Saint of the Month: St. John Bosco

St. John Bosco was a founder, a caretaker of impoverished boys, and is associated with significant, vivid dreams. John was born in 1815 in the Piedmont area of Italy to a poor family. He lost his father when he was two, and spent his youth working as a shepherd, and being educated by his parish priest. John had his first vivid dream at age nine, being asked to treat misbehaving boys gently and patiently. The dream caused his family to tease him about his call to serve, but it also had a profound effect on young John, and he held fast to that call all his life. The dreams increased, and John’s family advised him not to take them seriously. He began studies for the priesthood at age 16, and was ordained at age 26 in 1841, still too poor to buy his own clothes.


After his ordination, John went to Turin, where he began teaching a Sunday Catechism class to young boys. He came under the tutelage of [St.] Joseph Cafasso, with whom he did prison ministry work. These experiences affected John Bosco deeply, especially since many of the incarcerated were children living in horrible conditions. He made a decision to devote his priestly life to help prevent such tragedies. He learned to juggle and do tricks in order to keep the attention of street boys. They were drawn by John’s great kindness, which was treatment most of them had never before experienced. He began housing destitute boys in an old building adjacent to a hospice, and even organized a band with the boys by using donated old brass instruments. John sought familiarity with good music, for he thought that music had an enriching and inspiring influence on people. In 1845, John began night schools for the many boys who had nowhere to go after hours of factory work. The local boys attended in great numbers, and were taught the fundamentals of education. Because the boys were considered unruly, he was asked to resign as their chaplain, which he did. He then opened a refuge for the boys with the assistance of his mother. In 1853, John began workshops to teach the boys useful skills, such as shoemaking and tailoring, to prepare them to care for their families. He built a church, and placed it under the patronage of his favorite saint, Francis de Sales.


By 1856, John was housing 150 boys, and had another 500 in oratories with priests who were following his methods. This was the birth of the Salesian religious order, or the Society of St. Francis de Sales. John lived a life of great perseverance in the face of opposition and criticism, much of it because his boys were so boisterous and of rough character. He had tremendous influence with his boys, however, who loved him because he disciplined with love, taught them their faith, and was always able to see goodness and potential beneath the exterior rags and dirt. Among John Bosco’s boys is at least one canonized saint, Dominic Savio. Eventually, the municipalities in which he worked came to respect John’s wonderful work turning the lives of troubled boys around. He would raise necessary funds by writing books and by obtaining charitable donations and the new order gained canonical approval in 1859. In 1872, John founded an order of women religious, the Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians, whose charism for poor girls parallels the work of the Salesians for boys. By the 1880’s, John’s health was failing, and he died January 31, 1888 at Turin. So loved was he that forty thousand people came to see his body before burial. When John Bosco died, there were 250 houses tended by his order, serving 130,000 children.


St. John Bosco’s dreams continued all his life, and his recollections were compiled by his followers. At the request of Pope Pius IX, John kept a detailed record of his dreams, which were sometimes prophetic. The dreams were detailed, and followed a logical order. St. Francis de Sales and St. Dominic Savio were known to appear, as well as an angel. Most of them concerned his boys, and some showed what horror awaited those who reject all efforts to convert them. His most famous dream showed the Church as a great ship under attack, captained by the Roman Pontiff, in the middle of a tempest of terror all around it. In the distance, two columns could be seen, atop which were The Virgin Mary and the Eucharist. The pontiff steered the ship with difficulty between the two pillars, at which time the weapons of the enemies were dropped and the battle is ended. St. John Bosco was canonized in 1934, and he is the patron of apprentices. His feast day is celebrated on January 31.