The boy entered the strange courtyard. He saw a knot of boys gathered by the far corner. As he approached, wondering where he was, he overheard them talking, laughing, and cursing. The boy became enraged at the foul language and rushed into their midst, striking them to silence their blasphemies. He froze suddenly under the gaze of a man with a face like the sun.
“John,” the man said, “come here.”
The boy lowered his fists, standing before the group he had been belaboring.
“Conquer the hearts of these, your friends, not with violence but with charity. Begin at once. Teach them the evil of vice and the excellence of virtue.”
“Who are you to tell me to do these impossible things?” the boy asked.
“I am the son of the lady I will send to be your teacher,” the man replied.
At that moment the boy realized that the other boys were gone. In their place ranged a swarm of wolves, bears, goats, dogs, and other fierce animals.
“This is the field of your labor,” said a new voice. The boy turned to find a lady robed in starlight. Seeing the boy was afraid, she took him by the hand.
“Be humble. Be strong,” the lady said. “Do for my sons what I do to these animals.” She reached down and touched the beasts gently, turning them into lambs.
Nine-year-old John Bosco awoke. At once he noticed his torn knuckles, and was ashamed. The day before he had been teaching catechism to a group of youngsters, when some boys interrupted him with profanities, and John fought them.
He would change. He would become a priest. But not like the parish priest in his village of Becchi. He never paid attention to children. John was not satisfied with his mother’s explanation that he was too busy to talk with boys. John resolved to be a priest who would talk to boys—to be a priest who dedicated his life to them, never too busy to be their friend, and to win their souls.
* * *
The boy entered the strange courtyard. He saw an open door by the far corner. As he approached, wondering where it led, he heard a rough voice say, “There you are, you lazy, stupid boy! You’re late! Mass is about to begin and Father is waiting for his server! Get in the sacristy!”
“I can’t serve Mass,” the boy protested, backing away as the sacristan seized him by his ragged jacket. “I don’t know how. Let me go!”
The enraged sacristan struck the boy furiously.
A figure suddenly appeared in the doorway. The sacristan retreated as the boy froze under the gaze of a man with a face like the smile of God.
“Son,” the man said, “come here.”
The boy, eyes bright with tears, stood forward.
“Don’t mind him,” the man said. “Are you alright?”
The boy nodded.
“What’s your name, my friend?”
“About sixteen, aren’t you?”
“Where are your parents?”
“Can you read and write?”
“Do you go to school?”
“The kids there would just make fun of me.”
“What would you say if I taught you catechism here, after Mass… and promised not to beat you up?”
The boy smiled back at the priest. Before long, Don Bosco sat down with Bartholomew Garelli, a poor orphaned bricklayer from Asti, and showed him on that Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1841, how to make the Sign of the Cross.
“When you come back on Sunday,” Don Bosco said at their parting, “be sure to bring your friends with you.”
One soul was not enough. John Bosco was a priest whose prayer was, Give me souls—especially the ones most neglected and lost—that he might give them to God. Bartholomew brought eight boys on Sunday. The following Sunday, there came eighty. Thus began the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, an apostolate that would grow to be one of the impossible wonders of the Catholic Church—a community that would give joy, courage, and comfort to thousands.
* * *
John Bosco was a philosopher, priest, theologian, and champion of the vagrant street-urchins and juvenile delinquents of Turin. His seminarian education and ecclesiastical formation found their culmination in gutters and alleys with young hooligans and tramps. He was a father, teacher, and friend to all boys, maintaining the spirit of gentleness, patience, and charity of his patron, St. Francis de Sales, who taught, “You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.”
Don Bosco roamed Turin with an entourage of ragamuffins and it was not long before this disheveled priest began to attract attention and criticism. He was kicked from place to place with hundreds of boys that looked to him to him for support and succor. There he came, his appearance long-heralded by the tumult that ever accompanied him, smiling warmly in a scruffy cassock, walking in the center of a crowd of dirty vagabonds collected from the slums—joyful, one and all. These were the sons of Don Bosco, and he loved them as a father as they wandered blithely together, looking for refuge where they could play and pray. Their manner was one of merry piety, and always carried out with a good deal of happy, holy noise.
The “Wandering Oratory” eventually found a permanent home in the Valdocco quarter of Turin. From this headquarters, Don Bosco opened other Salesian oratories, along with a boarding school and trade shops. His assistants were often former pupils who joined religious congregations under the guidance and inspiration of their teacher’s enthusiastic zeal. Over the next two decades, John Bosco’s educational methods were practiced with great success—methods proceeding from the heart, based upon a preventive system of reason, religion, and kindness, reinforced by a devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and Mary, Help of Christians.
Soon Salesian schools moved beyond Italy into France and Spain and beyond. While maintaining and directing these massive missionary efforts, Don Bosco wrote books for the use of students, teachers, and priests in the work of education and evangelization. During these years, Don Bosco also formed a close friendship with Pope Pius IX as liaison for the Vatican and the Italian government concerning the election of bishops. Though he was often away on this business, Don Bosco kept his finger on the pulses of his Salesian oratories, his followers, and especially his boys.
As though his work was not miraculous enough, Don Bosco was a miracle worker as well. He was a prophet. He multiplied food. He healed the sick. He bi-located. He read the minds and consciences of his boys. He had visions. In one case, he even raised the dead back to life. Don Bosco was a priest who transcended the boundaries of the invisible in a way more visible than most priests, and his marvels shook the world. Though, in his own words, he insisted, “I am only a humble instrument. God is the builder.”
John Bosco died on January 31, 1888, passing on to eternal life as the bells of the Basilica he raised to Mary, Help of Christians rang out the morning Angelus.
* * *
Though many deemed John Bosco a madman, he was in fact a mastermind. The young clung to him because he was not afraid to tolerate and participate in youthful vigor and tomfoolery. Most teachers are not so brave. Don Bosco understood the nature and spirit of adolescence, knowing therefore the critical, and even dangerous, balance between order and disorder, between discipline and spontaneity—and the truth that nothing is so important as joy. Without joy, nothing can be truly learned, lived, or loved. Don Bosco knew this deeply, and so brought joy to everything he did with his boys, from soccer to the Sacraments.
St. John Bosco provided a spiritual attitude and outlook that was punctuated and validated with those physical aspects that dominate the experience and appetites of boys. He allowed for the freedom of playful laughter and rough expression. Recreation was rowdy under his leadership, and so it was really recreational. Education was exciting under his tutelage, and so it was really educational. Liturgy was lively under his hands, and so it was really liturgical. Don Bosco was a powerful teacher and mentor because he was willing to become a teenager, harmonizing the wisdom of grace with the wildness of youth. In short, John Bosco was a great saint because he was willing to be a little savage, bringing the love of God into the frolicsome fray of boyhood as a friend and fellow; and he was loved not simply because he loved, but because he showed his love in unquestionable colors.