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Don Bosco, Seeker of Souls

by Msgr. Paul E. Campbell, M.A., Litt.D., Ed.D.

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  • Description:
    Msgr. Paul Campbell provides an overview of the life, charism, and great works of St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesian Order and Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, and beloved patron of young boys and students.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Publisher & Date:
    Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., August 1961

In his Foreword to an account of the life of St. John Bosco, written by F.A. Forbes1 in appreciation of a great favor, Archbishop Richard Pittini tells us that the life of the Saint is so full of color and drama that it must appeal to all Americans, whatever their creed or opinions. Don Bosco spent himself wholly, from his very childhood, in healing human modern miseries. He threw himself headlong among the youth of the lower classes, pointing out to them the only way to a better place in this life and in the life to come. He did not talk much; he acted. He did not write long and elaborate educational treatises, as we have made clear in a previous article on Don Bosco's life (HPR, July, 1961). When asked about the secret of his success with the youngsters, he simply answered: "love . . . " "By a kind of surprising intuition," continues Archbishop Pittini, "Don Bosco knew that selfishness, bearing injustice and hatred, was at the bottom of this modern society, forever prattling about equality, philanthropy, and fraternity. He felt the sting of the sarcasm and of the tragedy of the common people proclaimed 'sovereign' in theory, in fact reduced to slavery by this blustering modern liberalism, which raised the flickering torch of human 'Reason' against the eternal light of the stars. Don Bosco set himself to bring back the multitudes to the only 'Heart' that understood their needs. He is the greatest pioneer of Christ in modern times."

Doubt and Resolve

In the first chapter of his life of St. John Bosco, F.A. Forbes writes of the making of an apostle, and pays great tribute to the mother of our Saint, who "was a notable woman, one of the heroic company of Catholic wives and mothers who carry the great ideals of their faith into the smallest things of life."

In his following chapter the author speaks of the moments of doubt and hesitation that occurred in the career of Don Bosco as they do in most vocations to the priesthood. The candidate is struck with a sense of his own unworthiness and passes through a period which the tempter often uses "to suggest that such a high calling is beyond the strength of mortal man, that human nature is weak, and that a good life in the world is safer and more wholesome." Such a period came to John as to others. He feared his own weakness, and had a deep sense of his own unworthiness. He consulted his confessor, but he was told: "In the matter of vocation everyone must follow his own inclinations." John was drawn toward the Franciscans and the Dominicans and felt that his eternal salvation would be safer in a religious Order than in the secular priesthood.

When he consulted his mother, always his wise adviser, she demurred and said, "The only thing I want of you is the salvation of your soul. Follow God's will." After praying over the matter John resolved to enter the Franciscans. At this point he was advised to consult Don Cafasso, a saintly young priest who had the gift of guiding souls. His adviser did not hesitate: John should enter the secular priesthood. "Go on studying," he said, "then to the seminary, and there hold yourself in readiness to follow the guidance of God's grace." John made his final decision in response to this advice of a holy man who was to have a great part in the career of the young seminarian. Donning his cassock, he at once took up his studies. His biographer says that he was the most popular boy in the college, first in his class, athlete, musician, everybody's friend, always ready to do a good turn to anyone, a potent influence for good.

In parting, Margaret Bosco put her hands upon the shoulders of her boy as she said to him, "To see you with the cassock fills my heart with joy. But remember that the habit is not what gives honor to the state, but the practice of virtue. If at any time you should come to doubt of your vocation, I beseech you to lay it aside at once; I would rather have a poor peasant for my son than a negligent priest. When you came into the world I consecrated you to our Lady; when you began to study, I bade you honor her and have recourse to her in all your difficulties; now I beg you to take her for your Queen." The two clung together, deeply moved. "Mother," said John after a long silence, "before I leave you to take up this new life, let me thank you for all you have done for me. Your teaching will live always in my soul, a treasure that has made me rich forever."

