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Practical advice and examples for parents who want their children to be good Catholics

The Saints and Our Children

from Chapter 3
Dominic Savio - Schoolboy Saint

In the second place, it is pointless to tell or expect a child to do a Christ-like thing if he has no knowledge nor very real love for Christ. This must be carefully cultivated by parents. Love comes first before imitation.

There is need for parents to try to understand the neighborhood personalities, their difficulties, their lacks, home situations, to learn to recognize conflicts in the making and with discretion and love try to avert them when they can. Suggestions for changing play, for creative play, for changing sides, teams and, when the difficulty is not to be surmounted, for changing or removing playmates temporarily can help. Above all, there is need for a sympathetic regard for the souls of the troublemakers, who need help, patient teaching, higher ideals. This is hard if it is always your child who gets smacked! Nevertheless, much improvement could be made in neighborhood situations if parents would swallow their resentment toward the difficult children and try again to understand, teach, help, love, if they would teach their children to forgive and start loving again. Perhaps God permits such conflicts in your yard so this child or that may have your help. There are many ways to remedy such evils besides hitting back.

And there must be prayer. Time after time a child will fail in self-control, will rush in with fists flying (as the small John Bosco did) but with prayer and teaching he may one day find the courage to respond to a certain touch of grace and turn the other cheek. Our Lord was concerned with our desire for vengeance when He spoke that line, our fallen need for getting even. What we must develop in ourselves and our children - if we would understand why He said it - is the Christ-mind which sees the pity of the soul who strikes out to hurt and trouble others. How help him? Striking back may stay him for a while but it will not help him as much as love and prayer and sacrifice. We need not reason: "I would like to teach this to my child but I dare not since he is too young to grasp it perfectly and he will only become a victim." Rarely will he fail to give blow for blow - for all the teaching! But if he hears the principle lovingly taught to him in a hundred different ways as a hundred occasions suggest, one day he will have the courage to try. When and if he finally succeeds he will be stronger than he was before, and freer, because it is the strong who master self-control, not the weak. He will discover a new dimension in his relation to everyone and a thousand bits of wisdom will fall into place; he will leap one of the obstacles between himself and God. What would be the first step in teaching it? Perhaps it would be taken at family prayer, with the inclusion of the petition: "Please, Blessed Mother, help us not to love ourselves so much; please help us not to want our own way."

It has worked when it has been tried. What would Dominic Savio have done with the suffering that accompanied his turning the other cheek (there is suffering - the kind that goes with cutting away self-love) but pray for the boys who had accused him? The next day they confessed. Suppose they had not? They did - but suppose they had not. Our Lord values meekness for itself alone. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land." "Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls." Meekness has its own rich rewards.

This incident in St. Dominic Savio's life is a challenge for all children. It shows a boy handling a fairly ordinary situation in the perfect way - and it is imitable.

Father Cugliero, his teacher, spoke to Don Bosco about this boy and they finally met in 1854 when Dominic was twelve. Don Bosco saw the beauty of his spirit, liked him immediately and it was agreed he would go to study at his Oratory of St. Francis de Sales.

At the new school, Dominic made friends easily. Goodness is always attractive. It is cheerful, polite, never sissified. Beacuase he was well-liked as well as studious, his teachers often put unruly boys next to him in class knowing he could make them behave by his example and friendship. During his first year an altercation arose between two of them which he settled in a striking way.

Two of his classmates had quarreled and vowed to finish it off by throwing stones. It had started with name-calling, progressed to vile language and insults, and finally both boys were in a fury. Dominic tried to reason with them but they were older and bigger and would not listen. He told them they would break the Fifth Commandment if they persisted but they did not care. He wrote notes warning them he would tell their teachers, who would tell their parents, and they would be expelled, but the boys ignored the notes. He prayed - and God sent him an idea.

The day of the duel he waited for them after school and was permitted to go along on one condition: he must not try to stop the fight, trick them or call anyone. They got to the lot, collected their stones and were about to begin when Dominic stepped between them. He held up a small crucifix which he wore at his neck and said: "You must look at this crucifix and say, 'Jesus was innocent and died forgiving his murderers. I am a sinner and I am going to offend Him by wilful revenge'".

