St. John Bosco
And taking a child, he set him in the midst of them. Whom when he had embraced, he saith to them: Whosoever shall receive one such child as this in my name, receiveth me. And whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me. Mark 9:35-36
Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. Mark 10:14
Da mihi animas; tolle ceteras. Give me souls; take away the rest. St. John Bosco
St. John Bosco
THE FRIEND OF YOUTH
FOUNDER OF THE SALESIAN SOCIETY,
OF THE SISTERS OF MARY, HELP OF CHRISTIANS,
AND OF THE SALESIAN CO-OPERATORS
This life, so full of color and of drama, will appeal to all, whatever their creed or opinions. St. John Bosco, or simply Don Bosco, as he wished to be called, spent himself wholly, from his very childhood, in healing modern human miseries. As he saw and foresaw the dangerous surging tide of misled popular masses longing for justice, he threw himself headlong among the youth of the lower classes, pointing to them the only way to a better place in this life and in the life to come. He did not talk much: he acted. He did not write long and elaborate educational treatises: his example is the best one. When asked about the secret of his immense success with the youngsters, he simply answered: love . . . By a kind of surprising intuition, Don Bosco knew that selfishness, bearing injustice and hatred, was at the bottom of this modern society, forever prattling about equality, philanthropy and fraternity. He felt the sting of the sarcasm and of the tragedy of the common people proclaimed sovereign in theory, but in fact reduced to slavery by this blustering modern liberalism, which raised the flickering torch of human reason against the eternal light. Don Bosco set himself to bring back the multitudes to the only Heart that understood their needs. He is the greatest pioneer of Christ in modern times. This book is the fruit of gratitude, the loving Thank you for a great favor miraculously granted to the author through Don Boscos intercession. The reader will feel the throbbing of a grateful heart in every page. As to its veracity, suffice it to state that Don Boscos figure stands out vividly against the background of the latter part of the 19th century. May this book carry far and wide through our beloved country the old and always new Spirit of Christ as the only remedy for the ailments of this suffering age!
Little John was by far the most intelligent of the three, and though full of life and vigor, the most responsive to her teaching. He loved to help his mother in her charitable actions; when she went to visit a sick neighbor he went with her, and while she attended to the invalid, he would gather the children around him and teach them their prayers. Wherever he was he was the leader, in games as in everything else, and even as a child of five he used his influence for good. Sometimes his mother would object to his choosing the roughest boys to play with, especially when he came home rather the worse for wear. John would coax herYou see, Mother, when I play with them, they are not so nasty, they dont fight and use bad words. It was quite true. There was a radiant purity about the child that influenced all with whom he came in contact. Through all the earlier years of his life, little John herded the cattle. He led them out joyously into the meadow, singing one of the hymns to Our Lady that his mother had taught him. The silence and beauty of the open country led his thoughts to God; he became a lover of silence and prayer. The little shepherds of the neighborhood, with whom he was very popular, sometimes interrupted him, and he would tell them a story or repeat part of the last catechism lesson of his mother. And he had such a delightful way of doing it that they came again and again. Among them was a poor little fellow who had only a hunk of black bread for his breakfast. Id like your bread better than mine, said John one day. Will you trade? He had a large slice of good white bread such as Margaret always provided for her children; little Matteo was ready enough to trade, but he thought John had very strange likings. The exchange continued daily, and it was only after many years that it struck Matteo that liking had not had much to do with it.
When John was about nine, it became evident to his mother that he was destined for something other than a shepherds life. There was no school at Murialdo, the nearest village; and Castelnuovo, where there was one, was a good distance away. There would be some expense. Anthony, now 20, consulted as the head of the family, put his foot down firmly. He can dig like the rest of us, he said. I have never been to school. Margaret, rather than cause any trouble in the home, gave way. But her sister, housekeeper to the parish priest at Capriglio, who acted also as a schoolmaster, begged him to take the child as pupil in the class which began in early November and ended with the spring. The little scholar had to tramp three miles twice a day in all weather, but he thought it a cheap price to pay and quickly learned to read. During the spring and summer, when at work in the fields again, he studied whenever he had a free moment and while herding the cattle.
