Saint John Bosco
Becchi, Asti (Italy), August 16th, 1815.
Valdocco, Turin (Italy), January 31st, 1888.
Beatified by Pius XI on June 2nd, 1929.
Canonized by Pius XI on April 1st, 1934.
Saint John Bosco was born on August 16th, 1815, in Italy, on the hill of “I Becchi,” Asti, a town near Castelnuovo d’Asti. He was the youngest of three brothers born to Francisco Bosco and Margarita Occhiena. John’s father died when he was only two years old.
His mother, a virtuous woman of deep faith, educated John with gentleness and, at the same time, firmness. Besides teaching him to work, she also instructed him in the life of faith, instilling in him a tender devotion to the Virgin Mary and a strong trust in Divine Providence.
When he was nine years old, John had a dream of great importance for his life, a prophecy of the mission that the Lord would entrust to him. This would be the first of many other prophetical dreams. His first dream accompanied him throughout his entire life. In this dream, he saw himself in an open field surrounded by children who were playing, blaspheming and fighting among themselves. John wanted to stop them with his fists, but he heard the voice of the Lord say to him, “John, not with blows must you win over these boys, but with gentleness and kindness.” He also said, “I will give you the Teacher under whose guidance you will learn to be wise.” All of a sudden, the boys were turned into wild beasts. Then Our Lady appeared and said, “Here is your field. Become humble, strong and robust.” Immediately, the wild beasts were transformed into meek lambs.
From a very young age, John felt the calling to the priesthood. His oldest brother was opposed. But, finally, John was able to go to Chieri, where he began to study and work. He learned different trades, that later would be useful to teach his youth. He was a bread-maker, waiter, tailor, blacksmith, carpenter, etc. He had a contagious joy, an extraordinary intelligence, and a great ability to win over the hearts of the other boys. He learned juggling and tightrope walking in order to entertain the boys and keep them away from other games and influences that would be dangerous for them. John also taught them the catechism and took them to Mass. He founded the “Society of Joy,” a group for youth, because he discovered that to become a saint, one must be joyful. His work of teaching and apostolate with the youth began in this way.
When he was 20 years old, John entered the seminary of Chieri to begin his studies for the priesthood. He was an exceptional student. All of his efforts would be rewarded with the long-awaited priestly ordination, celebrated on June 5th, 1941, feast of the Most Holy Trinity, in the church of the Immaculate Conception.
On December 8th, 1841, a certain incident took place that was important in Don Bosco’s life. He was preparing himself to celebrate Mass in the church of Saint Francis, in Turin, when he saw the sacristan hit a young altar boy because he did not know how to altar serve well. Don Bosco reprimanded the sacristan and then talked with the young boy, named Bartolomé Garelli. The boy told him that he was 16 years old, an orphan, and that he still had not received his first Holy Communion. He confessed that he wouldn't dare to go to catechism class because he was afraid that the younger children would laugh at him. Don Bosco offered to teach him the catechism and assured him that no one would hit him again. The boy agreed and came back the following Sunday with several friends for the catechism class. As the weeks passed, more and more boys joined them.
In this way, the work of the “oratories” was born. It began with a simple catechism class, which later on continued growing, to respond to the needs that he noticed in the youth he met, either in his visits to the jail or in the streets of Turin. Most of them were immigrants from rural areas who had come to the city looking for work; many were orphans who had been abandoned, and exposed to great dangers, both physical and spiritual.
His expressions, “It is enough for you to be a young person for me to love you with all my soul,” and, “I promised God that even my last breath would be for my poor youth,” manifest the Lord's calling and Saint John Bosco's generous response.
But to Don Bosco, this did not seem like enough, and he was interiorly urged to look for a house to take in these youth and educate them in the faith and in human virtues. In April of 1846, he established his house in the area of Valdocco, Turin, where he began an intense activity to help the boys. For them, he was a father and an excellent teacher. He took in homeless boys, set up workshops and schools to learn different skills and trades, in order to teach them a profession, established a printing press, and used new initiatives such as theater, music groups, choirs and outings to attract them. He did all this under the protection of the Virgin Mary, especially under the title of Mary Help of Christians, whom he loved and taught to be loved, and through the frequent reception of the sacraments of Confession and the Holy Eucharist.
Vocations to the priesthood came about from among the boys. One of these future priests, Michael Rua, made his first private vows under the direction of Don Bosco. This was, in some way, the beginning of the foundation of the “Francis de Sales Society,” a masculine religious congregation. The purpose of this society was to continue the work that Saint John Bosco had begun. In December of 1859, Don Bosco shared his decision to found this congregation and 26 boys decided to submit themselves to its rules. Later on, in 1872, he also founded the “Congregation of the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians,” together with Saint Mary Dominga Mazzarello, to be able to do apostolate with girls as well. In 1876, he founded the “Pious Union of the Salesian Cooperators,” the lay branch that completed the “Salesian Family.”.
