The Life of Saint John Bosco
“When you speak or preach,
always insist on frequent Communion,
and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
The Lord sends us special people to handle special needs, at crucial times in the history of our Church and our world.
From the time of Jesus, the little ones, the children, have been dear to the heart of the Father. We recall the words of Jesus in Scripture, “Let the little ones come unto me, and do not hinder them. It is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.” (Mk 10:15) Again, He spoke of the children as being important in God’s Plan. “For what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the merest children.” (Mt 11:25)
Children have always been uppermost in the mind of the Father, as they have been helpless and in need of protection. There have been orphans and street urchins from the beginning of time. Over the centuries, the Lord has provided for these little ones, by sending men and women to take care of them.
An epidemic of exploitation of children began at the end of the eighteenth century, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Inventions, such as machines for spinning thread, the power loom, and the steam engine, created a new way of manufacturing goods. It also created a need for massive cheap labor. Families were lured off the farms and brought into the cities to work in factories, under the deception of living a better life.
In the name of progress, a new term had to be phrased, slums, to accommodate the unbelievably poor living conditions, to which these families were subjected. Mothers and fathers worked long hours, as did the children who were old enough to work. Those children who could not find work, or were too young to work, were left to roam the streets, on their own. Satan had a field day, turning these little ones into street gangs. Left to their own devices, many embraced lives of crime. There was no one to curb their behavior, or focus them in the direction of God. But God is in charge; God is always in charge.
From God’s vantage point in Heaven, He could see the entire history of civilization, past, present and future. He could see the crisis, building in the lives of His children, in the wake of this new wave of materialism, this frenzy to possess more goods, better goods, no matter what the cost in human lives and souls. God knew, He would have to send a very special person to combat this wholesale evil in the world and save the children. That person would have to be so charismatic, he could draw young and old alike. He had to be able to soften hearts of stone and convince others that the vision, the Lord had given him could be accomplished. He had to have a “can do” personality. He had to be a mover and shaker. He had to be a super-yes man. He had to be a Don Bosco!
Don Bosco was God’s gift to the Church of the nineteenth century. He was one of the most powerful men in our Church of that time. The magnetism of Don bosco reached out and touched souls all over the world, even to this present day. He was one of the most multi-faceted diamonds, the Lord has ever given us. In addition to being a pied-piper to the young, attracting them, embracing them, protecting them, guiding them, he founded a Religious Order, was an author, a super church-builder, as well as a visionary and prophet. His accomplishments were so great, he was loved by millions of God’s people and hated by God’s enemies. He gave all credit to Our Lord Jesus and to His beautiful mother, Mary’s active intervention, under the title of Mary, Help of Christians.
When I was a little person, the good nuns in my Catholic elementary school, filled my spirit with beautiful tales about Don Bosco and his work with children. Interspersed with the stories were accounts of miraculous happenings, to which Don Bosco gave credit to Our Lady. She was his best friend; she became my best friend, possibly as a result of these marvelous stories. When I grew up, naturally, I believed that all the stories the nuns had told me about Don Bosco, as well as other saints, were just that, stories. That is, until I came back to the Church at age 40, at which time the Lord gave me the gift of believing as a child again. I remember sadly, a young priest, in his early thirties, sharing how devastated he was when he entered the seminary and was told that all the stories he had learned in Catholic school were not true. I wanted to embrace him and tell him it’s not so. They are true. You just need the freedom to believe. But he’s not ready yet. Perhaps someday, the Lord will free him enough to believe.
In researching the incredible life of this modern day role model, we found the same problem exists, even among his own biographers. Some of them feel that supernatural aspect of Don Bosco’s life has been blown out of proportion, that the instances of miraculous intervention in his life have been overstated, and we should focus on the man and his accomplishments, rather than the power of the Lord to work in men’s lives, in whatever way He chooses. On the other hand, there are those who picture Don Bosco as an empty vessel; they give full credit for every good thing in his life to the intercession of Mary, Help of Christians. To be honest, that’s the way Don Bosco felt about most everything.
We realize, though, there has to be a balance, that some of the incidents in his life make him so unique that no one could feel capable of imitating him. In the interests of keeping the man on a plain where he remains touchable, we will attempt to keep our enthusiasm, for how much the Lord worked in his life, to a minimum. But if we don’t expound on the miraculous in his life, we fail to give glory to God, who is the moving Force behind all of it. We also fail to give honor to this man, who allowed himself to be emptied completely, that he might be filled with the Holy Spirit. We have to give serious consideration to the words Pope Leo XI said of him, “In his (Don Bosco) life the supernatural almost became the natural and the extraordinary ordinary.” We really have to address that profound statement.
Out of the Darkness
It was the year 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte had just been defeated, but his iron grip on the Piedmontese area of northern Italy could still be felt. He had bled the country of all its natural resources. The people were left to their own devices to survive, or starve. Dead bodies were found strewn all over the countryside each morning, having starved to death the night before. It was hard times for the common people, who had nothing to do with the political upheavals of the day. But they were the victims. They looked for a place to begin again.
Masses of migrants descended on the big city of Turin, Italy. They had deserted their farms, fresh air, and the fragrances of the land, in exchange for the sweat and stench of close quarters in these newlyfound slums, all in the hopes of a new life. But some were still holding on to the lives, their families had lived for centuries in the little hamlets, the rolling hills of northern Italy. One of these villages, Becchi, was to be the birthplace of one of the most powerful men in our Church. On the day after the Feast of the Assumption in 1815, our Lady gave us a gift, in the birth of John Melchior Bosco, in this unknown place, which is still not on the map of Italy today.
He was born of strong peasant stock, Francis and Margaret. Theirs was a large household to feed. Francis’ invalid mother, as well as a son by his first wife, plus John and his brother Joseph, created a major financial burden on the young couple. The fruits of their land were not enough to take care of the family, so Francis worked at other jobs to bring extra income into the house. It was while he worked for a landowner that he contracted pneumonia and died. John was barely two years old. John always remembered his mother’s words, although he could not remember his father: “You have no father, Johnny.”
With the father and main breadwinner gone, many families would have fallen apart, but not the family of Margaret Bosco. She had been given special graces by the Lord, to hold onto and provide for her family’s welfare and growth. She used them. She took care of her bedridden mother-in-law, a step-son, and her own two children. She had the greatest influence on Don Bosco. While he has been given the honor of being among the Communion of Saints, his mother has to be right there next to him, sharing the glory.
Penny has always shared her amazement at how much scripture her mother knew, although she never went to High School. She was always quoting scripture. The same would apply to Margaret Bosco. She could not read or write, yet she taught her children their Faith. A natural question might be, “Yes, but how much could she have taught them?” The response would be to point to the fruits of her teaching, Don Bosco. Case closed!
There has been an ongoing dispute about the value of absorbing huge amounts of information, compared with the simple, uncluttered teachings of our ancestors. Francis of Assisi distrusted books and learning. Don Bosco, on the other hand, was a great proponent of learning. We have to believe that a great deal has to do with faith. Where is the information coming from, and how does it glorify God? Margaret Bosco was very clear on that point. Whatever she taught her children was to point them towards God.
The children were not spoiled in any way. It would have been impossible. Hers was a monumental task. There was no place for frills in their lives. Margaret believed that she was training her children for the difficult world they lived in. They all worked hard. Simple proverbs like “Idleness is the devil’s workshop” guided her in every step of their upbringing. They ate little. They put up with all the hardships imaginable. But they became strong, physically and spiritually. John began working at four years old. The whole family pitched in with the housework. It was good training for the life John would live as a religious. We can’t help but think, Our Lady had a direct hand in raising John.