I want to study, I want to be a priest, he would reply to the rather
violent remonstrances of his young friends. With the return of winter there
was a question of going back to the class at Capriglio, but again Anthony turned
crusty, and again Margaret thought it better not to insist. During his whole
life John Bosco was to be inspired and guided by strangely vivid dreams, Gods
revelation of what his work in the world was to be. The first took place about
this time when he was nine years old. He seemed to be in a large yard near the
cottage, where a great many boys were playing together; some were laughing,
some playing games, some fighting, some swearing and using foul language. John
shouted to them to stop and, dashing in, began to strike at them. Suddenly,
by his side, he was aware of a shining figure in white, of unparalleled dignity
and with a face so radiant that he could not bear to look at it.
Not with blows, but with gentleness and charity, you must take care of them and win their hearts, he said, teach them the beauty of virtue and the ugliness of sin.
How can I teach them, who am ignorant myself? asked John.
By obedience and knowledge, you will do the impossible, was the answer.
How can I get knowledge?
I will give you the wisest of teachers; she will teach you true knowledge.
Who are you who speak thus to me?
I am the Son of her whom your mother has taught you to salute three times a day.
My mother has also taught me to be careful of strangers. What is your name?
Ask My Mother.
At that moment John saw beside his interlocutor a beautiful Lady clothed like her Son in shining raiment. She took him by the hand.
Look, she said. The boys had vanished, and in their place he saw a crowd of wild animals.
This is your work, she said. Be humble and strong. I will show you now what you must do with my children.
As she spoke the animals vanished, and in their place he saw lambs gamboling and frisking about the Lady and her Son. John began to cry,
What does it mean?
The lady laid a gentle hand on his head. You will understand later, she said, and John awoke.
He slept no more that night.
So that was to be his workto teach the beauty of goodness and the ugliness of sin. How was he to do it? Little John had an idea. The great entertainments in those days in Italy were the performances of the traveling jugglers and acrobats who were always to be seen on market days in the villages and towns. It had not escaped Johns keen eyes that people would even stay away from church to look at them. From henceforth, whenever a juggler was to be seen, there was John watching. Then he went home and practiced. He was black and blue for a while, but he was a supple little fellow and soon he began to get the knack of it. Before very long, he had acquired most of the tumblers tricks and could even walk on a tightrope rigged up between two treesnot too far from the ground. Then he planned his program. The children of the neighborhood were invited to a performance, only it was prefaced and ended by prayer, and somewhere in the middle John gave them what he could remember of the Sunday sermon, all with the inimitable energy and spirit that was his. It was made quite clear from the beginning that No prayers, no performance was to be the order of the day, and John was inexorable on this point. It was for their souls welfare that he had been black and blue all over, not to give them a pleasant afternoon. To the circle of admirers it was as good as a first-class circus, and they never failed to appear. They were intensely proud of John.
At ten years old John Bosco made his First Communion. In those days, before the happy pronouncement of Saint Pius X, children did not approach the Holy Table until about 12 or 13. But Margaret Bosco, understanding all that it would mean for her little son, sent him to the preparatory class at Castelnuovo in the Lent of 1826. Though younger than all the rest, he was the most understanding, as well as the one who knew his catechism the best. Margaret herself prepared him for the great act. My little son, she said, God is about to give you the most precious of His gifts. Make ready your whole soul to receive Him and promise Him to be faithful to Him all your life. On the morning of the great day she herself took him to the church at Castelnuovo and they made their Communion together. The Master entered into lasting possession of the soul of His young servant. John had told his mother of his dream, and to her it seemed a clear indication that he was meant for the priesthood. Yet there was Anthonys savage opposition to his little brothers education to be dealt with. She commended it to God, and God heard her prayer.