Risorgiment

In our previous essay we spoke of his establishment of an Oratory and of the trials that seemed to pursue him in that great work. It is difficult to determine the number of the recipients of Don Bosco's charitable efforts. By slow but sure ascents there came to the top a number of candidates who would become leaders of the Oratory. By 1847 an academical Commission, attracted by the reports spread in Turin of the crowded attendance of Don Bosco's evening classes, could not hid its admiration of the results. In that year he was bold enough to ask the public authorities for a subsidy for his educational work. With the help of an annual grant of three hundred francs, his work began to grow, and it became necessary to open the Oratory of St. Aloysius and, two years later, in 1849, the Oratory of the Guardian Angel in another part of the town.

During the years 1847-1850 Italy was passing through a political crisis unique in its history.2 In the interior, there was the conquest of their popular liberties one after another by the States of the Peninsula. At Naples, King Ferdinand II, on January 29, 1848, promulgated a Constitution which was to govern his kingdom until its fall and his own exile. At Rome, Pius IX, by the mouth of his Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonelli, on March 14 granted all the Papal States a Charter of freedom which was inspired, like that of Naples, by the French Charter of 1830. In Tuscany, the Grand Duke Leopold, from May 1847, had given a certain amount of liberty to the press, which surely led on to wider concessions. Lastly, at Turin, on March 4, 1848, Charles Albert, yielding to the powerful pressure of public opinion stirred up by the press, proclaimed the Constitution which, when the unity of Italy had been realized under the authority of the House of Savoy, would soon rule the whole of the Peninsula in its relations between the citizens and the central power.

Italy was yearning for her unity and sought to reunite into one the scattered fragments of the nation. Several of these fragments belonged directly or indirectly to the House of Austria, which thus ruled over a good third of the country. The Austrian had to be turned out and the Italians were striving to secure their national enfranchisement.

This formidable movement, known as the Risorgimento, kept one of the most ardent of the Latin nations in a fever for nearly half a century. Many of the seminarians were drawn into the movement and went to extremes in their support of it. Many of the boys left the Oratories. Don Bosco resolved with his practical mind to divert this ill-directed youthful enthusiasm into the service of God. A certain military officer offered to train his boys in guerilla warfare, but their enthusiasm made it difficult to keep them under stern control. When his mother saw they were getting out of hand, she carried the matter to her son and complained of the vandalism of the boys. She begged to go back to her peaceful home in Becchi, but Don Bosco merely pointed to the crucifix, and his mother, in spite of her sixty-five years, put on her apron and went back to work with the boys.

More Adversity

Don Bosco himself was indefatigable. He planned to build a church and establish another Oratory. He was helped in this project by the first of the many lotteries he was permitted to establish. When completed, this church gave greater scope to the activities of his Oratories. Other political and financial difficulties dogged his steps at every turn, but the apostle knew he was working in the midst of a seething popular movement and bravely faced the irreligion of the authorities. From February 1848 till November 13, 1859 a series of at least nine anticlerical and anti-Catholic laws were enacted. These laws were justified on the grounds of utility and equality, and gradually accentuated and anticlerical movement fomented by leading radicals.

Timid souls refrained from making any kind of fresh start for fear of the coming storm. Don Bosco decided to go ahead fearlessly. His boys needed protection from the dangers of the street or even of their own families. There was no time to lose. To add to his misfortune the first building planned as a home for an overflow of boarders suddenly collapsed. In the spring of the following year, 1853, he decided to start afresh. Generous gifts flowed in. Many influential persons supported him in his work. His new building was finished in 1854. This second structure had its misfortune, but this was quickly overcome. Don Bosco decided to bring all his little world of youths back to himself. He established various shops, including carpenter shops and binder shops. His best venture was a small printing press, and a number of similar presses followed. An iron workshop was added a little later. He brought his apprentices and students under roof wherever possible. The typical Salesian House was thus established, and the original pattern was followed constantly from 1846 to 1856 by a humble priest who was endowed with a rare gift for organization and adaptation. As a great man of action he dominated life and bent things and men to his ardent dreams as an educator. We find him, from the age of thirty, eminent as an apostle and leader.

