St John Bosco, also known as Don Bosco, is the subject of this paper and, as all saints of the Church, he has mediated in this world the presence of Christ to a multitude of people during his lifetime and most particularly to the youth of his area in Italy. For my part, I did not grow up Catholic and so was not afforded the opportunity to be exposed to and explore the long list of saints in the Church. This deficiency is being filled as I become more and more aware, through my encounters with people in various ministries since becoming Catholic, of the many saints influencing and encouraging people’s lives. This particular saint, with his focus on youth, might have been helpful in providing an appealing framework focusing on education and spiritual growth especially due to the fact that it was coming from an adult who seemed to understand the needs and desires of young people. During my search for a saint to write on for this paper, John Bosco’s name was presented to me as someone whose situation in life speaks to the needs of people today, especially to the needs of youth who are the future of the Church.
During his lifetime, St John Bosco also had to deal with many intrusions of anti-Catholicism. He lived during at time within Italy that was not conducive to publicly confirming the Catholic faith. The public State was not only wary of the activities of the Church but also actively worked against the Church by promulgating anti-Catholic laws and promoting dissent of the magisterium of the Church. The many vicissitudes he had to contend with and overcome can be seen, to various degrees, in today’s world. His methods and approaches in confronting the anti-Catholicism of his day are also very prescient to the concerns and troubles of our world today.
At the time of the birth of St John Bosco in 1815, Italy was not yet unified and consisted of ten different regional states. The Italian peninsula had always been made up of several independent kingdoms and the Papal States cut across the Northern half. During the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the pope had been imprisoned and the Papal States were under control of the Napoleon Regime. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 marked the end of this regime and the Papal States were returned to Pope Pius VII. The pre-Napoleon boundaries of the other Italian kingdoms were also given back to their former rulers (prelates, 82-83). This time period also gave rise to the notion of unification of the Italian States and this was cultivated and influenced by the French Revolution and American Revolution. With this notion, the monarchical form of government came under fire as more and more of the populace was filled with the enthusiasm of thinking authority came from themselves and not God. With traditional forms of government wanting to be ended, the Holy See’s temporal authority was also targeted. This encouraged the anti-clericalism that was rampant during the time of John Bosco and it was this environment that promoted the unique and diverse methods he employed in his ministry. John Bosco faced a multitude of opposition from the revolutionaries as they saw him as clergy. As clergy, he was a representative of the Church who was headed on earth by the Pope. The Pope ruled over the Papal States and the unwillingness of him to relinquish them was a barrier to unification. This barrier made John Bosco an enemy.
John did not start out wrangling with revolutionaries. His humble and impoverished beginnings lie in a small village called Becchi just outside of Turin, the capital of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy, in 1815. The death of his father when he was two years of age left him in the hands of his mother, Margaret, who would have a great influence in his young life as well as helping him in his ministry later in his life. As a single mother taking care of three boys, John being the youngest, and an elderly mother-in-law on a small farm, she nurtured and guided John in his vocation to the priesthood and in his mission to serve the radically poor. She was his model in early life, watching her generously share what little the family had with the poorer neighbors and transients, giving not only food and shelter, but kind words to salve their souls.
When John was nine years of age, he had a dream that would recur many times over his life and that he would later recognize as the vision and course of his future vocation. In this dream, he found himself surrounded by a bunch of boys. Some were laughing, singling and playing, but others were fighting and using foul language. Losing his temper, he tries to stop the boys from fighting with his own fists, but this makes the situation worse. Then in the middle of the group fighting, a noble looking man appeared and they all stopped to stare at him. The man told John that the only way to win over these boys is with the heart and not the fist. The man then told John that he was the son of the mother whom John’s mother taught him to salute three times a day. The man said he would the woman to him and John will be able to do everything easily. The man disappeared and the boys surrounding John turned into wolves and other wild animals. With fear, he turned and found a glorious and gracious lady at his side. The woman told John to look at the vision of his future work. She said that what John must do for these animals, he must do for all her children. In order to succeed, she said, he must be humble and strong. With this, the wild animals turned into sheep and lambs cavorting about him. The woman then assured John that she would be with him and she would give him guidance and support in his life.