It was in 1989 when St. Pope John Paul II wrote to the Salesians in his letter Centesimo Exeunte Anno (c. January 24, 1989) that he fondly referred to our founder as the Iuventutis Pater et Magister or the “Father and Teacher of Youth”. The figure of St. John Bosco shines through the array of saints who have heroically lived Christ’s command to love. For St. John Bosco this life of love is seen in the way he lived for young people.
St. John Bosco is an Italian priest from Castelnuovo in the then Kingdom of Sardinia in the northern part of modern Italy. He was born on August 16, 1815. He came from a poor peasant family and orphaned of his father at the age of two. Since his youth, he showed affinity for the priesthood and great love for the Church. Through benefactors and working for his education, he finished his studies and entered the seminary to be part of the diocesan clergy.
With the guidance of his spiritual director, Fr. Joseph Cafasso, the young priest opted to work for poor and abandoned boys. In the city of Turin, he saw the plight of migrant young people who became victims of the darker side of industrial revolution which shaped his times. Not only were they disadvantaged economically, but they fell prey to abusive businessmen, to moral ills of their time, and eventually would end up in prison.
He started the oratory which he named after a saint he admired, St. Francis of Sales. The oratory being a place and venue for worship for people has been transformed by the young saint to include youthful fun in order to attract boys and distract them from vices. This positive humanist approach was effective in gathering hoards of young boys into his oratory. Seeing the need to address more of the issues that hound his boys, he put up a school and a shop to educate the misfits and out-of-school youth and equip them for dignified labor.
Don Bosco, as he is fondly known (‘Don’ means “father” in Italian), attracted the attention of civil authorities and the Pope. Contrary to the trend of suppression of religious orders and urged by his benefactors in the government but most especially of Pope Pius IX, St. John Bosco established a religious institute he named the Society of St. Francis of Sales. It was born out of the need for the stability of his work but at the same time from the fruitfulness of his ministry. The first members of the congregation were Don Bosco’s students who were once burdens to society.
His work grew and expanded to the rest of Europe and later, to South America. Despite the expansion and the physical distance, the sons of Don Bosco have always expressed a familial link with the saint. Where the Salesians went, they brought with them the Valdocco experience, the intent to recreate the atmosphere of the first oratory which in the short history of the congregation has already produced many saints and blesseds, notable past pupils, bishops and dignitaries in society, fruitfulness yet to be rivaled in history.
For St. John Bosco, his life was a fulfillment of a dream he had when he was still nine. In that dream he met Jesus and the Blessed Mother who showed him a field where wild animals were in chaos. The Virgin Mary showed him the transformation of those wild animals into gentle lambs, telling him “what you saw happen to these wild animals, you will do for my children.” Later on in life, he saw the second part of that dream when from those very sheep came out shepherds.
The young priest then through Divine Providence was prepared for the ministry of shepherding the young, turning them from wild animals into sheep, and then into shepherds. Only at the sunset of his life did Don Bosco through hindsight understand his life, when while celebrating the Eucharist, he stopped while crying with his eyes fixed on the Body of the Lord. Blessed Michael Rua who assisted him at mass heard him say, “now, I understand!”
The young John Bosco of Castelnuovo dedicated his whole life to the ministry of youth. In putting up a church, a school, a playground, and a home for young people, he educated and evangelized them. In doing so, he polished young people to become gems in the Church and in society. He breathed his last on January 31, 1888, surrounded by his sons and leaving behind a great movement working for the salvation of young people. His doctor describing the cause of his death noted that he was like a candle burned to the tip of the wick, exhausted from burning. He died living out his motto, da mihi animas, cetera tolle – give me souls, take away the rest!