That year, in honor of the Jubilee of 1826, an eight days mission was held in the towns and larger villages of Piedmont. Buttigliera being nearer than Castelnuovo, the Becchi folk trudged the three miles morning and evening to hear the two sermons. In the early hours of the night, the villagers all tramped home together to their different hamlets. So it came about one evening that Don* (Master, the title given to priests in Italy) Calosso, the old parish priest of Murialdo, walking with the rest, became aware of a dark-eyed, curly-headed urchin who seemed to him much too young to be able to follow the instructions.
Hello, Sonny, he said, where are you from?
Could you understand anything of the sermon?
Yes, Father, all of it.
All, thats a good deal. If youll give me one thought from it, Ill give you a penny.
Which part, Father, the first or the second?
Whichever you like, even the subject of the sermon.
It was on the necessity of not putting off ones conversion.
And what did he say about it?
He put it in three parts, Fatherwhich am I to say?
The one you like.
Well, Ill say all three.
Whereupon this amazing urchin delivered the substance of the whole sermon. The villagers had gathered around the pair and, to the music of the childs clear voice, the way home seemed wonderfully short.
That was one sermon, said the priest; how about the other? Tell me something about that.
What struck me most about it, said John gravely, was this, and he recited vividly a scene dramatized by the preacher.
Don Calosso was dumbfounded. What a child! What intelligence and what a memory! What would the future bring? He paced, silent and thoughtful.
What is your name? Where do you live? Who are your parents? And where are you at school? he asked at length.
I am John Bosco, my father died when I was two, my mother has five of us to feed. I can read and write a little.
Any knowledge of grammar?
Would you like to study?
My brother Anthony wont have it.
He says I know enough to work in the fields.
Would you like to study?
To be a priest.
Why do you want to be a priest?
To get hold of the children, to teach them their religion, so that they may not grow up bad. I know that when they get bad, its because they havent had anyone to help them. Excuse me, Father, here is the turn to Becchi.
Can you serve Mass, John?
Then come and serve mine tomorrow.
Next day after Mass, there was a long conversation in which Don Calosso read the soul of the child and saw something of Gods purpose for him. Tell your mother to come and see me, he said on parting; we will talk things over. In that talk it was decided that John should go to Murialdo every morning and study Latin with the old priest. The rest of the day he would go on working in the fields. Anthony was very angry when he heard what was afoot but for the moment held his peace. Little John was radiantly happy with the kind, gentle, old priestjust the kind of priest he had dreamed ofnot cold and distant like some he had met. He found Latin stiff, but went at it with all the vigor he possessed, and his wonderful memory was a great asset.
But the springtime came, and the few hours of study taken from field work roused
Anthonys wrath. John did double work to make up and kept his books hidden
till nightfall, but all was in vain. One night the elder brother broke out.
Thats enough! he raged. Im going to turn all these
books out of the house. I became a big, strong man without any of that nonsense.
John was hot too. Our donkeys stronger still, said he,
and he never studied either. Anthony made a dash for him, but
John fled through the open door. Anthonys opposition soon became something
like persecution. Margaret saw that this would not do. She stopped the lessons,
but when this did not suffice she sent her beloved John away from home. Go
and get work on one of the farms round about, she said through her tears,
and on a frosty morning in 1829 John Bosco, aged 14, with his small possessions
tied up in a bundle, left home and committed himself to the Providence of God.
He was hired as laborer to a fairly rich farmer of Moncucco. He worked hard
all the week and on Sunday gathered the children of the hamlet together to teach
them their religion, using his power of dramatic storytelling as a bribe. But
Johns desire for the priesthood was more acute than ever; he confided
it to his employers, who were very fond of him but gave him little encouragement.
It costs so much to be a priest, John.
Cost what it may, I will go on hoping, he said, and spent all his evenings in study.
The year was not over when hope dawned. One day when shepherding the cattle he met his uncle Michael Occhiena, a well-to-do peasant, who had always liked him.
Hello, John; getting on well?