At this point he suffered the loss of his dear mother, Mother Margaret to all his boys. Two years later, November 25, 1858, his work was placed under the unseen but directing hand of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Salesians to the Rescue

Father Auffray mentions here the fact that Don Bosco wanted to put his Congregation under the protection of one of the most versatile and congenial saints of the Church, St. Francis of Sales. His ever gentle spirituality pivots on love and is imbued with optimism. He "humanized" virtue, clothing it with charm, making it loved by all. Don Bosco followed the same path. Like the saintly Bishop of Geneva, he emphasizes love and joy as dual means toward a fruitful apostolate. Therefore he called his congregation "The Society of St. Francis of Sales," and his sons became "Salesians."

In the following chapter he speaks of the "side" apostolate of Don Bosco. It seems that our Saint was never averse to take up any responsibility that was offered to him by those in authority. His mildness and his constant smile were a conquest, just as they were in the case of his model, St. Francis of Sales. We are not astonished at seeing Don Bosco accepting or going in search of a surcharge of work. In spite of his well filled hours he set up a series of retreats for the young women who could come only at odd hours. He gave them instruction at 5:30 a.m. or 7 p.m., as suited their convenience. The retreatants came in droves to his sermons and to his confessional. Like Ozanam, Don Bosco thought the best defense for the purity of his sons and these zealous young ladies was in an active life of charity and self-sacrifice. His boys plunged boldly into the midst of those stricken by cholera in 1854. In three months the cases amounted to 2,500, with 1,400 fatal. The good Saint rushed everywhere, but he felt the need of a band of devoted young people, and these volunteers came in great numbers. They trusted to Providence, and not one of them was attacked by the disease. His hold upon the hearts of the young was almost irresistible. Juvenile offenders could be entrusted by their jailers to Don Bosco and would return to their cells, scrupulously faithful to their pledge. Don Bosco had said to the authorities: "I pledge myself to bring back all your prisoners to their cells in the evening."

Don Bosco, Preacher

The beloved Saint was in constant demand as a pulpit preacher. He accepted all engagements for the sake of the excellent public relations thus established for his work. Valuable lieutenants were drawn to devote their lives to his work, among them Dominic Savio, the young Cagliero who, before becoming a Cardinal, led the first missionary expedition sent forth by the Salesians, and Paul Albera, destined to be one of his successors as the Head of the Salesian Congregation.

This form of apostolate was carried on by the Holy Founder until 1860, despite all the anxieties of his original foundation. Afterwards, he had to restrict his efforts; and finally, about 1865, he had to give up such work altogether. But for twenty years he devoted to it a large portion of his few spare moments; and he deserved no little credit on that account.

Don Bosco's industry as a student had made of him an excellent preacher. He was not eloquent in the ordinary sense of that adjective, but he spoke with great warmth, kept his voice under good control, and his general tone was one of serenity, gravity, and sadness, indefinably blended. The truth fell from his lips with an accent of melancholy which added to its attractiveness. He was never stiff or pompous, but spoke always with the pleasing simplicity of a father talking to his children. The great Christian truths formed the substance of his instructions. His anecdotes, examples, and parables held the attention of his audience and he seemed to talk always with a tone of deep conviction. In a word, he was a successful pulpit speaker.

His pleasant manner won him an elite of priests and laymen who gave him no small help in his many zealous enterprises. He was never more pleased than when his talks were instrumental in bringing back to the faith one who had wandered away from it. He had much success in dealing with the Waldensians and frequently drew them away from their lapse into heresy.

Don Bosco, Publisher

The Waldensians were a sect which began in the twelfth century. Their leader, Peter Waldo, gathered numerous followers who went about preaching his doctrines and attacking the pomp and wealth of the medieval Church. Their break with Catholicity was gradual, but, 1184, they were denounced by papal authority. Their organization has continued to the present time, though after the rise of modern Protestantism they came under Calvinistic influence and are now scarcely to be distinguished from other Protestants. They exist principally in Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland, though a few congregations have been formed, mostly by immigration, in North and South America.3

At the time of which we write, the Waldensians were increasing their propaganda in Turin, and it became imperative to protect Catholics against their errors. This heresy had come down into Italy by the higher valleys of the Alps and had wound its way through the plain as far as Turin, where its disciples had won the right of propaganda and skillfully crept into popular circles unprotected by their ignorance. Many Protestant pamphlets were issued, and Don Bosco successfully brought the Catholic tract into battle against them. About twice a month he wrote pamphlets for popular reading. These pamphlets gave a serene exposition of Catholic teaching and delivered the Catholic public from the danger of falling away from their faith.

