Javascript is currently disabled. This site requires Javascript to function correctly. Please enable Javascript in your browser!

Saint John Bosco

Saint John Bosco
  • Century: 19th Century
  • Patronage: Christian apprentices, editors, publishers, school children, youth, magicians
  • Feast Day: January 31st

Born in 1815, St. John Bosco was the son of peasant farmers.  Almost as soon as he entered the world, his father left it, dying when his son was only two years old.  This left his mother in the very difficult position of working, raising a child and maintaining a home.  Nonetheless, she managed and St. John Bosco was never without her help or love for the rest of his life. 

By age nine, St. John Bosco began to receive visions crouched in his dreams.  These visions prompted him toward holy living and, ultimately, the life he would lead dedicated to helping others.  The first dream he had witnessed a gang of boys quarreling.  The vision thrust him in the middle of the fight and he, desperate to calm the children, tried to reason with them.  When that failed, he quickly felt the urge to become physically violent, himself.  Yet a lady appeared speaking and urged him to be gentle with the lads.  This one dream counted as his discernment—he became unwaveringly committed to catechizing the youth (which at that time were his peers).  By the time he was sixteen he had resolved to go to seminary where he was given the opportunity to gather once a week the wayward and neglected children of Turin, the city he went to for study. 

When he graduated from seminary and was ordained he had intended to be a missionary, but was advised by a priest from Turin to remain in the city and continue the good work that God had already begun in him with the young men.  In order to do this, however, he needed benefactors—the first of whom was a wealthy patroness eager to give St. John Bosco the chance to work with the youth.  She, however, was interested in his being a chaplain for a girls refuge.  Despite the assignment, he consented and resolved to meet with his group of boys on Sundays. 

This assignment continued with the girls until the patroness refused to allow St. John Bosco to carry-on his ministry if he persisted in working with the young men.  Apparently the Sunday visits with the boys, while holy, fun-loving and wholesome, were also quite rambunctious—and word spread around town that St. John Bosco’s boys were hooligans and whippersnappers.  When St. John Bosco was unwilling to give up these Sundays, he was relieved and set out to open up a refuge oratory for his boys.  With ill-health and his mother at his side (affectionately called “Mamma Margaret” the Venerable), St. John Bosco’s boys’ oratory grew from a night school to an overcrowded house of 30-40 boys.

Once the many young men were gathered, St. John Bosco’s entire approach to their education and training changed as he began to witness that all his efforts were totally in vain if they had to go back into the world from the home—working in corruptive places, befriending morally questionable folks.  So, he moved to offering them not only an education, but occupational training to produce products to keep the oratory open and accommodating to the boys—as a home, not merely a school.  The success of this approach saw the oratory expand in size and population—by 1856 housing 150 boys and teaching over 500 boys daily.  With the help of other priests, St. John Bosco was able to offer technical training in hat-making, tailoring, and printing; plus grammar and Latin.  The money came from his efforts in begging and the popular books that he wrote.      

The success of the oratory movement was something St. John hoped to replicate.  With four other loyal priests, St. John Bosco organized the foundation for an order committed to works of charity and taking the name of Salesian.  By 1859 the group had 22 priests committed and was formally organized as a religious congregation by Pope Pius IX.  By 1863 there were 39 priests; by 1888 there were 768.  During St. John Bosco’s life he saw the Salesians sent to 38 houses in Europe, 26 in the New World (especially South America).

A zealous fundraiser for the efforts of his congregation, St. John Bosco continued to work with the youth and for the youth (and the greater Church) until his death on January 31, 1888.  When he was canonized in 1934, Pope Pius XI referred to him as the Father and Teacher of the Youth.  Today, the Salesian order is a leading provider of primary schools for the underprivileged, colleges, seminaries, adult schools, technical schools, agricultural schools, printing and bookbinding shops, hospitals, as well as foreign missions.

Practical Take-Away: The Gospel of Delight

One of the most striking things about St. John Bosco, according to those that knew him, was not his austere holiness, but his fun-loving holiness.  Perhaps the patroness of the girls’ refuge, this streak of playful comic may cut against the calm and serene conceptions that we have of saints.  Holiness does not mean that you are boring.  Quite the opposite—it means you are overwhelmed with joy, delighted by the Gospel.  St. John Bosco could be a saint and a clown, filling others with hope and laughter.  One of the earliest successes this man had in evangelizing others was as a young man of sixteen was when a street juggler and acrobat came to town with the circus in Piedmontese.  The crowds had gathered on Sunday morning to see the spectacle when St. John Bosco (who was an amateur gymnast and magician) showed up to challenge the juggling acrobat.  When St. John Bosco out-performed him in front of the crowd, he was able to lead the entire audience across the village to Mass.  Let this be a lesson of how fun can be holy, laughter can be Christ-like, and how delight can evangelize.