On a sunny spring day, Fr. John Bosco was in Lanzo, Italy, paying a visit to one of the schools he had founded. When he arrived, seven boys were in the infirmary, quarantined with smallpox. Sick or not, their faith in one they believed a saint was so great they were sure that if Don Bosco, as they called him — Don being Italy’s title for priests — would only come up and bless them, they would be healed and not have to miss the fun and entertainments scheduled for his visit. From their sickroom, they sent out an urgent request that the visiting priest come see them.
With his usual total unconcern for his own well-being — he once snapped at a hovering woman, “Madame, I did not become a priest to look after my health” — the saint entered their off-limits quarters.
With cheers and roars, all the boys began to clamor, “Don Bosco, Don Bosco! Bless us and make us well!”
Boys were never too raucous for this saint. He only chuckled at their exuberance. Then he asked if they had faith in Mary’s intercession, for like all saints, Bosco never attributed his cures to his own prayer power.
“Yes, yes,” they chorused. If Don Bosco was praying, they were full of faith.
“Let’s say a Hail Mary together then,” he proposed. Perhaps he reminded them that, as at Cana when Jesus worked His first public miracle at her request, when Mary asks her Son for a favor, she gets it. At any rate, only after the prayer which asked for the cure through Mary’s prayers, not Bosco’s, did he bless the sick students in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, from whom all healing comes.
As their hands completed the answering Sign of the Cross, the boys began reaching for their clothes.
“We can get up now, right?”
“You really trust our Lady?”
“Then get up!” He turned and left, and six boys, ignoring the deadly pustules that still covered them head to foot, hopped into their clothes and raced out to the festivities.
For the imprudent, roof-raising rascals who dashed out to the fun and games with complete confidence, their pustules began to disappear as they played. The only near-casualty of that day in May 1869 was the poor conscientious school physician, who almost had a heart attack when he saw the smallpox patients “infecting” the entire school with an often fatal illness. While he was understandably furious, in fact no one caught the disease.
Many years later, as clean, decently clad, well-mannered adults, long deflected from incipient delinquency into honest workingmen and stalwart Christians, the same pair and hundreds like them, plus many slightly better off boys like those seven at Lanzo, would recall Don Bosco with a fierce love.
“How he loved us!”
“Remember his fatherly smile.”
“And his gentleness. Wasn’t he more tender than a mother?”
“He had so little to give us actually: a handful of doughnuts or chestnuts, maybe a cheap comb — but those days with him seem to me like Paradise.”
There is even a testimony to this Holy-Spirit-filled magnetism from America’s shores. The late Italian-born pastor Alfonso Volonte of Corpus Christi Church in Port Chester, New York, has told how, even when Bosco was old and unwell, the sight of him at one of the schools for poor boys he founded would cause “a free-for-all to get near him.” One of Fr. Alfonso’s most precious memories even in great old age was the day, as one of those youngsters, he actually managed to grasp the hand of the saint, who smiled “as only Don Bosco could smile” and let his free hand rest on the young Alfonso’s head while saying a few treasured words to the boy.
The man whose love healed lives and sometimes bodies as well was canonized as St. John Bosco in 1934. It was only forty-six years after his death in 1888, in spite of all the miracles required at that time. His had been a life on the fast track too: Bosco was years ahead of his time — and ours. A master psychologist, nurturer, and educator, his boys’ clubs and schools — whether academic, technical, or seminary — lovingly educated the whole child, intellect, emotions, soul, and body, with remarkable results.
Bosco founded technical schools to augment or replace the system of apprentice training of the young, midday retreats for workers and students, and vacation camps for Christians. Beginner of Italy’s Catholic press apostolate, he knew how to turn every available medium of communication or entertainment — from almanacs and magazines to theater and music — to Christian use. One of the most winning personalities among the Church’s saints, he was gifted by God with perhaps more charisms than any nineteenth-century saint, from prophecy and reading of hearts to the working of all sorts of miracles, including healing minds, souls, and bodies.