Everyone is very kind to me, but I cannot get over the longing to carry on my studies. I shall soon be 15.
Here, said his uncle, take the cattle back to the farm, pack your bundle and go home.
It was not a triumphant homecoming. Margaret had to hide her son behind a hedge until Uncle Michael arrived to make and uphold the decision that John was to continue his education. Shortly afterwards the little family property was divided; Anthony set up on his own account, and Joseph was ready to do all he could for his younger brother. Margaret was free at last to devote her resources to her younger son. Even so there was little enough, had not Don Calosso come again to the rescue. He adopted John for the time being and devoted himself entirely to his education, promising to provide for its continuance. John was supremely happy with the old man, whom he loved as a father, but his troubles were not at an end. Within the year the old priest died of a sudden stroke. His last look was for John. Taking the key of his cashbox from under his pillow, he gave it to him. But in the absence of any legal right, John handed it over to the nephew of the dead priest.
Take all that you need, said the latter; I know that was my uncles wish.
The temptationfor so John looked at it was great, but he did what he thought was right.
I will take nothing, he said. But night was in his soul as he went back to Becchi.
Once again Uncle Michael played providence. He sent John to the school at Castelnuovo, where there was a supplementary class of Latin. It was a long way. To save shoe leather, John walked barefoot till he neared the little town, and as he thought the journeys to and fro a great waste of time, he did not go home at midday. And in bad weather he spent the night with a kindly tailor who gave him a hole under the staircase to sleep in. In the end the tailor offered to keep him altogether for a very small sum. The big boy of 15 felt a little out of place and awkward among the younger children. He was classed at first among the backward, but soon came to the top. The teacher had small sympathy for the big peasant lad, whose silent reserve made him appear stupid. What can one expect from a place like Becchi? he said. John was told that he was wasting his time at Latin and ought to go back to the plow. When his work was good, it was supposed that he had copied someone else. John made no answer; he accepted sarcasms silently and worked strenuously. Finally the Latin master declared that he would not read Johns rubbish, and when John presented his translation, he threw it aside with a contemptuous remark about dunces from Becchi. The class was amused; the others asked to hear Johns nonsense, and the master, taking up his translation to please them, glanced through it. To his disgust it was almost faultless.
It is not his own, he said, he has copied it from a neighbor.
He has not, averred his two nearest neighbors; read ours and see.
The remark was only just, but it irritated the professor extremely.
You think you can teach me, he retorted. When I say he has copied, he has copied. It is not surprising that that kind of teaching was not very profitable to the pupils. John profited in another way, by the practice of patience and humility. More was to be learned from his friend the tailor; he could at least pick up something there, and indeed, he picked up a good deal. To begin with, he picked up tailoring and soon became so good at the work that he was almost able to pay for his board. He little knew how valuable this would be to him in later life. Moreover, Robert the tailor was something of a musician; he had a very fine voice and was first tenor in the choir. John, who had a beautiful voice himself, was a precious recruit. It did not take him long to learn the liturgical music, the hymns and canticles of the Church, and the learning was sheer joy. Most Italians are musical; he learned from Robert to play the violin. In a corner of the house was an elementary and rather decrepit harpsichord. John learned to play that too and practiced till he was an adept at accompaniments. This was the value he got out of his year at Castelnuovo in view of his future life something that was to be even more precious to him than study.
When the summer holidays came around, John went back to his work in the fields.
What was going to happen now? The answer was another dream. There came to him
in this dream a shepherdess, beautiful beyond compare, leading a large flock
of sheep. John, she called, come here. Do you see this flock
of mine? Look, I give it into your keeping.
My Lady, said John, what can I do? How can I keep this great flock of sheep and lambs? I have no pasture for them.
Dont be afraid, said she. I will watch over you, and I will help you.
The next day he met a friendly farmer. John, what makes you look so jolly today? he asked.
Youve looked rather grave and worried of late.
Today, said John triumphantly, I know with certainty that I shall be a priest.
Taken from St John Bosco by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.
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