The First Dream
Don Bosco was gifted with many dreams, visions and prophecies, during his lifetime. Actually, it’s very difficult to distinguish between them. We believe, his dreams were prophetic visions. There is a great deal of accuracy attached to Don Bosco’s visions, both for his time and for the Church of today. Penny and I always open our talks by focusing on one vision of Don Bosco’s in particular. We’ll talk about it later in the chapter. He actually became very famous, while he was still living, for the dreams, visions and prophecies he was given. In 1858, Pope Pius IX1ordered Don Bosco to write down all his dreams “word for word”, for the posterity of the community.
Don Bosco experienced his first dream at age nine. He wrote it down in his autobiography. It impressed him so much, he never forgot it. Years later, he could recount the dream exactly as it had happened. In his own words,
“When I was about nine years old, I had a dream that left a profound impression on me for the rest of my life. I dreamed that I was near my home, in a very large playing field where a crowd of children were having fun. Some were laughing, others were playing and not a few were cursing. I was so shocked at their language that I jumped into their midst, swinging wildly and shouting at them to stop. At that moment, a Man appeared, nobly attired, with a manly and imposing bearing. He was clad with a white flowing mantle, and his face radiated such light that I could not look directly at Him. He called me by name and told me to place myself as leader over those boys, adding the words,
`You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.’
“Confused and afraid, I replied that I was only a boy and unable to talk to these youngsters about religion. At that moment the fighting, shouting and cursing stopped and the crowd of boys gathered about the Man who was now talking. Almost unconsciously, I asked:
`But how can you order me to do something that looks so impossible?’
`What seems so impossible you must achieve by being obedient and by acquiring knowledge.’
`But where, how?’
`I will give you a Teacher, under whose guidance you will learn and without whose help all knowledge becomes foolishness.’
`But who are you?’
`I am the Son of Her whom your mother has taught you to greet three times a day.’
`My mother told me not to talk to people I don’t know unless she gives me permission. So, please tell me your name.’
“At that moment I saw beside Him a Lady of majestic appearance, wearing a beautiful mantle glowing as if bedecked with stars. She saw my confusion mount; so she beckoned me to her. Taking my hand with great kindness, she said:
“I did so. All the children had vanished. In their place I saw many animals: goats, dogs, cats, bears and a variety of others.
“`This is your field, this is where you must work.’ the Lady told me. `Make yourself humble, steadfast, and strong. And what you will see happen to these animals you will have to do for my children.’
“I looked again; the wild animals had turned into as many lambs, gently gamboling lambs, bleating a welcome for that Man and Lady.
“At this point of my dream I started to cry and begged the Lady to explain what it all meant because I was so confused. She then placed her hand on my head and said:
`In due time everything will be clear to you.’
“After she had spoken these words, some noise awoke me; everything had vanished.”
The next day, when he shared this dream with his family, everybody came up with a variety of interpretations of what the dream might have meant. However, his mother zeroed in on the message immediately. She said, “Who knows if some day he may not become a priest?”
In this, the first of many dreams, the pattern of John Bosco’s life was set, his vocation and his work within his vocation. He would be a priest, and he would work with children. While he was a normal child, he was very focused. Once his goal had been given him, he worked feverishly towards that end. He learned to read, which was a great accomplishment, in that time and place. But the great value of learning to read, was that he was in great demand during the cold winter months, to read to his friends and their parents. He had a captive audience; so they had to play by his rules. He began each of his performances with two solemn signs of the Cross and two Hail Mary’s, reverently prayed. Then he would read to them.
During the summertime, on Sunday afternoons, when the children were all out playing, John Bosco found another way to keep their attention, entertain them and lead them in prayer. He became a juggler, acrobat and clown. He was so smart. The Lord told him exactly what to do, to captivate the children, who were to be the goal of his life. But he was given an extra added gift. Children of all ages came to watch the show. He set up a corner of the field near his home, with a rope tied between two trees. He performed sleight of hand tricks; he juggled; he walked the tightrope; he did cartwheels. But he also led them in five decades of the Rosary and gave them a short talk, which he’d borrowed from the priest’s homily at Mass that morning. He shortened the homily, changed it a little and made it his own. He gave them insights, they had not received at Mass that day.
Don’t get the impression that John was perfect at his avocation right away. He watched every performer that came into the public squares of the town, then went home and imitated them. But in the learning process, he fell many times from the tightrope, landed on his face doing cartwheels and walking on his hands, and missed many a card trick or sleight of hand. But he got up every time and continued on, until he perfected his act.
While there’s no question that he was bringing the Lord to the people in a simpler way, sugar-coated with the antics he performed, he was also being trained in preaching to people and bringing them closer to Jesus. He learned how to capture their attention, by using everything he had ever learned and then turning it in the direction of the Lord. As far as he was concerned, he was giving everything over to the Lord; but at the same time, the Lord was preparing him for a mighty apostolate.
John’s love for God and his Church, was well-known throughout the entire area. Priests, as well as lay-people, could see the special qualities in the boy. He wanted very much to receive Our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. But the rule was, no one could receive until he was at least twelve or thirteen years old. An exception was made, however, for John. He knew at age ten, what many people never know all their lives. Jesus was there in the consecrated Bread and Wine, alive and present, nurturing. John wanted that union with his God, desperately. When the priests realized the spiritual depth of the boy, they allowed him to receive his First Holy Communion at age ten.
John’s vocation was a foregone conclusion. Everybody knew, he was meant to be a priest. He had written that at age nine, he believed he was called to the priesthood. If there had ever been a doubt in any one’s mind, even his, it was wiped out, when he met his mentor and future teacher, Don Calosso. It was 1826. John was not yet eleven years old. The year before had been the Holy Year. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had converged on Rome. But this year, the Jubilee graces of the Holy Year, were extended to the local churches. There was a week’s course in Buttigliera, about two and a half miles from Becchi. There were two sermons in the morning, and two courses of instruction in the evening. It was the most exciting thing to hit the area for John, since he was born.
Keep in mind that John had never gone to school. He had a hunger to learn, especially anything that had to do with the Church. He had a brilliant mind, a photographic memory, and the ability to remember sermons. He had learned to read over a summer, but there was nothing else to challenge him intellectually in his surroundings. So when the opportunity to learn about Church was presented to him, he grabbed at it.
The only way for poor people, like John and his family, to get to the next village was to walk. And walk they did, two times going and two times coming, a total of ten miles each day. It was on this road that John met the priest, Don Calosso. The older man, actually in his seventies, took an interest in the eleven year old. The only reason we can think of was that he saw something in the boy that was not ordinary. It’s also very possible that the Lord touched the priest’s heart to put young John on the right road to the priesthood. But he had to test him first. He asked John if he understood what the priest had been saying during the sermon. John answered eagerly that he did. The priest asked him to repeat what he understood of the lecture. John repeated both sermons, word for word. This knocked the older man for a loop. They had a very brief conversation which went like this:
“What is your name, my son? Who are your father and mother? Where do you go to school?”
“My name is John Bosco. I lost my father, when I was two. My mother has five to feed. I can read, and I can write a little.”
“You haven’t yet begun your grammar?”
“What is that?”
“Would you like to learn?”
“Why don’t you then?”
“My brother Antony is against it,”
“He says we always know enough to till the fields.”
“Why do you want to learn?”
“To become a priest.”
“And why do you want to become a priest?”
“To get children to come to me to teach them religion and to keep them from being bad. I can plainly see they turn out bad because no one cares for them.”
Meanwhile they had arrived at his village.
“But excuse me, Father. This is my home.”
“Can you serve Mass, little John?”
“I know a little about it.”
“Then come and serve mine, tomorrow. I have something to say to you.”