To The Mission Field
Why was Don Bosco seen entering a tavern late at night with a vicious gang and standing these young hoodlums a round of drinks? Had John Bosco no thought for the dignity of the priesthood? Why, most priests, some reminded him, forbore even to speak to slum people or any young person in order to maintain the proper awe toward their sacred calling.
When Bosco told his fellow mid-nineteenth-century clergymen that he was going to form a cadre of laymen and priests “in shirtsleeves” to live in the slums and work with the young spawned there, kids who would otherwise end up dead of drug or alcohol abuse, jailed for violent crime, or victims of the gang system, some fellow clergymen were horrified. They actually made arrangements to have “poor unbalanced Don Bosco” confined to a mental institution, but the quick-witted Bosco outfoxed them.
Another hardship was the political situation. It was a period of political instability. The small kingdoms of Italy were breaking up interiorly or being invaded by foreign powers. The entire Italian Peninsula was moving toward unity as a new nation.
Church and states, particularly Piedmont’s government, were locked in battle over everything, from the pope’s earthly kingdom, the Papal States, to the role of religious orders in the new era. Many anti-clericals in government looked with a jaundiced eye at the muscular, athletic young priest, a spellbinding speaker who could lead boys — and men — anywhere he proposed. When he marched through Piedmont’s capital city, Turin, with several hundred young slum toughs on their way to the country to hike or picnic, sinister political maneuvers and the building of a personal power base were suspected.
On all sides, criticism or misunderstanding. No substantial help anywhere. His mission seemed doomed before it got off the ground. Finally came the crisis on Palm Sunday 1846, when he was going to have to tell his hundreds of followers they were being evicted from even the bare field he had rented as their meeting place when they had been thrown out of every building in Turin. Only in this last great temptation to despair, when he was asked to trust a God who seemed both deaf and cruel, did Bosco interior a faith so heroic that nothing could defeat it and a humility bottomless enough to defeat every impulse to pride in his enormous human and spiritual gifts.
God assisted him. For instance, if Bosco could not see with his eyes, God gave him other means. Take the testimony of a boy making his confession to the saint. Don Bosco, who had been in the church hearing confessions for hours, informed him in which building on the large property he would find a boy hidden away and smoking an illegal cigarette.
“Don Bosco asked me to go to this fellow and tell him he should think about coming to confession.”
When the messenger stepped gingerly into the dark hallway, he saw no one but smelled cigarette smoke. He called out the message hurriedly, because he wanted no dealings with the older, bigger youth. Then he dashed outside, hid in the bushes, and a moment later saw the boy named come out the door and head for the church.
The Love of Don Bosco
Lovable, human Don Bosco exemplifies in still another way that people madly in love with God can still behave as foolishly as the rest of us. Don Bosco not only acted as a priest, a catechist, and a teacher of subjects from music to metrics to his first slum kids, he also took many homeless or abused boys to live with him. He cooked for them, cut out and sewed their suits, barbered their hair, made their beds, and in all ways acted as both a mother and a father. Surely this was enough self-giving, but not for the saint.
When a boy came to him moaning piteously with a toothache, an earache, or another infection in those pre-antibiotic days, Don Bosco would ask God to heal the kid by giving the pain or the illness to him. God, of course, may answer our idiotic prayers as well as our sage ones. Finally, when Don Bosco couldn’t function for his hundreds of boys because he was incapacitated by the terrible toothache he had taken on for one boy, he came to his senses. He realized that this love that cries out to bear physically the loved one’s pains and troubles, spiritually speaking, was a youthful excess. From then on, when led by the Holy Spirit to pray for healing — certainly not always the case, for he assisted many people in their deaths — Bosco prayed people well with the assumption God could spare the cure: it did not have to come, physically anyway, out of Don Bosco’s hide.
Of course he reserved the right to make occasional exceptions, like the time he arrived at a Salesian school to find that the youngster who was to take the lead in the evening’s entertainment had lost his voice.
“I’ll lend you mine for the evening,” the saint said. For the rest of that night the boy projected his voice beautifully, while Don Bosco was hoarse as a foghorn.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.