Today we celebrate the feast of St. John Bosco, a truly remarkable saint. Born in 1815 in the Piedmont of Italy, he spent most of his life in Turin ministering to what we today would call “street children,” young people without homes or families, who were often in trouble or causing it.
His father died when John was 2, which many attribute as his motivation for caring for youth. He used everything at his disposal to attract wayward boys to God. Travelling jugglers and circuses often passed through the town. John learned their tricks and put on his own show on Sunday afternoons charging the prayer of the rosary or a summary of the morning’s sermon as admission.
The 1840s in Europe marked a period of famine and crop failure. Many young people left farms and came to the city to try to make a living for themselves and their families back home. Needless to say, with such an influx of labor, jobs were scarce. St. John observed that many of the boys and girls who came to the city were illiterate and had difficulty finding jobs.
He set out to help them by teaching them to read, assisting them in finding work, and, in many ways, “fathering” them – checking to make sure they showed up at work, that they performed well at work, and that they stayed out of trouble. During the week he would visit them, and if they didn’t have homes, he would help them find a place to stay.
Under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, Saint John eventually opened a school for boys, called the Oratory, teaching them their Catholic faith, how to read and write, and practical job skills. It was under these circumstances that the Salesian Order, founded by St. John Bosco, began. By the time of his death in 1888, 250 houses of the Salesian Society had been established around the world.
One very unique thing about St. John Bosco was his approach to helping and working with the young people. He never used punishment. He chose to love in such a way as to motivate a life of virtue and to gain love and respect rather than fear. He always looked for a way to complement and edify virtue in the boys, seeking their good qualities above all. The grace and the response to that grace is worthy of emulation in all walks of life.
Prayer stood as the cornerstone of the Oratory and of St. John’s life. Signs and wonders accompanied him: predicting the future, reading of souls, healings, multiplication of the Eucharist and of food, and even raising someone from the dead. The greatest of his charisms, however, was prophetic dreams.
Both the New and Old Testaments record dreams – Joseph interpreted Pharoah’s dream and St. Joseph protected Jesus and Mary by taking them to Egypt as a result of his dream – among others. An estimated 153 of St. John’s prophetic dreams have been recorded. Most concerned St. John and the oratory. Others concerned local public or political events. Like many of us would, he at first doubted the nature of the dreams and finally realized that this was the manner in which God chose to speak to him. Recognizing this, he responded faithfully to God’s call.
You and I may not have prophetic dreams, but God still speaks to us and calls us to holiness in great big things, like what John Bosco did, and in great little things like changing a diaper. Whatever we do, faithfulness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and discernment of the will of God, must propel love to be our guide in all that we think, say, and do, so that we can do our part in building the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Let us pray to grow an understanding of God’s plan for us each day and in the days and years ahead, and for the grace to be faithful to that call. Let us pray, too, for all the young people out there who have no one that cares for them, who are homeless or are working the streets, who feel lost and unloved – that through our prayers and our material support we may help them to know God’s love.
St. John Bosco, pray for us! Anne
For your further reading: The Dreams of St. John Bosco, an excellent article about St. John Bosco from Catholic Encyclopedia, and information about Covenant House a ministry to homeless young people living on the streets of New York City.