This was to be the beginning of John Bosco’s training, which would lead him to the seminary and ultimately, the priesthood. At first, he went to the priest in the mornings to receive instruction. He had to be available to work the fields, in the afternoon. Even at this, his step-brother, Antony, was furious about the whole thing. He resented John terribly and did everything he could to block his path to learning and the priesthood. Antony was much bigger than John and thought nothing of beating him up at every opportunity. He even vehemently opposed John’s mother, who had the fortitude of a bull. But Antony was growing each day, and Margaret was not sure how long she could control him. In an effort to maintain peace in the family, she made John stop his lessons. But that was not enough for Antony. He was always after John.
Finally, Margaret felt it dangerous for John to stay at home. She made the ultimate sacrifice. She sent John away. She knew the Lord would provide for him and protect him, even though he was only twelve years old. If anyone ever had doubts, as to how actively the Lord guides our lives, they have but to read the adventures of Don Bosco, especially as a child. It was as if he was under the constant protection of a number of Guardian Angels, with Our sweet Mother Mary in front, leading him on the road that Jesus had chosen for him. He went to stay with a relative for a short time.
Through the intercession of his uncle, his mother’s brother Michael, John was able to return to Don Calosso, to be taught, but also to get to know what a priest is like. He learned to love this old man so much. But their time together was only to be enough for him to learn how he should act, when the honor of priesthood would be bestowed upon him. Shortly after they began their lessons again, the priest died. He wanted to leave all his earthly possessions to John, to insure that he could afford his religious education. But when John realized the problems he would have with the priest’s relatives, he gave them his inheritance and walked away.
Why did the Lord allow John so much conflict, in his quest for the priesthood? Was it to make John appreciate, no, embrace the gift he would be given? Do our priests today go through the unbelievable hassle that John Bosco endured? Might it make them cherish the favor more, if they had to work so hard for it? The struggle for him to become a priest, was so difficult, others without his tenacity, would have given up early in the game. He suffered every humiliation possible. He was much older than his classmates. They considered him a buffoon. He was a country hick. He dressed like a farmer. Even his instructors belittled him. He returned their insults with a smile and a blessing. But he didn’t always want to be this kind. He had a fierce temper, that if he let fly, would have knocked them all down, like a tornado. But he prayed for the strength to hold down this weakness, and the Lord gave him that.
In the course of his pursuit for the priesthood, John Bosco learned and worked at more trades than a dozen men work, in a lifetime. At any time during his studies, he was a candymaker, shoemaker, restaurant manager, tailor and of course, his great love, a clown, acrobat and juggler. He excelled in everything he did. He probably could have taken up any of those trades and been successful at them. But his heart longed for the priesthood.
A moment of truth was to come for John Bosco. He finally reached a dead end, a brick wall, which he could see no way of overcoming. During his years of study, he could always work at these odd jobs we’ve mentioned, which gave him the money he needed to survive and pay for his education. However, once he entered the seminary, he would not be able to do that. There was no time, and he couldn’t leave the seminary to pursue part time work. He, quite honestly, didn’t know what to do. For the first time in his life, he feared he might not be able to achieve his lifelong goal of being a priest.
Then he thought of the Religious Orders. While he did not want to be an order priest, he also didn’t want not to be a priest. If he joined a Religious Order, he wouldn’t have to worry about money. They would pay for his seminary training. So, he embraced the Franciscan Fraternity in Chieri. But this was not the Lord’s plan. At the eleventh hour, as he was preparing to take vows, a young priest, Don Cafasso3, who was to become very much a part of Don Bosco’s life, advised John to wait until he could join the diocesan seminary. Once John said yes to that, money came from all quarters; not a lot of money. John Bosco would never have enough money for anything he wanted to do in his life. But the Lord opened the hearts of just enough people to provide just a little less than John needed, to keep him on the edge. He never wanted John to become comfortable. To make up the difference, John won partial scholarships for excellence in conduct and studies, was given the job of Sacristan, which carried a salary with it, little things which put him over the top. Everything he had was donated to him. This was really good in a sense, in that everybody played a major role in his vocation. That’s the way the Lord wanted it.
John learned a very strong, very painful lesson in the seminary. The superiors maintained a great distance from the seminarians. John knew the need he had, for spiritual warmth from his superiors. If he needed it, he was sure his companions needed it as badly, if not worse. There was a wall put up between the seminarians and the priests. This was a hangover from the Jansenist heresy4. Many saints of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, were victims of scrupulosity. In addition, Communion was only available on Sunday and Feast days in the seminary. John, who had a hunger to receive the Eucharist more often, had to sneak out of the seminary and attend Mass at a local church, in order to receive Our Lord.
John complained to his mother on many occasions, how these priests were missing such an opportunity to mold souls, and the souls of future priests, by these practices. He wrote in his autobiography,5
“I may say that this was the greatest sorrow I felt at the seminary. How often I wanted to speak to them, to ask for advice or to submit a perplexity to them: it was impossible. And worse than that: if one of our superiors happened to cross the playground while the seminarists were enjoying themselves, though we knew not why, we scurried away to right and left. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.”
He vowed that he would never allow himself to be aloof from his flock.
“This sort of thing had at least the advantage of kindling my heart more warmly with the desire of becoming a priest more quickly, to mingle with young folk and to get to know them intimately, so as to help them in all circumstances to shun what is bad.”
God knows exactly what to teach and how to teach. John Bosco learned as much, if not more, from his negative experiences in the seminary, as he did from his studies. The Lord knew the work, He had planned for this young man and what kind of training it would take. John, for his part, was open to whatever the Lord wanted to teach him.
We can’t leave John Bosco’s seminary days, without making mention of a very influential companion, Louis Comollo. In addition to being close friends, the Lord allowed them to perform the function of spiritual director for each other, since they had no priest to turn to. John and Louis shared their dreams together. Louis was very close to the Lord. He knew, he would not live out his seminary days; he predicted that he would die before ordination. He fulfilled this 1718 prophecy on Easter Tuesday, after six weeks of agonizing illness.
John and Louis had made a foolish, adolescent pact that whoever died first, would come back and assure the other that he was in Heaven. After Louis’ death, John was inconsolable. But in the back of his mind, he wondered if his friend would be able to keep the pact they had made. Many other seminarians, who were aware of the pact, were wondering the same thing. The day after Louis was buried, two days after his death, a strange thing happened, which was witnessed by over twenty seminarians. It was late at night, probably around midnight. Everyone was in bed. John was unable to sleep. His mind kept going back to that silly pact he had made with his friend. All of a sudden, a low rumble started, which built to a great roar. The entire building shook so violently, John thought it would snap from its foundations. All the seminarians were jolted from their sleep. They were frightened, as they had never been before, including John Bosco. They thought, it was the end of the world. They couldn’t tell what direction, the tremor was coming from, when suddenly, the doors of the dormitory blew open and a great wind entered, followed by multi-colored lights of a surrealistic nature.
The noise died down. All that could be sensed were the lights, which became more intense. A hush filled the room. As the lights became brighter, a voice could be heard, clearly. It was Louis Comollo. It was not eerie, or ghostly. He called out three times, “Bosco”; everyone heard it. Then he finally said, “I am saved!” The lights became brighter; the roar started up again, grew to fever pitch and then whooshed out of the room, as quickly as it had entered. Silence returned. The only sound that could be heard was the blood, pounding in the hearts of each of the seminarians, trying to burst out of their bodies.
No one knew quite what to make of it. Their fear didn’t leave them, when the vision ended. Many heard the message, but didn’t understand it. Others understood, but the knowledge of what had happened, didn’t calm them. Fear reigned in the dormitory the entire night. No one slept, including John Bosco. They cringed in corners, jumping at every sound that was made. John went around to each of the seminarians during the night, assuring them it was 19
Louis Comollo, coming back to tell them he was in Heaven. But it wasn’t until dawn that they all breathed a sigh of relief.
