Saint John Bosco
John Bosco was born on 16 August 1815 in a farmhouse near a small village east of Turin in northern Italy. His father died when he was only a child. He felt this very deeply and it made him want to care for young people who struggled with the same circumstances in their lives. His mother, Margaret, was a wonderful woman whose own faith made a deep impression on him.
When he was only nine years old, he had a dream that was prophetic. In the dream, he was with a whole lot of children who were playing. The problem was that they were going hell for leather and were pushing and shoving each other and swearing and cursing at each other. John didn’t like this and tried to stop them by throwing himself into the game and swearing and cursing himself and trying to force them to stop what they were doing by being just as rough himself.
But a man appeared to him who said: “Don’t hit them, you will only be able to win them over with kindness and love. I will give you a teacher who will help you to become really wise.” He didn’t realise it straight away but the man was Jesus and the teacher he was promised was Mary. He eventually placed his whole life under her guidance and honoured her with the title “Help of Christians”.
This experience led John to want to learn to be an acrobat, a magician, a singer and a juggler so as to be able to attract companions to him and to keep them far from sin. “If they are with me,” he used say to his mother “they don’t curse”.
This also led him to want to become a priest and to dedicate himself entirely to helping young people learn to love God. He used to work all day to earn his keep and would spend his nights studying what he needed to learn so as to be able to enter the seminary to become a priest. Finally, when he was 20, he was able to enter the seminary and was ordained as a priest in Turin in 1841, at the age of 26.
Because the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, Turin was chock-a-block with poor young people. They were either orphaned or abandoned and looking for work, and were exposed to all sorts of dangers. Don [Father] Bosco started to gather them together on Sundays, sometimes in a Church, in vacant lots, or even in open public spaces where they could play and where he could teach them about their faith.
After five years of enormous difficulties, he managed to establish his first oratory [youth centre] in an outlying suburb of Turin called Valdocco. This enabled him to provide food and accommodation for them. Eventually, he was also able to offer them a place to study or learn a trade. But, above all they learned to love God. One of his more famous students was a young lad called Dominic Savio. He was eventually canonized as a saint.
Don Bosco was loved no end by his “rascals” as he used call them. Whenever anyone asked him the secret of such success, he would reply, “I always try to win them over with kindness and love.” He spent what little money he had, his time, his most extraordinary talents and his health all to help them out. It was from among these young boys and men that he chose the first Salesians. Wishing to provide the same sorts of opportunities to girls, he founded with Saint Maria Mazzarello, the Salesian Sisters [The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.] In his ‘free’ time, which he often snatched from his sleep, he wrote and popularised simple booklets on the Christian faith for the edification of ordinary people.
As well as being a practical man, he lived his life based on a deep love of God. His mother, Margaret, had instilled this in him from a young age. This was united with a profound sense of compassion for people from all walks of life based on humanity, kindness and a balanced attitude towards life.
He was convinced that everyone could be holy and constantly challenged his boys to love God and to accept responsibility for their own development as Christians and as good members of society. His famous quotes: “It is enough for me that you are young for me to love you” and “You will find writers far more talented than me, but, you will never find anyone who loves you and wants your true happiness more than I do“ make clear his commitment to nurturing the fragile spirits of young people. Everyone he met felt as if they were especially loved by him.
Don Bosco had a big desire to become a missionary and to go to the mission, but he himself never went there. However, on November 11, 1875 he send the first missionary expedition to Argentina. It was the beginning of worldwide salesian service to the poor young people.
Exhausted finally by his tireless work, he fell seriously ill. As he lay dying, many of his boys offered their own life to God in exchange for his. He died on 31 January, 1888, at the age of 72. On Easter Sunday, 1 April 1934, Pope Pius XI, who had had the good fortune to know him personally, proclaimed him a Saint.
Who are the Salesians of Don Bosco
We, the Salesians of Don Bosco [officially known as The Society of St. Francis de Sales], are an international organisation of Catholic priests and brothers dedicated to the service of the young, especially the disadvantaged and marginalised.
We work in collaboration with our partners in schools, youth centres, hostels, camps, parishes and other contexts to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the lives of the young. We accompany the young on the journey of life so as to enable them to grow and mature as “good Christians and honest citizens”.
We were founded in the mid-1800s by St John Bosco, an Italian priest and educator, and today there are about 16,000 of us throughout the world. We are present in all five continents, in more than 130 countries.
We belong to the Salesian Family which is a worldwide movement of people committed to the service of the young. Today, it consists of over 400,000 people who are part of 30 different organisations aligned to Don Bosco. Currently, there are over 20 more groups seeking membership of the family. The first four: The Salesians of Don Bosco, The Salesian Co-operators, The Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians [Salesian Sisters] and The Salesian Past Pupils were all founded in Don Bosco’s lifetime.
As St. John Bosco was a priest, he was called ‘Don.’ It is the Italian equivalent of ‘Father’. The organisation he founded were called ‘Salesians’ because the patron saint of the organisation was St. Francis de Sales, the bishop of Geneva in the 16th and 17th centuries who was famous for his kindness and humanity.
We practice Don Bosco’s ‘Preventive System’ of “reason, religion and loving-kindness” and strive to create environments characterised by
- a sense of welcome (A HOME)
- a spirit of faith (A PARISH)
- dynamic learning (A SCHOOL)
- engaged social interaction (A PLAYGROUND)
It is called ‘preventive’ because Don Bosco believed that such an approach would always bring out the best in people and so ‘prevent’ them from developing in a dysfunctional way.
The secret to the success of Don Bosco the educator was his intense spirituality, an inner energy which made of the love of God and neighbour an inseparable unity for him. This is a fundamental element of Salesian pastoral action and is based on the Gospel.
We believe that:
- The Holy Spirit is alive and well in the young, especially in those who are most in need and we do whatever we can to help them discover the workings of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
- Everyday life is where we come into contact with God.
- Joy is how we give the greatest glory to God and to each other.
- Friendship is how we make God real to each other.
- A personal relationship with Jesus, through prayer, the Eucharist and the Word of God is what enables us to grow in the love of God.
- The Church is a place where we all grow in love of each other and God.
- The experience of reaching out to and caring for others is the best way to bring God’s love to the world.
- Mary is our guide, model and helper in how to respond to God’s love.
- Whatever brings people together to worship God and serve each other is what Jesus wants the most from us.