St John Bosco is one of those saints who can really appeal to children, especially boys. Born August 16th 1815 he was the youngest son of Francis and Margaret Bosco. He lived on a small farm with his parents and two brothers. When he was just two years old his father died. Margaret did a grand job raising her sons to work hard on the farm. She taught them not only the virtue of hard work but also their catechism. She was a woman of great love and was known as Mama Margaret by those around her.
When John was a youngster he had a dream that would change the course of his life. He saw himself trying to get a group of very unruly youngsters to behave. He did this by fighting with them. Suddenly a man appeared in his dream with a beautiful lady at his side and told John that it would not be through fighting that he would win the youngsters over but through love and kindness. In that moment at the tender age of nine John felt a vocation to the priesthood begin to form in his heart.
At that time in Italy and across the whole of Europe the industrial revolution as taking place. There was great poverty and many children were cast from their homes to fend for themselves. They became a wild and unruly bunch. John would often see them on his way to school. He began to entertain these youngsters with circus tricks that he had taught himself. He very cleverly said he would only perform his act if the boys promised to say a rosary or go to mass with him. However this was not always looked upon with delight by the residents of that area, who didn’t want a group of noisy and unruly boys in mass.
John also suffered at home. When he went to school his older brother was always complaining about John not doing his share of the work, even though John put in extra hours when he got home; his older brother Anthony made life very unpleasant. In the end his mother divided up her small estate and sent John to Castelnuovo where he stayed with a family that she knew and attended school. Whilst there to help ease his mother’s burdens John worked in many different jobs to help pay his way. He was a bright student with a really good retentive memory, he managed to do three years schoolwork in just one year.
On June 5th 1841 John was ordained a priest in Turin. A small incident just before mass changed Fr. John’s ministry. He overheard the sacristan shouting at a poor street urchin as they prepared for mass. Having been thrown out of the church John called the youngster back claiming he was a friend of his. He struck up a conversation with the lad and asked him to come back next week and to bring his friends with him so they could spend the day together. Over time ‘Don’ Bosco (‘Don’ is the Italian equivalent of ‘Father’ for priests) ended up with a large group of boys who came to him not only for their spiritual needs but also to have fun. It was not an uncommon site to see this priest playing games and teaching the children in and around the streets of Turin.
In 1846 John was able to purchase an old building which as it turned out was the burial-place of the Turin martyrs. He built a chapel and each week five hundred boys squeezed in for Mass. Gradually over time more and more youngsters found their way to his door. His Mother Margaret came and joined him in his work and she mothered all the boys and kept them fed with bowls of steaming soup. The Don Bosco “Oratory”as it became known was dedicated to Saint Francis de Sales because John was drawn to the saint’s gentle holiness.
Over time more and more priests came to help John with his work. And out of this grew the Salesian order which is still very much alive today. John died in 1888 but the spirit of his work lives on in the many brothers and sisters around the world who continue his work.
There are many good books written about this saint. It would be a good idea on these cold winter evenings to snuggle up with your children and read them the inspiring story of a man who through good humor and a great deal of love and patience won the hearts of many a youngster.