Louis Comollo was with John Bosco all his life. Once, in 1847, eight years after Louis’ death, Don Bosco’s mother heard him conversing with someone, in his bedroom at night. The following morning, she asked him to whom he was talking, the night before. Don Bosco answered matter-of-factly, “With Louis Comollo.”
John Bosco is pointed in a direction
Towards the end of his seminary days, John Bosco had another dream. It was similar to the one he’d had at age nine, only much clearer. He was in a great valley back home in Becchi. Abruptly, the valley turned into a large city, overflowing with young people. They were running, playing, shouting and cursing. His ears couldn’t stand the sounds of their cursing. He went over to them, in an effort to get them to stop. They wouldn’t pay any attention to him. Anger rose up in him. He began to shake some of them. They retorted by hitting him. He hit them back. Then he retreated; they were too much for him. He could actually feel the pain of his bruises, in his dream. As he ran away from the youths, a mysterious Man stopped him. He ordered him to go back to them. John just showed the Man all his bruises. The Stranger pointed to a beautiful Lady, who was coming closer to John. “This is my Mother. Listen to Her.” She looked at him, with eyes that bore deep into his soul. The warmth of her love mesmerized him. “If you wish to win over these boys,” she told him, “do not hit them; be kind and appeal to their better selves.”
He did as she told him, and another transformation took place. As in his first dream, the children first turned into wild animals, then into sheep and lambs. After he had wakened, John knew, this dream was the Lord’s way of affirming the vocation, He had chosen for him, from at least age nine, and possibly from before he was born. John had only to say “Here I am, Lord. I come to do Your will.”
John Bosco becomes Don Bosco
John was chomping at the bit. He wanted to get out of the seminary and get about the business of doing the job, for which the Lord had commissioned him, saving the souls of the young people of Turin. To this end, he attempted a near-impossible feat. At the end of his third year of study, he asked Bishop Frassoni, Bishop of Turin, to give him permission to study his entire fourth year of Theology over the school holidays. He gave his advanced age (24), as the reason for the request.
He was given permission. He studied dilligently the whole summer. When he returned in the autumn of 1840, he was tested on the entire fourth year of Theology. He passed with flying colors and was advanced one full year, to his fifth year. In his autobiography, Don Bosco did not advise those who followed him, to do what he did, in this instance. He said that while it was good for him intellectually, he felt that emotionally, he was not as prepared as he should have been. The fifth year was one of taking final vows and although John Bosco had no doubts as to what his vocation was, he was not sure he was mature enough to make those vows.
Saturday, June 5, 1841, was the first Saturday of the month, Mary’s day. We have to believe that a Heavenly contingency, led by our Lord Jesus and His most special Mother Mary, were there at the forefront to congratulate their son, John Bosco, as he was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Turin. Nevermore to be called John or Johnny, (except of course, by his mother Margaret) he was given the title which he used the rest of his life, and by which he is famous the world over, Don Bosco.
Don Bosco was not the only one who was anxious for him to become a priest. Almost immediately after his ordination, he was besieged by offers to serve in various capacities all over the Diocese of Turin. He was somewhat overwhelmed by this. He appealed to his spiritual advisor, Don Cafasso, for help. Don Cafasso was Don Bosco’s senior by only four years, but in the priesthood, he had preceded him by eight years. Don Cafasso was a very saintly man, who had to have a direct line to Our Lord Jesus and His Mother Mary. He had the ability to cut to the core of a given subject. This is exactly what he did with Don Bosco. He told him not to take any of the offers he had received, but to stay in Turin and continue with his theological studies.
A Salesian, John Cagliero, later wrote of Don Cafasso,
“We love and reverence our dear father and founder, Don Bosco, but we love Joseph Cafasso no less, for he was Don Bosco’s master, 21
adviser and guide in spiritual things and in his undertakings for over twenty years; and I venture to say the goodness, the achievements and the wisdom of Don Bosco are Don Cafasso’s glory.”
Don Cafasso was extremely instrumental, on a continual basis, in focusing Don Bosco in the direction of his apostolate, the children.
Don Bosco gathers his flock
At the time of Don Bosco’s ordination, Italy was very anti-clerical. A lot of this stemmed from the clerics’ Jansenist behavior, which caused them to remove themselves physically and emotionally from their flock. Don Cafasso fought to end the grip Jansenism held on northern Italy. One way was to have the students in the Theological Institute walk among the people, in an effort to become more aware and involved in what was going on. For Don Bosco, this was a revelation. He knew, his apostolate was children, but he really had no conception of their plight, until he began to walk the streets of Turin.
The charming city with the beautiful boulevards had become a hell-hole, a giant ghetto for the working class. Two and three families lived together in a single room, under the most unsanitary conditions. He could walk anywhere in the slum section of the city and see the horrors of the young who were left on their own. One time, during an evening walk, he came upon a field. Hoardes of children were running around, filthy, half-clothed, screaming, cursing and generally acting offensive. For a moment, his mind flashed to the dreams he’d had, first at nine years old and then again in the seminary. It was as if he were standing in the middle of his dream. He tried to reach out to them, but they ignored him. This was not the way the dream ended; they had all turned into little lambs. What was happening here? They were not working with the script. Then he realized that he was not approaching them with a kindness and love they had never known before. He was on the brink of jumping into his life’s work, but he was not ready yet.
His real beginning came, as it should, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. He was waiting to begin Mass, when he noticed a sacristan chasing a dirty young boy in rags out of the church. Don Bosco made him bring the boy back. He tried to put the nervous youth at his ease. He asked him many questions; could he read or write, were his parents alive or dead. The boy stiffly tried to answer. Then Don Bosco, with a straight face, asked him could he sing or whistle? The boy let out a big smile. Don Bosco had broken the ice.
He began to teach this boy catechism. At the end of an hour, he asked if he would like to return the next week? The boy answered yes. Don Bosco told him not to come alone; bring a friend. That was how it started. The next week, he had nine, and then twelve. Pretty soon, he was the pied piper of Turin. He had over a hundred children coming to him every week. Where was he going to put them? This became his battle cry for the rest of his life. He had too little room, and too little help. This is also the cry of our ministry. We have so much work to do and so few to do it. And we are quickly running out of room. We always wondered what it was that drew us to Don Bosco so strongly. We have so much in common.
Don Bosco brought these young people together each Sunday, for Mass and Catechism. But in addition, there was much fun, playing, picnics, a version of the acrobatics and juggling that the younger John Bosco had become famous for. It was relationship. It was someone caring about these young people, in a world where they were barely tolerated. They had street smarts. They could tell very quickly who was sincere, as opposed to who wanted to exploit them. And they reacted accordingly. They could see love in this young priest. He genuinely wanted to make their lives better. It was their souls he was after, but he was not beyond helping with their physical necessities in any way he could. He called the meetings Oratories6. To Don Bosco’s way of thinking, an Oratory was an actual building or complex, with a playing field, classrooms and a chapel. But for many years, the Oratory only existed in his mind. However, Don Bosco was a man of vision, and great faith. He knew what he was being called to do, and the Lord would provide the means to do it. It was just that simple!
Don Cafasso helped, as long as he could. He allowed Don Bosco and his boys, to use the courtyard of the Institute, at great sacrifice to the resident priests. The priests looked forward to Sundays, as their one opportunity each week, for peace and quiet.
They had to give it up to the more than hundred very lively, very vocal young people. But at the end of three years, Don Bosco had completed his studies at the Institute, and so he and his roving band of young people had to leave. By now, he was up to one hundred and fifty.
