Memorial of Saint John Bosco, priest

John Bosco (Italian: Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco; 16 August 1815[1] – 31 January 1888), was an Italian Catholic priest, educator and writer of the 19th century, who put into practice the convictions of his religion, dedicating his life to the betterment and education of street children, juvenile delinquents, and other disadvantaged youth and employing teaching methods based on love rather than punishment, a method that is known as the preventive system.[2] A follower of the spirituality and philosophy of Francis de Sales, Bosco dedicated his works to him when he founded the Society of St. Francis de Sales (more commonly known as the Salesian Society or the Salesians of Don Bosco). Together with Maria Domenica Mazzarello, he founded the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, a religious congregation of nuns dedicated to the care and education of poor girls, and popularly known as Salesian Sisters. In 1876 Bosco founded a movement of laity, the Salesian Cooperators, with the same educational mission to the poor.[3] In 1875 he published Bibliofilo Cattolico – Bollettino Salesiano Mensuale (The Catholic Book Lover – Salesian Monthly Bulletin.)[4][5] The Bulletin has remained in continuous publication, and is currently published in 50 different editions and 30 languages.[4]

Bosco succeeded in establishing a network of organizations and centres to carry on his work. In recognition of his work with disadvantaged youth, he was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934.

 Life

Bosco was born in the evening of 16 August 1815 in Becchi.[6] He was the youngest son of Francesco Bosco (1780–1817) and Margeret Occhiena. He had two elder brothers, Antonio and Giuseppe (1813–1862).[6] The Bosco of Becchi were farmhands of the Moglia Family. John Bosco was born into a time of great shortage and famine in the Piedmontese countryside, following the devastation wrought by the Napoleonic wars and a drought in 1817.[7]

Margaret played a strong role in Bosco’s formation and personality,[8] and was an early supporter of her son’s ideals.[9][10] When he was young, he would put on shows of his skills as a juggler, magician and acrobat[11] with prayers before and after the performance.[12]

In 1825, when he was nine, Bosco had the first of a series of dreams which would play an influential role in his work and outlook.[13] This dream “left a profound impression on him for the rest of his life”, according to his own memoirs.[13] Bosco saw a man, who “appeared, nobly attired, with a manly and imposing bearing”.[13] The man said to him:

You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.[13][14]

Poverty prevented any serious attempt at schooling. Nevertheless it’s suggested that the idea to become a priest came from his early childhood, especially following the dream he had when he was nine.[15] At the time, being a priest was generally seen as a profession for the privileged classes, rather than farmers, although it was not unknown.[15] Some biographers portray his brother Antonio as the main obstacle for Bosco’s ambition to study, arguing that “He’s a farmer like us!”[16] Nevertheless, Margaret gave her support to John and he finally left home in February 1828 at the age of twelve.[15] Having to face life by himself at such a young age may have developed his later sympathies to help abandoned boys. After begging unsuccessfully for work, Bosco ended up at the wine farm of Louis Moglia.[15] However, although Bosco could pursue some studies by himself, he was unavailable to attend school for two more years. In 1830 he met Fr. Joseph Calosso, an elderly priest who identified some natural talent and supported his first schooling.[17]

Priesthood and first apostolates

Bosco began as the chaplain of the Rifugio (“Refuge”), a girls’ boarding school founded in Turin by the Marchioness Giulia di Barolo, but he had many ministries on the side such as visiting prisoners, teaching catechism and helping out at country parishes.

A growing group of boys would come to the Rifugio on Sundays and feast days to play and learn their catechism. They were too old to join the younger children in regular catechism classes in the parishes, who mostly chased them away. This was the beginning of the “Oratory of St. Francis de Sales”. Bosco and his oratory wandered around town for a few years and were turned out of several places in succession. After only two months based in the church of St Martin, the entire neighborhood expressed its annoyance with the noise coming from the boys at play. A formal complaint was lodged against them with the municipality. Rumors circulated that the meetings conducted by the priest with his boys were dangerous; their recreation could be turned into a revolution against the government. The group was evicted.[18]

In 1846 Bosco rented a shed in the new Valdocco neighborhood on the north end of town from a Mr. Pinardi. This served as the oratory’s home. His mother moved in with him and in 1847, he and “Mamma Margherita” began taking in orphans.

