Don Bosco’s great compassion and service to the poor youth of Turin was influenced by his own difficult childhood experiences.
John Bosco was born on 16th August, 1815, to the east of Turin. From a very early age he decided that he would dedicate his life to helping young people. He wanted to become a priest to help them morally and he wanted to help them educationally by assisting them to cope with the world around them. He was ordained in June, 1841, and began his work for the poor youth of the city of Turin.
Turin in the 1800’s
Back in the early decades of the 1800’s social problems abounded in the city of Turin and its hinterland. Wars, epidemics and famines were the order of the day. The industrial revolution had begun and urbanisation was gathering pace. Young people were flocking into the city looking for work in factories. There wasn’t work for everybody and many were disappointed. Youngsters were often used as cheap labour. Money was scarce, accommodation was dreadful and crime escalated. The prisons were filled with boys and young men disillusioned by shattered hopes and abandoned dreams. Only the elite could afford education and in 1848 there were, in the city of Turin, 30,000 illiterate young people – about 40% of the population.
Into that situation came John Bosco. Part of John’s work as a priest was to visit the prisons around Turin. Here he experienced first-hand the misery of many defenceless and vulnerable teenagers. Their plight made a deep impression on him. Intuitively he knew something had to be done about the situation. But what and how?
A dream recalled
John’s visits to the prison revived memories of a dream he had at the age of nine. He tells us: “In my dream, I was playing with my friends near home when an angry quarrel broke out. I rushed in with my fists flying. All of a sudden a strange man appeared and rebuked me. ‘No, no, not that way. Be kind and gentle’. As he pointed to a majestic lady he told me his mother would always be my friend and guide.”
The prison visits challeged John and a new understanding of his faith and mission began to grow. He felt strongly called to work for these abandoned young people. But what was he to do? He adopted a novel approach. He mixed with the roughest of young people. He played cards with them in pubs and invited them to be his friends. This scandalised many of his fellow priests. Some of them actually thought his behaviour so insane, that on one occasion, they tried to commit him to an asylum. Overcoming problems and prejudices took time.
Living the dream
However, his unique ability to be at ease with the young who were homeless, illiterate and in need, spurred him on. He progressed from Sunday catechism classes in a local-field, to a daily trade school in an adapted shed. Young people flocked to him for education and shelter. He fought for the rights of, and proper working conditions for, apprentices. His fame and his work spread. People began to see John Bosco not as someone deranged, but as an extraordinarily holy man. He was making the seemingly impossible, possible.
As his work grew many young men came forward to help him. They became the first members of his religious congregation known as ‘Salesians’. (Currently numbering nearly 16,000). These young men became the core group who would further his work. Many lay people including his mother ‘Mama Margaret’ came to help in his work. John had wanted everybody who helped him, whether lay people or religious, to be part of his ‘congregation’, but Church regulations, regarding the setting up of new religious congregations, partly thwarted his dream. John, with the help of Mary Mazzarello, later founded the Salesian Sisters to work for girls. (Currently, there are over 400,000 lay people working as part of the wider Salesian family).
Why the name Salesians?
John Bosco had a great admiration for St Francis de Sales (1567-1622). Francis, who was born near Geneva, 21 August 1567, was patron saint of Piedmont and Savoy and much loved by John Bosco. He admired his joyful, optimistic spirituality and simplicity of life. St. Francis used a simple metaphor to sum up his work when he said: ‘you catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than a barrel full of vinegar.’ In other words: Love is stronger than violence or force of any kind. Because of the gentleness of his approach, he chose him as a patron of the Congregation, hence the name Salesians. He wished his followers to be filled with the spirit of Francis de Sales – a kindness that was all-embracing, a gentleness that was strong, a love that was humble and a faith that was steadfast.
Jesus the Good Shepherd came to reveal ‘the loving-kindness of the heart of our God’. Francis and Don Bosco both knew that ‘all starts from Jesus’ and ‘all leads back to him’. Love is the beginning, love is the end, love is the way.
John’s work and message spread throughout the World. He himself worked tirelessly throughout his life for the young people of Turin and beyond until his death on January 31, 1888 at the age of 73.
In 1934, Pope Plus XI canonized St. John Bosco as saint of the Catholic Church. And in 1988 Pope John Paul II called him “Father and Teacher of Youth.”