Bishop Fransoni was extremely pleased with the work Don Bosco was doing with the young. He encouraged the young priest to continue. But we don’t read anywhere that the bishop offered any concrete assistance of any kind. However, sometimes, just the knowledge that the bishop is behind a project, gives people the push they need to step out and help. Many people did try to help Don Bosco and his scamps, by offering facilities for their meetings. For the most part, however, after just one meeting, the group was asked to leave and never come back. You really couldn’t blame the benefactors. The noise of so many young people, allowed to let loose after a week of whatever, was more than most people could endure. Put yourself in the position of the neighbors. Looking forward to a quiet Sunday, all of a sudden, four hundred young people converge on your peaceful neighborhood. What would you do? That’s what they did.
Don Bosco tried everything! He would gather all of them together, then walk them out of the city, to a place where they had been given permission to celebrate Mass. After the Mass, they would walk together again, to a field where they could let loose. Then, again as a group, they came back to a Church for Benediction. Remember, we’re talking about four hundred children, parading en masse! It was as if this man walked around with an appendage, only it was four hundred children long!
Satan had to find ways to stop Don Bosco, and he was not beyond trying anything. Don Bosco was called a revolutionary. He was accused of preaching treason to his young people. Undercover police followed the group to the field on Sundays, trying to catch the priest in revolutionary activities. Although the police tried to be inconspicuous, it was very obvious who they were. Don Bosco kept his voice down during his sermons. The police had to draw closer to hear him. He wanted this. The sermons were meant for them! One commented that Don Bosco was some kind of conspirator. Three weeks more of this, and all the police would be going to confession.
It was suggested to Don Bosco that he disband his group, and send them to their local parishes for spiritual nourishment. On paper, this sounded good. But none of these children had a parish. They were street people! They had never gone to church anywhere before Don Bosco picked them up out of the gutter. And if they did have any association with a church, there were no priests who would reach out to them and love them. This was a unique situation, because Don Bosco was a unique Saint.
Rumors flew that Don Bosco had lost his mind. He was constantly talking about this oratory, this building, with a chapel and a field and classrooms, that didn’t exist. Even some of his supporters thought that he was going off the deep end. Word got to the diocese. Investigators were sent to question Don Bosco. Although it was obvious, he was brilliant, he couldn’t convince them that he was not crazy.
The investigators left. They instructed two priests to come and trick Don Bosco into going to an asylum with them. But how could you trick someone, the Blessed Virgin was talking to all the time? They were very courteous, very congenial. They invited him to take a ride. He consented gladly. As they approached the coach, he insisted they enter first, as they were senior to him. As soon as they had gotten into the coach, he slammed the doors and shouted to the driver to go immediately to the asylum.
This had all been planned in advance, so the driver thought the crazy man was in the coach. He raced to the asylum, which was very close by. The attendants were waiting to accost the quack in the coach. When the driver stopped at the entrance to the asylum, the attendants pounced on the doors of the coach. To their surprise, they found two crazy priests, instead of one. They didn’t think much about this; they dragged the two screaming priests out of the carriage and prepared them for straight jackets. It took some time before the priests could convince the hospital officials that they were sane, and the insane one had tricked them.
We’re writing this 150 years after the fact. Don Bosco has been raised to the Communion of Saints. He has been proven by the 25
test of time. These escapades seem amusing now. But we wonder how Don Bosco reacted to them, during the actual occurrences. All he could see was that he was being attacked by his very own. They thought he was a revolutionary, or crazy. He and his children were being rejected, everywhere they turned. Was he depressed? Did he believe he was a failure? In reflecting on this bleak time in his life, he wrote:
“As I looked at the crowd of children and the thought of the rich harvest they promised my priesthood, I felt my heart was breaking. I was alone, without helpers. My health was shattered and I could not tell where to gather my poor little lambs any more.”
We always talk about our eleventh hour God. He is so available, especially in the life of Don Bosco. I guess He likes to test us, though, to see just how much we can take before He has to come in, like gangbusters and save the day. This is what happened again with Don Bosco. He had rented a field, where he could bring the boys on Sunday. But the local people complained so fiercely to the landlords that they broke the lease. They gave Don Bosco two weeks to find another place. Two weeks! It was impossible to find a place in two weeks. One week passed; nothing happened. Two weeks passed; still nothing. Don Bosco brought the boys to the field for what might very well have been their last Sunday together. He had reached the end of his rope. As he walked among them during playtime, he prayed, “O my God, show me where I must gather them on Sunday, or tell me what I ought to do.”
If we could imagine, for a moment, with our mind’s eye, what might have happened, it could have gone something like this. Don Bosco’s Guardian Angel grabbed his pleading petition, and zoomed up to Heaven, faster than the speed of light, heading straight for Jesus. Mother Mary intercepted the Angel at the gates of Heaven, grabbed the petition and bolted past any interference, going directly to her Son, Jesus. He might have looked at her beautiful, imploring eyes, then at the petition she held before Him. He might have said something like, “I know, Mother. I was just about to take care of it.”
Whatever the scenario was in Heaven, down on earth, Don Bosco had no sooner made his prayer of petition than an elderly man 26
came up to him on the field and offered him a site for the Oratory. Don Bosco went with the man to look at it. It must have been near, where he was with the children. What he saw was a beat-up barn, a hayloft. Not only was it not at all what he envisioned for the Oratory, but he had to bend down to get in the door. The roof was full of holes. When Don Bosco brought this to the man’s attention, he was told, it was no problem. “We’ll dig out a couple of feet of earth and put down a floor. Then you will have the use of the land around the shed, all the lot (everything) for twelve pounds a year. What do you think of it?”
Don Bosco had been hurt a lot, having been thrown out of five locations in ten months. He may have been a little gun-shy. He asked mildly, “On lease?” The man replied, “On lease and everything ready by Sunday.” Praise you Jesus! Don Bosco ran back to his boys, who were still playing in the field. He told them of the miracle that had happened, that they now had a permanent place, which would not be taken away from them, and they could begin there the following Sunday. The cheers from the little people could be heard all over Turin. They all prayed a vigorous, super-reverent Rosary of thanksgiving to Our Lady. They knew she was the one who did it.
Don Bosco was physically and emotionally worn out. His dilemma, what to do with his brood, was only one of the many pressures, he was under all the time. In addition, he spent all his spare time trying to take care of their problems. He went to the jails, when they got into trouble. He tried to get people to help house and feed them. He tried to get them work. He acted as intermediary for them with their bosses. It was a full time, twenty four hour a day, seven day a week job for about ten people, and he tried to fit it all into his regular schedule as a priest, while holding down a position in an orphanage at the same time. His expertise as a juggler was not enough to handle this situation.
As soon as the question of a permanent Oratory had been settled, and some of the pressure was relieved, his body shut down. It often happens this way. When the stress is at a peak, the body works overtime to handle all the problems. But as soon as the situation is somewhat alleviated, the body breaks down. Don Bosco came down with a deadly case of pneumonia, the same illness that killed his father. He was put into bed, on the critical list. It got so bad he was given the last Sacraments of the Church.7
He had taught his young people well. They went to the local churches and bombarded Heaven with prayer. Deals were sent up to Heaven, with promises of good behavior, weekly attendance at Mass, confessions, love of neighbor, anything and everything they thought might touch the Heart of God. The battle cry that went up to Heaven was, Don’t let Don Bosco die!
At the darkest hour, when it appeared that Don Bosco was at the end of his life, one of his friends, Fr. Borel, who had stayed at his side throughout the illness, spoke softly to Don Bosco. “John, these children need you. Ask God to let you stay. Please, pray this prayer after me, `Lord, if it be your good pleasure, cure me. I say this prayer in the name of my children.’” Don Bosco weakly whispered the prayer after his friend. The following morning, the fever broke, and he was back in business again.
