When John Bosco lived in Europe, many boys were orphaned and poor. Without families and religious training, these boys often got into fights, used bad language, and stole, hurting others. John Bosco might have been like that, too, if it hadn’t been for his devout mother.
John was the youngest son of a peasant family. His father died when John was two, and the family became very poor. As a youngster, John taught religion to other boys and got them to go to church. His acrobatics and magic tricks fascinated them. Encouraged by a priest, John entered the seminary wearing clothes provided by charity.
Priests at the seminary saw that John was a natural leader and encouraged him to use his gifts to keep other young people out of trouble. John started gathering boys together on Sunday for a day in the country. They would begin with Mass, followed by breakfast and games. The afternoon would include a picnic, a catechism lesson, and evening prayers. The group grew larger because John Bosco loved the boys. He made each one feel important. He had a gift for handling difficult boys.
John was able to get a house for himself and forty boys. His mother became the housekeeper. In the first six years the number of boys at the house grew to 150. John Bosco gave a father’s care to rowdy, neglected boys. He is known as the “friend of boys” and is often called Don, which means Father.
Don Bosco opened workshops to train boys to be shoemakers and tailors. He saw that in addition to getting a religious education the boys learned to play musical instruments, perform in plays, and engage in sports. He also wrote and printed books on Christian faith for boys.
At that time the state did not favor the Church, and for four years men tried to assassinate John Bosco. Once they tried to shoot him while he was teaching. At other times they tried to poison him and attacked him on the street. Eventually, however, because of his good work, even his enemies began to support him.
John Bosco knew God wanted him to work with boys because of a dream he had when he was young. In this dream, boys who had been playing roughly suddenly began playing together as happily as lambs. John heard a voice saying, “Teach them right from wrong. Teach them the beauty of goodness and the ugliness of sin.” When John told his mother about his dream, she said it might mean God wanted him to be a priest and care for some of the sheep in his flock.
John Bosco spent so much time working that people who knew him well became worried about his health. They said he should take more time for rest and sleep. John replied that he’d have enough time to rest in heaven. “Right now,” he said, “how can I rest? The devil doesn’t rest from his work.”
In 1859 John began a religious community of priests which is still active today, caring for boys who have been neglected. Because John admired Francis de Sales, he named the group the Salesians. Later, with St. Mary Mazzarello, he began a community of Sisters called the Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians, to help girls.
When John died, 40,000 people came to his wake.
Image credit: Saint Don Bosco by Carlo Felice Deasti, 1887. Public Domain via Wikimedia.