Don Bosco started a printing press of his own, and his own lads became efficient operators. His printing installation was rather primitive, but he assured his boys that they would soon have two or three, or even ten printing works. He made good his promise and succeeded in publishing a number of books and pamphlets whose substance and style proved an effective antidote to the naturalist influence of those who rejected the Catholic faith. One is astounded at all his work as a publicist. His fertile pen gave the public more than 130 books, pamphlets, tracts, almanacs, and plays. Certainly his life was a busy one and he gave generously of his time to every worthy project. His days belonged to everybody and his nights found him commonly at work over his lowly writing table. His work as a writer was indeed the daughter of his night watches.

Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians

Priests and laymen never ceased to urge Don Bosco to found a Congregation of women on the same lines as the Salesian Order to care for destitute girls. There was in the vicinity an association of young girls who wanted to devote themselves to the service of others without becoming nuns. Don Bosco was greatly interested in this work and when the group decided to live in common life, praying and taking their meals together, his interest grew. He sought counsel of the Pope in 1871 and received unreserved approval of the suggested Order for women. On the feast of St. Francis de Sales, January 29, 1872, the new Community, twenty-seven in number, held a Chapter and elected Maria Mazzarello as their superior. Don Bosco gave them the name, Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians. After nine years Don Bosco secured for the new Community, now sixty-nine in number, a better establishment where they effectively ministered to their destitute girls and helped with the domestic work in many Salesian Houses. In 1877 we find them in America, and shortly after Don Bosco's death they volunteered, as their numbers grew, for mission work in Salesian missions.

Pope Pius XI paid high tribute to Sister Mary Dominica Mazzarello.

There is something great in a life starting and growing under the protection and help of Mary. A simple, very simple character; but with a simplicity common only to the simplest things, like gold, for example. Simple, but likewise rich with wonderful properties, gifts, and endowments. Such was this humble handmaid of God. Humility is indeed her peculiar quality; a great humility in which one could see her, fully conscious of her own humble origin, humble work. However, one thing should be noted; this poor, humble, simple, country girl, with only a minimum of education, often shows one of the greatest of talents: the talent for leadership.

The Union of Salesians Co-operators, founded in 1876, is a product of Don Bosco's zeal. This Union enlisted the service of every one ready to help in any way in the salvation of souls. The founder realized that in many situations a lay man or woman could be more effective than a priest. These zealous Co-operators offered to take up whatever form of work was offered to them. Don Bosco drew up the Rules for his Co-operators, and they became an aid to him in all his enterprises. All were made to feel that they could contribute in some way; it was suggested to invalids that they offer at least the merits of their suffering as their contribution. Don Bosco made all participants feel that they belonged to his great family.

Don Bosco accomplished a notable task in the course of his forty-six years in the priesthood. His biographer, Lancelot C. Sheppard,4 writes:

Don Bosco was first and foremost a priest. Whatever priestly work needed doing and came to his hand he did, whether it was saving some poor waif off the streets of Turin or conducting delicate negotiations between the Vatican and the government for the appointment of bishops to the vacant Italian sees. So greatly in fact had the influence of this peasant priest from Becchi grown that he was called on to act as intermediary in this important matter. He consented to do so, as he told the President of the Council at Florence, solely as a priest — "Priest at the altar, priest in the confessional, priest among my boys, and priest in the king's palace or his ministers' offices: I will be nothing but a priest."

Notes

1 Saint John Bosco, A Seeker of Souls, by F.A. Forbes (Salesian Press, Tampa, Florida).

2 Saint John Bosco, by A. Auffray, S.D.B. (The Salesians of Don Bosco, Tirupattur, South India).

3 The New Catholic Dictionary (Van Rees Press, New York).

4 Don Bosco, by Lancelot C. Sheppard (Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland; 1957).

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