Don Bosco had dreams, on three different occasions, in which he saw the house, the chapel and the grounds of the Oratory. This barn, the Pinardi property, definitely was not it. At best, it was a stopgap measure. So says Don Bosco; but not necessarily the Lord. Don Bosco complained of the house, which was part of the property. It was inhabited by prostitutes! This was no example for his young people. The Lord decided Don Bosco would live in that house. It was a scandal for a priest to live in a house with prostitutes! The Lord made it necessary for Don Bosco to have someone live with him, whose reputation was above board, beyond question. Who could that have been? Margaret Bosco was the perfect choice. The Heavenly plan went far beyond what Don Bosco had envisioned, and a person like Margaret, no, Margaret herself, was needed to put it into effect. It was not an easy task, to convince her to leave her beautiful little home and move into the big city. But when it was determined by Margaret and her son that this was the Lord’s will, she moved without hesitation.
The children took to Margaret immediately, dubbing her “Mamma Margaret.” If she had thought her work was finished, after having raised her sons and put this one (Don Bosco) into the priesthood, she was in for a surprise. She embraced the four hundred, which soon became five hundred and within a year, the little Oratory was bursting at the seams with seven hundred children. Don Bosco began to educate them. Little by little, word of this marvelous work spread throughout Turin. Other priests joined him in the work, by teaching the children. Although Don Bosco would not turn anyone away, it became obvious there was just no place to physically fit one more child. That’s when they began to spread out. Without any money (what’s new?), they rallied enough support to open not one, but two new Oratories in Turin.
A most important phase of the Lord’s work, through His servant, Don Bosco, began one rainy night when Margaret Bosco opened the door to find a soaking, half-starved orphan, standing in front of her. Naturally, she let him in, and before very long, one multiplied into ten, and on and on. Don Bosco wound up renting the entire house from Signor Pinardi, which was not an easy feat, considering the prostitutes had set up a solid business in that locale. But the Lord wanted to accomplish two goals at once, get rid of the ladies and bring in the homeless children. There were some holdouts among the prostitutes, who were just stubborn and wouldn’t leave. But eventually, Don Bosco bought the building, and they had to leave.
In many ways, Don Bosco was his own worst enemy, especially where it applied to help. He wanted priests to help educate the children; he needed them desperately. But he was such a hard act to follow. Try as they might, they didn’t have the one ingredient that Don Bosco fought all his life to maintain, patience. He had a way with the children, which was uncanny. None of the others could duplicate this God-given gift; after a while, they tired of trying and left.
The Order of St. Francis de Sales, the Salesians
Don Bosco knew, there was only one way to combat this constant shortage in quality help. He knew he was called to begin his own Order. He had known it, from the year after he was ordained, but every time he tried to institute it, he was blocked. The timing was just not right, or the people were not right. In 1852, when he actually planted the seeds of what was to become the Salesian order, it was the worst possible time, not only to start a Religious Order, but to even consider priestly vocations. It was at the height of anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism in Europe. The Jesuits had been thrown out of Piedmont. An order of nuns were also ejected. The Bishop of Turin was living in exile in Lyon, France! Even Rome was cutting back on Religious Orders. They were seriously considering combining Orders, to make them more manageable and less troublesome.
So, naturally, this was the best possible time for Don Bosco to begin a Religious Order. If it were successful, no credit would be given to him, because it was an impossible task. Perhaps, that’s why the Lord blocked any attempt, before this time. People might have a tendency to give credit to Don Bosco, who was too famous for his own good, anyway, so they thought. He began with four. He brought them into his room on June 5, of that year. He really didn’t spell out what he had in mind. He asked for a commitment to work with him over a period of time; he wanted to train them for a special mission. They all agreed. This was the nucleus which formed the Salesian society, a year and a half later, in January 1854.
Don Bosco picked the octave of the feast of St. Francis de Sales, to have his young men formalize their commitment. He asked for a promise, which might eventually become a vow, which might lead to the priesthood. Everyone who agreed, was given the name Salesian, after the great Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales. We have been asking why he chose St. Francis de Sales as his patron, from the very beginning of our research of Don Bosco. There’s no mention in his own writings, or in his biographies, about a significant event in his life, which had anything to do with the Bishop of Geneva; nothing which would give any reason why he chose St. Francis de Sales. Yet there was never a question that his Order would be named after this saint.
Don Bosco had always been a great admirer of St. Francis de Sales. His writings were brilliant. He was a workaholic, as was Don Bosco, who fought tirelessly against all the heresies of his day. But possibly the most attractive trait in St. Francis de Sales, which Don Bosco wanted his followers to possess, was his gentleness and understanding. The apostolate of Don Bosco was of a very special nature; one where the qualities of gentleness, patience and understanding were as important and possibly more important than any other. He prayed that his benefactor, St. Francis de Sales, would help from Heaven, in instilling these virtues into all his people.
(Author’s note: We have only known two members of the Salesian order to any degree. They possess many admirable virtues, but their greatest qualities are those their founder prayed for, gentleness, patience and understanding.)
As word got out among the religious and political community that Don Bosco intended to begin a Religious Order, there were many bets taken as to how successful his venture would be. But he possessed one asset, which helped in pushing him over the top. His charism, that of taking care of the poor children, orphans, etc., without taxing the church or the state, made him a very popular cause. The king was in favor of his apostolate, as was his bishop. The Pope had great respect for what he was doing.
The way Don Bosco got most of his support was hilarious. People in high places actually suggested that he begin an Order. As far as they knew, he was just following their suggestion. Naturally, this also encouraged them to come to his aid. For example, there was a very powerful man in the government, Urbano Ratazzi, who was an anti-cleric, but a fervent supporter of Don Bosco.
At one meeting in 1857, Ratazzi spoke to Don Bosco. How would his work be carried on after he was gone? He said, “My dear Don Bosco, I wish you could live long, yes, a very long time, to educate and teach all these poor children. But you are not immortal. What will become of your Oratory after you? Have you thought about that?”
Don Bosco smiled, but said nothing. Ratazzi continued, “You ought to associate with yourself more intimately, a few of your young fellows or of your clerical helpers in governing and teaching your young people, in handing on your methods and spirit and finally in gathering them into an Association which will go on.”
Don Bosco answered him, trying desperately to hold back a grin, “Your excellency, it is you who are speaking to me of a Congregation, whereas the Law...”
“Oh, the Law, the Law,” replied Ratazzi, “well I know it thoroughly, and I know its bearing. It is directly against....the old orders living outside the scope of legislation. But give me an Association in which all the members retain their civil rights, submit to the laws of the State, pay their taxes personally, an Association of free citizens living together for some beneficent purpose, and I guarantee you that there is no regular settled Government which can interfere with you. On the contrary, if it is just, it will have to protect you in the same way as it protects other Associations, whether they be commercial, industrial or for mutual assistance. So you can settle your affairs in all security. You will have the support of the State and the King, for it will be a question of a humanitarian Institution in the front rank.”
Don Bosco mumbled a “Thank you Jesus” under his breath and said, “Very well, your Excellency, then I will think it over.” He knew, he had the State behind him. His bishop was in his corner. All he needed was the Pope. So, when the Lord gave him the sign, he went to Rome.
Don Bosco left for Rome on February 2, 1858. He had his first audience with the Pope, on March 9th. You and I know that Mary was roaming the earth at that time, talking to a little French girl in the Pyrenees, who would become a Powerful woman in our Church, Bernadette Soubirous. Now, Don Bosco didn’t know about it. The Pope might not have heard about it at this early date. But we’re sure Mary was there at all the meetings Don Bosco had with the Pope, especially the first one. While he was still very poor, Don Bosco had attained a great deal of popularity. He was famous in many circles. The Pope admired him greatly. At this first meeting, after listening to all the projects, Don Bosco had been working on, he said to Don Bosco, “How many undertakings you have started, my good Father, but if you happen to die, what will become of them?”