His zeal for the salvation of souls urged him to take the Gospel to the other side of the ocean, and, thus, the Salesian missions began, and the first ten missionaries left for Argentina in 1875. Don Bosco gave them a series of recommendations before their departure, asking that they be faithful to the graces that they had received and that they spread the love of Jesus and Mary throughout the world. He said, “Search for souls, not money or honors.” “May the world know that you are poor, in the way you dress, in the way you live, in your houses... and you will be rich in the eyes of God and you will seize the hearts of men.” “Love each other, advise each other, correct each other..., but never have envy nor resentment. May the good of one be the good of all, the sufferings of one be considered as the sufferings of all.” “Persevere constantly in the devotion to Mary Help of Christians and to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”
Saint John Bosco did not limit himself to developing a great educational work, but also wrote brief treatises about religion and promoted the construction of churches, such as the Basilicas of Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Help of Christians, in Turin, and the Sacred Heart Church in Rome, where he celebrated his last Mass.
On January 31st, 1888, he died in Turin. His last recommendations were: “Promote the devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Help of Christians, and you will see what miracles are worked. Help the poor children, the sick, the elderly and the needy, and you will be granted great blessings and help from God. I await you all in Paradise”.
He was beatified on June 2nd, 1929, by Pius XI, and canonized by the same Pope on April 1st, 1934. On the first 100th anniversary of his death, John Paul II sent a letter to the rector of the Salesians, in which he proclaimed Saint John Bosco “father and teacher of the youth.”
Saint John Bosco was a deeply Eucharistic soul. One can say that the two pillars of his work were the Eucharist and Our Lady.
Even in the beginnings, when he began working with the youth, after his priestly ordination, he diligently searched for a place where he could meet with them, but also where he could celebrate the Holy Mass for them. He encouraged the boys to receive communion frequently and exhorted them, saying: “There is no greater happiness in this world than that which comes from a communion well received,” and added, “There is nothing that the devil fears more than these two things: a communion well received and frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Do you want the Lord to give you many graces? Visit him often. Do you want the Lord to give you few graces? Visit him few times.” “ Devout and frequent reception of communion is the most efficient means to assure a good death and save one’s soul.”
It is not strange that the tender love of Don Bosco would be met with great works of the Lord, such as the multiplication of communion hosts. The biographers of the saint say that on the feast day of the Annunciation of 1848, Don Bosco was celebrating Mass for the whole school, 360 students, and the sacristan had forgotten to bring out hosts to consecrate. In the tabernacle, there was a pyx with only 8 consecrated hosts. When it was time to distribute communion, everyone realized what happened, especially Joseph Buzzetti, who was serving on the altar and would later on become one of the first Salesian priests. Don Bosco began to distribute communion, and there was no shortage.
There is a well known dream of Don Bosco, which has as its protagonist three of the great loves of Saint John Bosco: the Eucharist, Mary Help of Christians, and the Church. The saint saw a great number of ships situated for battle. There was a majestic ship (the Church), navigated by the Holy Father and surrounded by other smaller boats that accompanied it. On the other side, there were many well-armed ships (the enemies of the Church) that went forward to attack the leading ship. The waves and the strong wind favored the enemy's ship and the battle intensified. Two pillars emerged from the sea not very far from one another. A statue of the Immaculate Virgin was on one of the pillars, with the inscription Auxilium Christianorum, and on the other pillar, the Eucharist, with the inscription Salus Credentium. The Holy Father died in the battle, and another was chosen, who was able to navigate the boat between the two columns that came out of the sea and brought it to safety. The entire enemy’s army retreated in defeat and the Christians, with the Holy Father at the head, sang a hymn of thanksgiving to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Help of Christians.
Don Bosco’s mother, “Mama Margarita,” had educated her son in a solid Marian piety since he was very young. This devotion grew over time, and especially since the prophetic dream that Saint John Bosco had when he was 9 years old, in which the Lord indicated to him his future apostolic work and gave him the Virgin Mary as his teacher of wisdom.
He received a special vocation in which the Blessed Virgin and the Lord guided him directly so that he could fulfill his mission. Our Lady, under the invocation of Mary Help of Christians, appeared to him in his dreams, showing him his field of apostolate, educating, instructing, encouraging and reprimanding him, like a true mother. He considered her to be the true founder and mother of his work, and liked to call her such.
He transmitted his tender and filial love to the Virgin Mary to all those he met, especially to the youth. He spoke to them with a burning heart:
“Have faith and trust in Mary Help of Christians and you will see what miracles really are.” He who trusts in Mary will never feel deceived.” “In every danger, invoke Mary, and I assure you that you will be freed.” “In heaven we will be surprised to know all that Mary has done for us on earth” “Love, honor, serve Mary. Make her to be known, loved and honored by others. Not only will a son who has loved this Mother never perish, but he will be able to aspire also a great crown in heaven.”
In several dreams, Mary Help of Christians asked Saint John Bosco to build a temple in her honor, and showed him the place and inside the temple, the inscription, “Here is my house, from here is my glory.” Don Bosco, trusting in the help of the Virgin Mary, began the construction of the temple with all that he has, a few coins. Later on, he will say: “There is not one brick that may not be a sign of some grace.” “She has done it all.” On June 9th, 1868, the temple was consecrated; it is a site of unceasing graces from the Mother of heaven. This basilica is the current Basilica of Mary Help of Christians, in Turin, in which the St. John Bosco’s remains are conserved.