Even before this, Bosco had the help of several friends at the oratory. There included priests like Joseph Cafasso and Borel, some older boys like Giuseppe Buzzetti, Michael Rua, Giovanni Cagliero and Carlo Gastini as well as Bosco’s own mother.[citation needed]

One friend was Justice Minister Urbano Rattazzi, who despite being anticlerical, nevertheless saw value in Bosco’s work.[19][20] While Rattazzi was pushing a bill through the Sardinian legislature to suppress religious orders, he advised Bosco on how to get around the law and found a religious order to keep the oratory going after its founder’s death.[19] Bosco had been thinking about that problem, too, and had been slowly organizing his helpers into a loose “Congregation of St. Francis de Sales”. He was also training select older boys for the priesthood. Another supporter of the religious order’s idea was the reigning Pope, Blessed Pius IX.[21]

Bosco hated the ideals that had been exported by revolutionary France, calling Rousseau and Voltaire “two vicious leaders of incredulity”,[22] favouring an ultramontane view of politics that acknowledged the supreme authority of the pope. In 1854, when the Kingdom of Sardinia was about to pass a law suppressing monastic orders and confiscating ecclesiastical properties, Bosco reported a series of dreams about “great funerals at court”, referring to politicians or members of the Savoy court.[23] In November 1854, he sent a letter to King Victor Emmanuel II, admonishing him to oppose the confiscation of church property and suppression of the orders, but the King did nothing.[24] His actions, which had been described by Italian historian Erberto Petoia as having “manifest blackmailing intentions”,[25] ended only after the intervention of Prime Minister Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour. Despite such criticisms, the King’s family did in fact suffer a number of deaths in a short period. From January to May 1855, the King’s mother (age 54), wife (32), newborn son (Vittorio Emanuele, Count of Genoa; nearly 4 months old), and his only brother (32) all died.[23][24]

Several attempts were made on his life, including a near-stabbing, bludgeoning, and a shooting. Early biographers put this down to the growing influence of the Waldensians in opposition to Catholic clergy.[18]

Opposition to Bosco and his work came from various quarters. Traditionalist clergy accused him of stealing a lot of young and old people away from their own parishes. Nationalist politicians (including some clergy) saw his several hundred young men as recruiting ground for revolution. The Marquis de Cavour, chief of police in Turin, regarded the open-air catechisms as overtly political and a threat to the State, and was highly suspicious of Bosco’s support for the powers of the papacy. Bosco was interrogated on several occasions, but no charges made. Closure may have been prevented by orders from the king that Bosco was not to be disturbed.[26]

Foundation of the Salesian Family

Basilica Don Bosco in Castelnuovo Don Bosco, Asti.

In 1859, Bosco selected the experienced priest Alasonatti, 15 seminarians and one high school boy and formed them into the “Society of St. Francis de Sales.” This was the nucleus of the Salesians, the religious order that would carry on his work. When the group had their next meeting, they voted on the admission of Joseph Rossi as a lay member, the first Salesian brother. The Salesian Congregation was divided into priests, seminarians and “coadjutors” (the lay brothers).

Next, he worked with estarino, Mary Mazzarello and a group of girls in the hill town of Mornese. In 1871, he founded a group of religious sisters to do for girls what the Salesians were doing for boys. They were called the “Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.” In 1874, he founded yet another group, the “Salesian Cooperators.” These were mostly lay people who would work for young people like the Daughters and the Salesians, but would not join a religious order.[27]

The story of the departure of the first Salesians for America in 1875 is based on the missionary ideal of Bosco. After his ordination, he would have become a missionary had not his director, Joseph Cafasso, opposed the idea. He eagerly read the Italian edition of the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith and used this magazine to illustrate his Cattolico provveduto (1853) and his Month of May booklets (1858).

When Bosco founded the Salesian Society, the thought of the missions still obsessed him, though he completely lacked the financial means at that time. One night, he dreamt again. Being on a vast plain, inhabited by primitive peoples, who spent their time hunting or fighting among themselves or against soldiers in European uniforms. Along came a band of missionaries, but they were all massacred. A second group appeared, which Bosco at once recognized as Salesians. Astonished, he witnessed an unexpected change when the fierce savages laid down their arms and listened to the missionaries. The dream made a great impression on Bosco, because he tried hard to identify the men and the country of the dream.

For three years, Bosco searched among documents, trying to get information about different countries, thus identifying the country from his dream. One day, a request came from Argentina, which turned him towards the Indians of Patagonia. To his surprise, a study of the people there convinced him that the country and its inhabitants were the ones he had seen in his dream.