It was as if the Lord had put the words into the mouth of the Pope. Don Bosco just happened to have a whole outline of his proposed Congregation in his pocket. The Pope gave him some important direction, then asked him to put it all on paper, and bring it back to him. Twelve days later, Don Bosco placed the rule of the Salesian Society in the hands of Pope Pius IX. As far as he 32
was concerned, he was in business. The actual approval took some sixteen years and much agony for Don Bosco and his followers. At one point, he said, if he had known at the outset all that he would have had to go through, he probably would not have had the courage to do it. The politics of putting together a Religious Order at that time were horrendous. If he had not had the support of the King and the State and the Bishop in exile and the Pope and more than that, of our Lord Jesus and His Mother Mary and most likely St. Francis de Sales and all the Angels and Saints, it never would have happened. But he did have their support, and it did happen. At last count, Don Bosco’s followers number 22,000 worldwide.
Dreams, Vision and Prophecies of Don Bosco
The chapter on Don Bosco would not be complete, without delving into the marvels of his dreams, which were more like visions and prophecies. We know from the Bible that dreams have been one of God’s ways of speaking to His children, from the earliest days. The dreams of Joseph, in the Old Testament, changed the course of Jewish history. The dreams of Joseph, in the New Testament, assured him that Mary had conceived a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. Another dream warned him of Herod’s plot against the Child and thus saved the Baby Jesus from the slaughter of the Innocents.
The Lord used dreams in Don Bosco’s life to guide him, direct him, assure him, and affirm him. Don Bosco never denied any of these dreams. Naturally, we wouldn’t know anything about them, if he hadn’t divulged them. At one point, he was instructed by Pope Pius IX to write down all his dreams. When the Pope reminded him of this nine years later and learned that Don Bosco had not written them, he ordered him to do so. He said to him, “This task must have priority over everything else. Put aside the rest and take care of this. You cannot now fully grasp how very beneficial certain things will be to your sons when they shall know them.”
The parallels between his dreams and how the Lord orchestrated his life, are uncanny. This is why we call them prophecies. In one form or another, they all came to pass. Very often, it took decades before the pieces fell into place. Even Don Bosco would be amazed when an action affirmed a dream, he might have had years before.
Don Bosco was a very humble man. He never wanted attention focused on him. When he talked about his dreams, he never played down their importance, but it was obvious he was uneasy about having been the recipient of such honors. Sometimes, he would take on a playful tone, or speak in a very matter-of-fact way about the dreams. Some of his dreams frightened him, especially when they came to pass. He dreamt about people’s deaths, and they died. But more important than that was the insights he received about sin and how good confession was so crucial. Very often, sharing his dreams about sin with his young people, had more effect on them than a retreat. They made sincere confessions, with a firm purpose not to sin again.
Most of Don Bosco’s dreams had to do with his life, his mission, his boys and his Religious Order. Our Lady was a part of most of his dreams. For a good deal of his life, Don Bosco went around with overwhelming confidence, as to how his life and ministry would work out. Even when others thought they were at the end, that the bottom was falling out of everything, Don Bosco kept that belief that his life was guided and orchestrated from above. We believe his dreams had a lot to do with this positive outlook.
There is one dream of Don Bosco’s that Penny and I use in all our talks, to accentuate the focus of our ministry and what we believe has to be the direction the Church has to take, in order to survive. He shared this vision with his boys, on May 30, 1862.
“A few nights ago I had a dream. True, dreams are nothing but dreams, but still I’ll tell it to you for your spiritual benefit, just as I would tell you even my sins - only I’m afraid I’d send you scurrying away before the roof fell in. Try to picture yourselves with me on the seashore, or better still, on an outlying cliff with no other land in sight. The vast expanse of water is covered with a formidable array of ships in battle formation, prows fitted with sharp, spearlike beaks capable of breaking through any defense. All are heavily armed with cannons, incendiary bombs and firearms of all sorts - even books - and are heading toward one stately ship, mightier than them all. As they close in, they try to ram it, set it afire and cripple it as much as possible.
“This stately vessel is shielded by a flotilla escort. Winds and waves are with the enemy. In the midst of this endless sea, two solid columns, a short distance apart, soar high into the sky: one surmounted by a statue of the Immaculate Virgin at whose feet a large inscription reads: Help of Christians; the other, far loftier and sturdier, supports a Host of proportionate size and bears beneath it the inscription Salvation of believers.
“The flagship commander - the Roman Pontiff - seeing the enemy’s fury and his auxiliary ships’ very grave predicament, summons his captains to a conference. However, as they discuss their strategy, a furious storm breaks out and they must return to their ships.
“When the storm abates, the Pope again summons his captains as the flagship keeps on its course. But the storm rages again. Standing at the helm, the Pope strains every muscle to steer his ship between the two columns from whose summits hang many anchors and strong hooks linked to chains.
“The entire enemy fleet closes in to intercept and sink the flagship at all costs. They bombard it with everything they have: books and pamphlets, incendiary bombs, firearms, cannons. The battle rages ever more furious. Beaked prows ram the flagship again and again, but to no avail, as unscathed and undaunted, it keeps on its course. At times a formidable ram splinters a gaping hole into its hull, but immediately, a breeze from the two columns instantly seals the gash.
“Meanwhile, enemy cannons blow up, firearms and beaks fall to pieces, ships crack up and sink to the bottom. In blind fury the enemy takes to hand-to-hand combat, cursing and blaspheming. Suddenly the Pope falls, seriously wounded, He is instantly helped up, but, struck down a second time, dies. A shout of victory rises from the enemy and wild rejoicing sweeps their ships. But no sooner is the Pope dead than another takes his place. The captains of the auxiliary ships elected him so quickly that the news of the Pope’s death coincides with that of his successor’s election. The enemy’s self-assurance waned.
“Breaking through all resistance, the new Pope steers the ship safely between the two columns and moors it to the two columns; first, to the one surmounted by the Host and then to the other, topped by the statue of the Virgin. At this point, something unexpected happens. The enemy ships panic and disperse, colliding with and scuttling each other.
“Some auxiliary ships which had gallantly fought alongside their flagship are the first to tie up at the two columns. Many others, which had fearfully kept far away from the fight, stand still, cautiously waiting until the wrecked enemy ships vanish under the waves. Then, they too head for the two columns, tie up at the swinging hooks and ride safe and tranquil beside their flagship. A great calm now covers the sea.”
Most of Don Bosco’s dreams were realized during his lifetime. He made predictions about the events of the Franco-Prussian war, which were so accurate, it was as if he read a script. He also predicted the death of Pope Pius IX. But the dream about the two columns has struck us from the first time we read it, as being more for today’s church, then for the time of Don Bosco. Could Don Bosco see what would be happening in the Church of today, how we would be floundering so badly in a violent storm, not knowing what to believe, or who to listen to? Was this dream or vision or prophecy to help us see clearly, what and where our loyalties must be, if we are to save the Church? We like to think of this vision as being a directive to follow the great strengths of our Church, the Body of Christ, in the Eucharist, the Mother of Christ, through the Vicar of Christ.
After Don Bosco shared his dream, he asked his priests and students to comment on its meaning. None of them, not the priest, nor the students, said anything at that time, about one Pope being killed and being replaced immediately by another. Was that a prophecy of an event that took place in our time, when Pope John Paul I died after only 33 days in office, to be replaced immediately by Pope John Paul II? Or was the Lord telling us through Don Bosco that the Papacy does not depend on a man, but solely on God? Was that prophecy for Don Bosco’s time, or for a hundred years later?
Il Grigio (the gray one)
Making the statement, “The chapter would not be complete without....” becomes a pat phrase, when speaking of Don Bosco.
