St. Dominic Savio: A Path to Hidden Holiness

In his book Holiness is for all Seasons, Pope Benedict XVI notes that conflicts between saints, such as Saints Peter and Paul, should comfort us, because they show that the saints were not dropped from Heaven. They are human just like you and me. We are all called by God Himself to be great saints – just as they were. May 6th is the feast day of a boy who answered that call.

St. Dominic Savio was born in Piedmont, Italy on April 2, 1842. He had a typical childhood with his parents and many siblings in a small town several miles from Turin, attending the local parochial school until he was old enough to join the Oratory of St. John Bosco. There he became a great example of charity to his friends. Nearing the age of 15, he left the Oratory to return home because he was sick and convinced of his impending death. Several days later, surrounded by family, he died in an odor of sanctity.

According to his father, however, shortly after he passed, Dominic bolted upright on his bed and began marveling full voice at the wonders he saw in Heaven. Then, just as suddenly, he fell back down, dead. This eschatological miracle of the young saint is a consoling reminder that the reward that awaits those who persevere to the end is real. The eternal truths are true indeed.

From an early age, Dominic was eager to do God’s will. Soon after arriving at the Oratory, he heard a visiting priest give a sermon about achieving holiness. Three points impressed him: first, that it is God’s will for everyone to become a saint; second, that it is easy to do so; and third, that there are great rewards in Heaven for those who become saints.

Consumed with zeal for God, he began fasting on bread and water, and imposing harsh mortifications on himself: wearing a hair shirt, sleeping with fewer sheets, and upon stones. However, when his teachers realized what Dominic was doing, they forbade him from undertaking this fasting regimen and these penances on the grounds that doing so was damaging his health and banned him from assuming any further penances without permission. St. John Bosco told Dominic that he could become the great saint he was striving to be by being completely obedient to his superiors in all things but sin. He said: “The penance God wishes from you is simply obedience. If you obey, that will suffice for everything.” 

Dominic was not satisfied. He considered obedience a necessity, and, therefore, insufficient as a penance. But St. John Bosco explained that whatever Dominic had to suffer, if offered to God, would become meritorious in His sight. With obedience, Dominic could give more glory to the Lord than by many long and arduous penances, for God delights in “obedience [more] than sacrifice”(1 Sam 15:22). It was in this manner of obedience, then, that Dominic surrendered to God, trusting that he would become a saint by obeying his superiors. He subsequently abided by the maxim: “I cannot do big things, but I can do little things with great love.”

In St. Dominic’s day, a child ordinarily received first communion at age 12. However, Dominic was given a dispensation to receive our Lord at age 7 because of his understanding of and love for Him. On that day, which he called the “happiest and most wonderful day of [his] life,” he made four resolutions, which guided him from then on. They were to go to Confession and Holy Communion as often as his confessor allowed him; to sanctify Sundays and holy days in a special manner; to have Jesus and Mary be his chief friends; and to choose death before sin. Dominic’s resolutions, simple in their goals, can, with God’s grace, also become our own.

St. Dominic is also a sublime example of hidden holiness. His quiet, unassuming example of sanctity lays out an imitable path to sanctity. He gave himself entirely to the service of his brothers and lived an ordinary student’s life in an extraordinary way. Attending Holy Mass and receiving Holy Communion with utmost love and reverence as often as he could, going frequently to Confession, performing hidden mortifications every day, and silently suffering with God are the actions that made Dominic Savio a saint. These are the things that will make us great saints too if we persevere to death in doing them well. 

Dominic would prepare and give thanks before and after every Holy Mass. He maintained a healthy contrition by not becoming scrupulous, but by obeying his confessor, who allowed him to confess no more frequently than once per week. In fact, in his book, The Life of St. Dominic Savio, St. John Bosco states that Dominic is “chiefly worthy of imitation in frequenting the Sacrament of Confession.”It is this sacrament, St. John says, that guided Dominic through life and consoled him at his death. He never failed to repent, trusting in God’s Mercy, no matter how many times he had fallen, no matter the number or scale of his sufferings. 

Perhaps St. Dominic Savio did not endure the same degree of suffering as did other great saints. But he is great nevertheless because he was faithful in doing God’s will. That, in the end, is what makes great saints: doing the will of God. St. Paul says that “prophecies…will pass away[,] tongues…will cease[,] knowledge…will pass…, [but that] love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8). Therefore, it is love that will make us saints, and it follows that to love God is to do His will. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).

All great saints imitate Christ to a heroic degree. They endure their trials bravely. They are steadfast in faith to the end. Life is a continual battle with the forces of darkness, and it will not get any easier with age. But with the prayers and example of St. Dominic Savio, we have another faithful protector to guide us to God. We would do well to act on his words: “Ask Jesus to make you a saint. After all, only he can do that. Go to confession regularly and to Communion as often as you can.”

St. Dominic Savio, pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.

Image: Shutterstock/Immaculate

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Edward Kerwin is a college student.

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