter — that the next time he returned with six more boys.
Don Bosco fed those who needed food. He taught them the catechism. And got them to church. He eventually bought a run-down property and put a chapel in there and soon five hundred boys were coming weekly for Mass. In 1845 our Lady had showed him that three Turin martyrs had been put to death there, Solutor, Adventor, and Octavius. She said, “I wish to be honored in this special place.” One day a basilica would be built here, but the beginnings were simple.
Another section of the building was dedicated to teaching boys trades like making shoes, so they were not running in the streets and turning to crime. But then an orphan turned up. So Don Bosco and his mother took him in, fed him, and soon he was buying the property next door and housing orphans. Soon that wouldn’t do, for it meant a school was required. One thing led to another. A school meant Catholic educational materials were needed.
By 1847 the shed had been enlarged twice and it was still too small. God made it possible for Don Bosco to buy another home, which was torn down to build a boys’ dormitory, and construction on the church was begun. His maxim was: “Give me souls, away with the rest.” He told those who tried later to imitate his success in educating boys that needed two things: charity and love of the Catholic faith.
In his “free time,” he could be seen among his boys, encouraging them and giving them advice:
“Jesus is waiting for you to visit Him in the chapel.”
“Discontinue such and such a habit.”
“Courage! Invoke Mary, and She will help you.”
“Endeavor to make a good Confession, and you will have great joy.”
“Avoid those bad companions.”
Another example of his way to both the boy’s stomach and his soul was once a month he had all the boys do an Exercise for a Happy Death. Toward this end they all had a special breakfast! This was included along with Mass and Confession. He reminded the boys that dying prepared was a good thing, and then he heard Confessions for hours. He would arrange for boys too young for Communion to sing, so that even they had something to do. One of his boys, Dominic Savio, died at age 14 but was also proclaimed a saint.
There is too much wealth in his biography to fit in this mere column. So, let us put in a story that will appeal to boys and all others alike. During his life, there was a period of horrible anti-Catholicism in Italy when priests like Don Bosco were being attacked. He was nearly killed or assassinated on several occasions. He was able to use his own powers to fight off attackers but he also had a helper, and his name was Grigio.
Grigio means “gray” and that name belonged to a gray dog that looked horribly large, almost like a wolf, and who would appear whenever he needed help. The animal was scary in appearance and showed up many, many times and everybody saw him. No one ever knew where he went afterward . . . only that he attacked anyone who endangered Don Bosco and saved his life on his way home on several occasions. In one instance the dog would not let him leave home, and it turned out to be for the best, for attackers had been lying in wait. He loved Don Bosco. His guardian angel?
In 1859 he founded the Salesians of Don Bosco. After all, he needed someone to help him in the work! Eventually, there would be a sister order. By 1875 missionaries were going to another country and soon multiple countries. His mother was his partner in so many things. She who had raised him by always repeating, “God sees you” must have repeated this to his boys. She was his first benefactor — not some rich patron. She sold her wedding ring and few pieces of jewelry to help feed and house his boys. Long before “Boys Town” there was Fr. John Bosco. By the end of his life there were 59 houses in six nations. Even the Pope was a fan.
Don Bosco’s cause for sainthood was opened right away, and he was canonized in under fifty years. Today his order numbers 15,700 brothers and priests throughout the world. He is the patron of schoolchildren. We should ask his intercession for the victims of the tragic shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
St. John Bosco’s feast is January 31.

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