Il Grigio, the gray dog, really had nothing to do with Don Bosco’s ministry, but very possibly, it had a lot to do with his ability to perform his ministry. Don Bosco actually devoted the last chapter of his autobiography, Memoirs of the Oratory, to his good friend, il Grigio. So if it was important enough for the master to talk about him, we can also share about the gray dog.
We have to preface it by telling you that a lot of people didn’t like Don Bosco, probably more hated him than loved him. Attempts on Don Bosco’s life became a commonplace event. Either dissident religious groups wanted to get him, or political groups. But between the two, he really had to be on his toes. It got to the point where he could pretty well sense when he was being set up for an attempt on his life. Usually, someone would come and ask him to go to the home of a sick person, to administer the last sacraments of the Church. That’s where he was most vulnerable. Most times, he would try to bring two or more of his four strong young people with him for protection. But there were times, when he was alone on the street, or was not able to bring anyone with him. That’s when he would find Grigio. No one ever knew where he came from, or where he would go after the incidents.
One instance took place in 1854, when he was coming home late at night. He was in a very bad section of town. He saw two men in front of him, walking slowly, keeping up with his pace. He wasn’t sure they were after him, but as he speeded up, they speeded up; if he slowed down, they did the same. He crossed to the other side of the street. When they did the same, he knew he was in trouble. He turned around to retreat, but they jumped him and threw a black cloak over his head. He tried to fight them, but it was no use. They were attempting to jam a cloth inside his mouth, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a huge, gray, hideous looking mastiff9 emerged from the darkness, and came charging at them. His growls sounded like those of a wolf or a bear. He lunged at Don Bosco’s attackers. They were frightened right down to their toes. They pleaded with Don Bosco to call him off. He agreed to when they agreed to stop accosting passersby. They ran for their life. Grigio didn’t chase them. He stayed by Don Bosco’s side.
From that time on, whenever Don Bosco came home late, after he passed the last of the buildings, Grigio would come from out of nowhere, to walk him home. Many people from the Oratory saw Grigio. One time he barged into the Oratory. Everyone was frightened. But then he ran up to Don Bosco, nuzzled his face into his friend and ran off. Don Bosco never made a big deal about Grigio, who he was, where he came from, why he stayed around for thirty years.
Don Bosco writes that the last time he saw Grigio was in 1866. But he finished writing his memoirs some years before he died, so he did not chronicle all his adventures with Grigio. There is a recorded incident that Grigio accompanied Don Bosco on the road to Ventimiglia, near the French border, as late as 1883. When Don Bosco shared this with a friend, she marveled, because dogs just don’t live that long. Don Bosco smiled and said, “Well, maybe it was his son or grandson.” He didn’t want to get into it with her. The Salesians sisters testified that they experienced Grigio’s protection, on three occasions between 1893and 1930.
Who or what was Grigio? Many Salesians said, they had seen him. Did he protect Don Bosco and the Salesians for 80 years? His origins have never been officially investigated, but there are theories. In 1870, Don Bosco commented, “It sounds ridiculous to call him an angel, yet he is no ordinary dog...” Our only comment is, why not an Angel?
Don Bosco wears out
Don Bosco spent his entire life running at ninety miles an hour. In addition to working with hundreds of boys, running a school, running an orphanage, running a Religious Order for men, starting a Religious Order for women, plus a third order for laity, building churches, he managed to write some 130 books and articles. He was a bull of a man, who played football with his boys up into his late fifties. And while we think his mind raced until the very end, his body began to give out. He never had any real ailments, until he was stricken with phlebitis.10 He had to have Salesians on either side of him, walk with him to keep him steady.
He couldn’t resist an invitation from Pope Leo XIII, to go to France and beg for money, for the completion of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Rome. Don Bosco was a great beggar. He had 38
had a lifetime of experience at it. He had ulterior motives. His movement, the Salesians, had spread their wings into France and Spain and Don Bosco wanted to visit them. He could never afford to do it on his own. This way, he could beg for the Pope and visit his people. In January, 1883, the sixty-eight year old Don Bosco headed for France, by way of Nice. He was not aware how famous, he had become. Everywhere he went, huge crowds of people followed. By the time he reached Paris, the excitement had risen to fever pitch. A little girl was cured of a malignant tumor through his intercession, which hit the secular newspapers. The crowds were tumultuous! It was said that not that many people had turned out to see a priest, since Pius VII had visited Paris in the early part of the century. They knew they had a living saint in their midst. They called him, “The Italian Vincent de Paul,” which was a great honor. Needless to say, he collected more than enough money to finish the Church of the Sacred Heart in Rome.
Was Don Bosco on a roll, or did he know that his days were so numbered, he had better do all his traveling, as quickly as possible? It took him three years to gather enough strength to go back out on the road, but in 1886, he went to visit his congregation in Barcelona, Spain. A repeat of his French trip took place. Throngs of excited people greeted him wherever he went. Miracles, all of which he attributed to the intercession of Mary, Help of Christians, took place. He was a huge success. But he was fading fast.
His doctors claimed he needed rest. He said that was the one thing he could not give them. When the doctors were asked, by the Salesians, what was ailing Don Bosco, they were told it was no great illness, or disease. He was just out of steam. He was like an oil lamp without oil. He had worn himself out.
During the last days, Don Rua, who had been chosen by Don Bosco as his successor, had all the brothers come into the death room to bid farewell to their father in faith. Though Don Bosco couldn’t speak anymore, and his right side was paralyzed, he blessed each of them.
On January 31, 1888, Don Bosco turned his life over to Jesus, through His beautiful Mother Mary. In 1934, forty six years after his death, Don Bosco was officially raised to the Communion of Saints.
There is no way that we could tell the story of Don Bosco, without speaking of divine intervention, the supernatural events which guided his life. There are so many areas, we didn’t get to talk about: his bouts with the devil, the miraculous healings, multiplication of food. But by the same token, we only touched on the great humanitarian efforts of the Salesians, which have grown steadily from its humble beginnings to this day. Read about this powerful man in our Church. There are so many good books. Check the bibliography for those we used, to research his life. Don Bosco is as important today, as he was at this time a hundred years ago. He has so many things to teach you, and he’s not beyond pulling a coin out from behind your ear, or making flowers disappear, while he winks at you with that twinkle in his eye and leads you into the arms of Jesus and His beautiful Mother Mary.
Related Articles Other Visitors Liked
All excerpts and quotations taken from
Memoirs of the Oratory
Saint John Bosco
Don Bosco, Life and Work
Dreams, Visions and Prophecies of Don Bosco
Pius IX - Gave us the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.
Joseph Cafasso is one of two major figures of the nineteenth century, from the area of Castelnuovo, to be proclaimed saint. The other, of course, is St. Don Bosco
Jansenism - a heresy from the 17th century, which stated that all men were unable to resist temptation, and unworthy of redemption. It denied that Christ died for the sins of all men. It created an elitist group of those who were worthy, as opposed to most of the rest, who were not worthy. A bad premise was compounded when a belief was spread that without perfect contrition, a sinner was not worthy of the Sacrament of Penance and Communion. A by-product of this was Scrupulosity, which caused many to believe they were guilty of serious sin where no sin existed.
Oratories was a term coined by St. Philip Neri, as he gathered Roman boys together for instruction and singing. Don Bosco borrowed it from St. Philip Neri, and made it famous.
The Last Sacraments, Reconciliation, the Anointing of the Sick, and Viaticum (Holy Communion).
Dreams, Visions & Prophecies of Don Bosco
Mastiff - a mixed breed - a large, powerful, smooth-coated dog with hanging lips and drooping ears - very often used for watchdogs.
1Phlebitis - Inflammation of the vein, or veins, a very painful ailment.41
Dream of Don Bosco - May 30, 1862
About the Authors:
Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.” Many of the ebooks are now available at Smashwords.com.