This gentle-eyed, mild-mannered man was born Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco, in a tiny hillside hamlet not far from Turin, Italy, in the summer of 1815. His parents were uneducated farm workers. Today, he’s known all over the world as St. John Bosco, a man who looked into his heart at an early age, and by the shine of his own personal light, saw his purpose in life. As a little boy, he once greeted a passing priest and was ignored. He promptly announced to his astonished mother, “I’m going to be a priest when I grow up, and I’ll talk to children all the time.” It was impossible, of course, for his father had died when he was 2 years old, which effectively locked him into a future as a penniless farmhand. And at the time, entry to the priesthood in Italy was, by and large, limited to the upper classes.
But here was a boy who wouldn’t let “No” stop him. John quietly set out to lift up the neglected poor children around him. He turned a keen eye on itinerant street performers, and by the age of 10 was performing himself as a magician, juggler, and acrobat. Admission was 2 prayers–1 before the show and 1 after. As uneducated as the children who came to see him, John taught himself to read, and became even more determined to follow his heart after he had a dream about a rabble of poor children. In the dream, an elegantly dressed man turned to him, extended his hand toward the children and told him to help them through reason, love, and kindness. At 12, John Bosco left home alone and made his way to Turin, where after many trials and setbacks, he finally met a retired priest who helped him learn what he needed to know to gain entrance to the seminary.
Once ordained, John continued to help and educate poor children wherever he found them–on the streets, among the homeless, and in the prisons. He took them into his home, where, as you might guess, they acted like the ungrateful little wretches they were and stole from him time and time again. But he was relentless. Starting where he was with what he had, John developed his own system of education and his own school, using praise and kindness instead of punishment. By this time a familiar radical presence about Turin, Don Bosco, as he was popularly known, was routed out of one neighborhood after another–who wants to live near a bunch of dirty, rowdy kids?
But he persisted–even in the face of persecution by people who hated him just because he was a priest. You wouldn’t think there would be such people in Italy then, but there were. Attempts were even made on his life–one time he was shot, on another occasion stabbed, and on a third, bludgeoned. But as you probably know by now, Don Bosco was no quitter. He started his own order of priests, based on the humble spirituality and gentle philosophy of St. Francis de Sales, and soon these Salesian priests were traveling to countries all over the world to aid and teach children of the poor–and, in true Don Bosco fashion, Salesian priests and volunteers are still working there now.
You’ve probably heard that print journalism is in its death throes these days. Well, not quite. To let interested folk know what his priests were up to, Don Bosco started the Salesian Bulletin in 1875 and it has proved to be as persistent as he was. It has been in continuous circulation ever since, and today–yes, in 2015– is published in 50 different editions in 30 languages. Even if you’re a cynic, you have to give the man credit for working up some serious steam for aiding the poor.
Don Bosco died 127 years ago, on January 31, 1888 and was canonized St. John Bosco in 1934. He is widely revered as a role model by teachers and there is probably a Catholic church or school not far from you that is named for him. They may even be celebrating the advent of his 200th year this weekend. More recently his childhood talents have received recognition by the Vatican, too. This tireless champion of disadvantaged kids is also the Patron of Stage Magicians. What a guy!
When asked for advice on the best way to live your life, he replied, “Do your ordinary duties extraordinarily well.” And so I ask myself again this January 31, “Why do we always make everything so complicated?”