The boys were stunned. He knelt before one. "Now start by throwing the first stone at me." The boy gaped. But that was silly. He had nothing against Dominic. Dominic was his friend. Dominic ran to the other boy and begged the same and the boy's reply was the same. "You! Why you? I wouldn't throw stones at you! I don't want to hurt you. I'll fight anyone who does!"

Dominic stood. "You are fools. You have enough courage to fight each other and to fight to save me, but you haven't enough courage to fight to save your souls! Christ died to save them. You haven't even the courage to forgive stupid insults and names. You'd rather save face than save your souls!"

One of the boys told about it later. "By that time I was shaking...to have forced a good friend like Dominic to go to that extreme to keep me from serious sin!" He forgave the other boy and asked Dominic what priest would hear his confession. If the two had not told the story long after, it would not be known. Dominic never told.

At this time classes were not held in the Oratory, which housed the boys, but further into the city of Turin. The walk to and from class offered the same temptations boys meet today on the city streets and Dominic saw this. He tried to keep his eyes and ears from being avenues of temptation and sin. Although he kept clear of boys who were rowdy in the streets, who hung around the street corners, he was tempted, nevertheless, by the frequent suggestion to cut school. Most of the time he said he would rather get his work done, but once he agreed to go. He had gone but a short distance when he stopped. "I'm going back. This is wrong and I'm sorry I said I'd go. And if you ever ask me to go again, you'll not be my friends."

The astounding effect of this was that the whole crew turned around and returned to school with him. No one ever tried to get him to "hook" again. The strong and the right-minded have the obligation to lead because the weak are always looking for leaders. What great good can be done when the strong are also good and will lead.

By the end of the year Dominic was at the head of his class. "He studied hard as a duty of conscience, not to beat his classmates," wrote Father Michael Rua, a contemporary and, after the death of Don Bosco, head of the Congregation of Salesians.

It was after Don Bosco preached a sermon on being a saint that Dominic began to change. He was not as gay as before. He did not join in recreation as often. He smiled less. Don Bosco asked what was wrong. Dominic replied that he wanted to be a saint - although he wasn't quite sure how to go about it. The priest assured him that one of the things a saint had to do was be happy - no gloomy saints! Not long afterward, some of the boys told Don Bosco that Dominic was sick. He went to his room and found him shivering in bed, covered only by thin cotton blankets. "Where are your winter blankets?" He wasn't using them. No? "Why not?" because he wanted to be a saint and one had to do penance. Don Bosco exclaimed. Did he want to get pneumonia? That's what he'd get for his penance! The winter blankets were distributed to be used in the wintertime. "Put the winter blankets on your bed!" Dominic asked, what about penance? He could do other penance. He was to be obedient to the rules of the school.

It was not long after that the boys came to Don Bosco again with news of Savio. "Wait till you see his bed!" The priest went to his room. Under the blankets were boards and on the boards gravel, tacks, nails. "What are you trying to do now - ruin the blankets?" No - it was penance again.

Don Bosco spoke gently: "First take this junk out of here and throw it where it belongs, and I will tell you about penance." There followed the whole way of perfection designed for school-children.

"Listen, my boy. You are a schoolboy, not a hermit; so do the penance of a schoolboy. Your penance is to fulfil the duties, all of them, of your state. Do this perfectly and you will see the penance it is. There are companions who rub you the wrong way: seek them out and make much of them. There are those who are vulgar or are downright rude to you: forgive them from the bottom of your heart. Then there is the food and drink that you do not like: don't waste it. There are some subjects in class that you like less than others: don't neglect them. Other boys are chosen before you for favorite tasks in chapel: be humble about it. You find the weather is too hot, too cold, or too wet, or too dry: thank God for all of it. Then there is your internal weather - your moods, now bright and golden, now blue; ignore them all. Life is full of chances for you to show Jesus that you love Him above everything: seize these chances as they come along. If He wants you to be some kind of special martyr or hermit or something, you shall know quite soon enough - but only through obedience. Obedience is your greatest possible sacrifice."