- Mary, Help of Christians Basilica, in Turin, Italy, is the basilica which the saint built according to the instructions that the Virgin herself gave him. There, the incorrupt body of Saint John Bosco is conserved. The bodies of Saint Mary Mazarrello, founder of the Daughters of Mary, and Saint Dominic Savio, disciple of Saint John Bosco, who died at 15 years of age, can also be found in the Basilica. In the Basilica, one can also see the original painting of Mary Help of Christians that Saint John Bosco ordered to be painted.
Next to the Basilica is the Saint Francis de Sales Chapel, where Saint John Bosco often celebrated Mass. It forms part of a complex in which one can also visit the rooms and other relics of Don Bosco: his confessional, his chapel, his bedroom, his desk, his priestly vestments and several objects of his personal use.
- In Chieri, Turin (Italy), the city where Don Bosco spent 10 years of his adolescence and youth, one can visit the Seminary, which he entered in 1835, under the direction of Saint Joseph Cafasso. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary, where the saint celebrated his third mass is also here, along with the mortal remains of Saint John Bosco’s good friend, Luis Comollo. During their life, they made a pact that whoever died first had to return to let the other know that he had been saved. Luis was the first to die and fulfill the pact.
One can also walk through the city’s Jewish neighborhood, where some of Saint John Bosco’s Jewish friends lived. For example, Elias, who lent him books so that he could study, Jonas, and many others, whom he helped every Saturday with their studies.
Another place to visit is the Saint Teresa Institute, a school founded by Don Bosco himself in 1878. In its chapel there is a statue of Mary Help of Christians that the saint brought personally with this saying, “The Virgin goes before us.”
The Public School of Chieri also conserves many anecdotes and stories of John Bosco during his time as a student. He was there when he founded the “Society of Joy” and it was there that his desire to be a priest was strengthened.
The last place of pilgrimage in this city is the house of Lucía Matta, a woman who hosted John during his first year in Chieri.
- On the hill of "I Becchi", Asti, Italy, is the birth place of Saint John Bosco, the house where he lived during the first years of his infancy and where there are also other relics of the saint and of the Salesian Society. Pope John Paul II desired to give a new name to this place, calling it “the hill of youthful bliss.”
By the saint:
Saint John Bosco his boys to read good books and he himself wrote many brief treatises and other works, mostly directed to the youth. The topics of his writings are: education, history, the Magisterium of the Church, the Salesians, the lives of the saints, etc.
Among them, we highlight only a few: “The youth prepared for the practice of his duties,” “The strength of a good education,” “Conversations of a country priest and a lawyer about the sacrament of confession,” “The history of Italy for the youth since its beginnings to our days,” “Life of Saint Joseph, spouse of Mary and foster father of Jesus, told by accredited authors with the novena to prepare for the feast day of the Saint,” “Life of Saint Martin, Bishop of Tours,” “Life of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, first Pope after Jesus Christ,” “Life of the young Dominic Savio, student of Saint Francis de Sales Oratory,” “Memoirs of the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales,” “Rules of the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales,” “Spiritual Testimony,” etc.
More than 150 prophetical dreams of Saint John Bosco and many of his letters are also conserved.
The writings of Don Bosco have been compiled and published by different editors and can be found in catholic bookstores. Some can be downloaded in digital format through the Internet.
From the Popes:
- Address during an encounter with Salesian students, John Paul II, May 5, 1979.
- Apostolic letter "Iuvenum Patris" on the occasion of the centenary of the death of Saint John Bosco, John Paul II, January 31, 1988.
- Message to the Rector Major of the Salesians of John Bosco with the motive of the XXVI General Chapter of the San Francis de Sales Society, Benedict XVI, March 31, 2008.
From other authors:
There are many biographies and books about Saint John Bosco. Here are a few of them:
- One of the greatest biographers of Saint John Bosco is the Salesian Teresio Bosco, who has published several works about the saint, among them: “Saint John Bosco: A New Biography,” “Saint John Bosco: The Story of a Priest,” “Conversations about Saint John Bosco,” etc.
- “Don Bosco Lived Here. Tours and visits based on history, geography, and spirituality,” by Aldo Giraudo and Giuseppe Biancardi (2004). This book can be downloaded in digital format from the digital salesian library through this link.
- The author Aldo Giraudo has also written other works about Saint John Bosco, among them: “Saint John Bosco: Teachings on Spiritual Life.” He has also compiled the writings of the saint in several books: “Memoirs of the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales,” “I Write to You, Youth: Notes of a Salesian Spirituality,” “Lives of Youth: The Biographies of Dominic Savio, Michael Magone and Francis Besucco.”
- "Don Bosco and His Time: Born Educator, Patron of the Working Youth," by Hugo Wast (Palabra Publisher, Arcaduz Collection).
- “Biographical Memories of Saint John Bosco,” is the most complete biography of the saint. It is made up of twenty volumes written by different authors.