He regarded it as a sign of providence and started preparing a missionary there. Adopting a way of evangelization that would not expose his missionaries suddenly to wild, uncivilized tribes, he proposed to set up bases in safe locations where their missionary efforts were to be launched.

Statue of San Juan Bosco, Ronda, Spain

The above request from Argentina came about as follows: Towards the end of 1874, John Bosco received letters from that country requesting that he accept an Italian parish in Buenos Aires and a school for boys at San Nicolas de los Arroyos. Gazzolo, the Argentine Consul at Savona, had sent the request, for he had taken a great interest in the Salesian work in Liguria and hoped to obtain the Salesians’ help for the benefit of his country. Negotiations started after Archbishop Aneiros of Buenos Aires had indicated that he would be glad to receive the Salesians. They were successful mainly because of the good offices of the priest of San Nicolas, Pedro Ceccarelli, a friend of Gazzolo, who was in touch with and had the confidence of Bosco. In a ceremony held on January 29, 1875, Bosco was able to convey the great news to the oratory in the presence of Gazzolo. On February 5, he announced the fact in a circular letter to all Salesians asking volunteers to apply in writing. He proposed that the first missionary departure start in October. Practically all the Salesians volunteered for the missions.

By this time Italy was united under Piedmontese leadership. The poorly-governed Papal States were merged into the new kingdom. It was generally thought that Bosco supported the Pope.

Don Bosco.

The Preventive System

Bosco’s capability to attract numerous boys and adult helpers was connected to his “Preventive System of Education”. He believed education to be a “matter of the heart” and said that the boys must not only be loved, but know that they are loved. He also pointed to three components of the Preventive System: reason, religion and kindness. Music and games also went into the mix.

Bosco gained a reputation early on of being a saint and miracle worker. For this reason, Rua, Buzzetti, Cagliero and several others chronicled his sayings and doings. Preserved in the Salesian archives, these remain resources for studying his life. Later on, the Salesian Lemoyne collected and combined them into 77 scrapbooks with oral testimonies and Bosco’s own Memoirs of the Oratory. His aim was to write a detailed biography. This project eventually became a nineteen-volume affair, carried out by him and two other authors. These are the Biographical Memoirs. It is not the work of professional historians, but chronicles that preserve the memories of teenage boys.

 Bosco’s concerns over his influence

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Shortly before his death, Bosco commented “I will reveal to you now a fear… I fear that one of ours may come to misinterpret the affection that Don Bosco had for the young, and from the way that I received their confession – really, really close – and may let himself get carried away with too much sensuality towards them, and then pretend to justify himself by saying that Don Bosco did the same, be it when he spoke to them in secret, be it when he received their confession. I know that one can be conquered by way of the heart, and I fear dangers, and spiritual harm.”[28][29][30]

Death and canonization

Bosco died on 31 January 1888. His funeral was attended by thousands. Soon after there was popular demand to have him canonized. The Archdiocese of Turin investigated and witnesses were called to determine if Bosco was worthy of a declared Saint. The Salesians, Daughters and Cooperators gave supportive testimonies. But many remembered Bosco’s controversies in the 1870s with Archbishop Gastaldi and some others high in the Church hierarchy thought him a loose cannon and a wheeler-dealer. In the canonization process, testimony was heard about how he went around Gastaldi to get some of his men ordained and about their lack of academic preparation and ecclesiastical decorum. Political cartoons from the 1860s and later showed him shaking money from the pockets of old ladies or going off to America for the same purpose. These cartoons were not forgotten. Opponents of Bosco, including some cardinals, were in a position to block his canonization and many Salesians feared around 1925 that they would succeed.

Pope Pius XI had known Bosco and pushed the cause forward. Bosco was declared Blessed in 1929 and canonized on Easter Sunday of 1934, when he was given the title of “Father and Teacher of Youth”.[31]

While Bosco had been popularly known as the patron saint of illusionists, on 30 January 2002, Silvio Mantelli petitioned Pope John Paul II to formally declare St. John Bosco the Patron of Stage Magicians.[32] Catholic stage magicians who practice Gospel Magic venerate Bosco by offering free magic shows to underprivileged children on his feast day.

Bosco’s work was carried on by his early pupil and constant companion, Michael Rua, who was appointed Rector Major of the Salesian Society by Pope Leo XIII in 1888. Salesians have started many schools and colleges around the world.

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