Dominic understood at last. From that time on he practiced obedience in all things. Don Bosco noticed and kept a record of the things he did about which Dominic said nothing. In the winter he had badly chapped hands; he took no care of them and wore no gloves or mittens. The food at the Oratory was dull, often poor. There was money for nothing but the bare necessities, and sometimes even they were lacking. He ate more of what he did not like and less of what he did. He ate less than he wanted of everything. When the others had left the table, he cleared the dishes away and ate what was left on the plates, partly because he hated waste and partly as a mortification, to be rid of self-love. He was consistently gentle with his school fellows. Once a boy mistook this for weakness and after picking on him with no result, started to hit him. Dominic became angry but did not hit back. "Look, you have hit me for no good reason. This time I forgive you - but see that you do not do it again!" Could we ask for a better example of how a child might behave in such a situation once he understands the principle behind Christian meekness, turning the other cheek? Once again it had the startling effect of great strength and made the offense of the other boy look like weakness. Dominic practiced the custody of his eyes and his ears by deliberately choosing what not to look at, what not to hear. When asked why he did this, he answered - a little wisely - one time: "Oh, I am saving my eyes to look at Our Lady."

But he had a sense of humor. Once someone made a funny remark in class and everyone roared but Dominic, whose mind was a million miles away. Five minutes later he reacted to the joke, starting to howl. The master said sternly: "Savio! YOu may finish your laugh in the corner." And he did.

He had a prayer custom we might adapt for certain of Our Lady's feasts in the family. Shortly after he arrived at the Oratory, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed and everyone was planning to celebrate the feast. Nine days beforehand, Dominic wrote nine different virtues on nine slips of paper and put them in a box. Daily he drew out one, prayed to Our Lady for an increase of that virtue and tried to practice it all day. On the feast he renewed his First Communion promises before her statue. "O, Mary, I give you my heart; make it yours forever. Jesus, Mary, be my friends. I beg you both to let me die rather than commit a single sin." We might imitate Dominic's preparation for this feast and celebrate the day by consecrating the family to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

One morning Don Bosco turned from the altar at Mass to distribute Holy Communion and was shocked to see there was not one boy at the Communion rail. The aftermath of this was the Immaculate Conception Sodality, formed by Dominic and some of his friends. Their immediate goal was to get everybody in the school to Holy Communion on Christmas, but their ultimate aim was to promote devotion among the boys to the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Immaculate. Don Bosco had said to Dominic that boys had entry to places and hearts where even priests could not go. Boys could do things even priests could not do. What? They could play - with other boys, making it an apostolate to befriend boys who needed friendship, good example, prayers, and encouragement.

This idea intrigued the members of the sodality and, from among the difficult boys in the school, each chose a list of "clients" on whom they would work, first by prayer, second by the sacrifices of an exact student life, and third by play. If a boy played good ball, they played ball with him and praised him, were his friends. If he ran well, they joined him at that. If he sang, jumped, joked well, whittled, did feats of strength, whatever game or recration he liked best, they joined him at it, did their best, lost - if so - cheerfully, and praised the other boy for his accomplishments. The sodalist gave good example, was a good companion, and casually, without seeming to press, began to suggest, when the time was right, that the other boy go to the sacraments with the rest. They worked on boys who never knew they were being worked on. They prayed for them, sacrificed for them, lived their lives for them and at midnight Mass the following Christmas eve, every boy in the school went to Holy Communion of his own free will.

This apostolate of child to child, boy to boy and girl to girl, is one of the things God shows us in Dominic Savio's life. There is no time when one becomes of age for the lay apostolate. As soon as he is baptized, every member of the Mystical Body, having become one with Christ, inherits a work to do. Confirmation, the sacrament of "spiritual adulthood," marks the precise moment when one takes his place in hte ranks of grownup Christians, but there is no time when one is useless or not needed. It is thrilling for a child to discover that he is needed, how he is needed. This secret working with Christ for the souls of others is something he gives himself to eagerly if we encourage it.

Taken from The Saints and Our Children by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.

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