In the year 1815, the major powers of the world were shaken. Napoleon was finally defeated in the battle of Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna began restoring Europe following bitter years of conflict. During this tumultuous time the Saint of the young and the poor, John Melchior Bosco, was born in a tiny cluster of farm houses called Becchi. His hometown, if such a small arrangement could be given this title, lied approximately 20 miles from the northern city of Turin. During the early to mid-19th century this section of Italy was under Austrian rule and was collectively known as Piedmont. His original language was not Italian but the dialect, Piedmontese.
John Bosco’s beginnings were humble to say the least. He was the third son of Francis and Margaret Bosco who diligently worked as tenant farmers. Deep faith and close family ties went hand-in-hand for the simple people of the area. Sadly, tragedy struck early in John’s life. His father, after completing a difficult day on the farm in the Spring of 1817, entered the wine cellar bathed in perspiration and came down almost immediately with a virulent form of pneumonia. Two days later his untimely death formed the first memory of John’s early existence. “Today, John, you have no more father” were the tearful words of his mother as they both knelt down next to the lifeless body of his father.
Despite this enormous loss, John’s mother set out to ensure the survival of her family. Mama Margaret had to care not only for her three boys, but her invalid mother-in-law as well. This simple woman of faith pressed ahead with undaunting courage. Her greatest concern was not mere food and shelter, but with infusing the lessons of Christian faith to her three children. They learned true love was self-sacrificial. Don Bosco spoke readily of his mother’s example throughout his life. “She taught me”, he would say, “the place of family prayer, prompt obedience, the power of a smile, compassion toward the elderly and a loving, tender devotion to our Blessed Mother.” Even after becoming a priest, Mama Margaret was known to remind John to kneel down to say his nightly prayers after returning late from an evening of visits to the sick. Her satisfaction would only come when she saw John on his knees fulfilling his prayerful duties!
Like every Saint who has ever walked this earth, Don Bosco was not born a ready-made specimen of sanctity. It’s true that his personality was replete with gifts such as a sharp intellect, photographic memory, leadership abilities, a keen sense of humor, and various other positive qualities. However, it’s also equally true that he was known to suffer from a fiery temper, stubborn will, a tendency toward pride and even a bit of manipulation to ensure obtaining his own way. John worked incessantly throughout his life to overcome, or at least mitigate, his personal limitations and weaknesses.
Don Bosco’s zeal was always for the young and the poor. From the time he was 7 years old he showed an ability to gather children, entertain them and repeat ideas he heard from the week’s Sunday sermon. His skills for performing were substantial and they were surpassed only by his desire to share the truths of the Christian Faith.
The motto he gave to the Salesian Congregation he founded in 1859 was “Da Mihi Animas Caetere Tolle” which means “Give me souls, take away the rest.” His greatest concern was to ensure the human and spiritual development of those found under his care. He spared no expense, personal or otherwise, when it meant the salvation of souls. Far from any false dichotomy between soul and body, which was prevalent during his time, Don Bosco readily ensured that every young person brought to his oratory received adequate food, shelter, clothing, education as well as the ability to grow in Christian virtue within an environment specially created for such an endeavor. His behavior echoed St. John Paul II’s personalistic norm. Every individual is worthy of love and never to be used toward an end.
This special Saint knew that young people form the most valuable and vulnerable portion of society. The unique place of purity was always on display in his example, words and teachings. Don Bosco would have been a theology of the body devotee had he lived during our time. He regularly railed against the excesses of either rigorism as found in the tenants of 19th century Jansenism or excessive permissiveness which many of the young people on the street found through prostitution, drug use and other dangerous practices. He knew young people need healthy activities, life-giving relationships, a deep sense of faith, devotion to our Blessed Mother and worthy models of self-sacrificial love to help learn the value of Christian purity and chastity. The body was considered the sacred temple of God and it revealed the interior worth and dignity of the human person. St. Don Bosco was truly a guardian of bodies and souls.
Don Bosco’s approach could be categorized as a theological one. Every individual was created for a specific reason. And the purpose of that existence is to learn to love God in the vocation one has received. His entire system is imbued with the positive humanism of St. Francis de Sales. He readily recognized the favorable characteristics of his culture and challenged those, which misled souls away from God. The ordained and laity would be wise to draw on the humble, diligent witness of so many saints including the one given by this zealous pastor of souls.
Father Matthew DeGance, SDB has been a Salesian of Don Bosco since entering the novitiate in 2000. After studying philosophy at Immaculate Conception Seminary and obtaining a Master’s Degree in Education from Seton Hall University, he was sent to study theology at Sts. Peter and Paul Studium Theologicum Salesianum in Jerusalem. Following ordination in 2011, he has been working as a high-school teacher in the areas of theology, philosophy and science. Currently, he is located at Salesian High-School in New Rochelle, NY and finds himself in-charge of campus ministry. He has attended the TOB Institute’s TOB I: Head and Heart Immersion course and is hopeful to attend more courses in the future.