Italy in the mid-1880s was not the best place for farming families. Many farms were failing, and in the face of mounting poverty, parents sent their sons into the cities to work in the rapidly expanding factories. Sadly, however, with no child labor laws, these boys were often subjected to very harsh conditions.
Working for pennies a day, most of them could not even afford a place to live. They ended up sleeping in abandoned buildings or on the streets or in the fields outside of town. Many of the boys, demoralized and lonely, dropped out of work and became street urchins instead. It was a harsh life, and very few came through these years unscathed.
It was into this environment that God called a manhimself from a poor farming familyto show these boys a different way to live. They didnt have to succumb to cynicism, bitterness, and compromise. They didnt have to resign themselves to a hardscrabble life of doing whatever it takes to get by. And more importantly, their lives could be much different if they gave their hearts to Jesus. That mans name was John Bosco.
A Prophetic Dream. Bosco was born in northern Italy in 1815, and when he was only nine years old he had the first of many prophetic dreams. In the dream, he saw a gang of boys fighting each other. Upset by their violence, Bosco rushed into the crowd, fists flailing, trying to stop them. When the boys responded by laying into him instead, a man appeared and told Bosco that he would never win them over with roughness. They needed kindness, not more violence. They needed someone to take an interest in them and show them how attractive holiness was.
The dream convinced John Bosco that God had called him into the priesthood and specifically to care for troubled boys. And so, even though he had very little hope of a decent education, Bosco began preparing himself. He preached sermons to his friends in the fields near his home. He learned acrobatics and juggling and put on shows for neighborhood children, charging no money for admission. Instead, he asked that his audience pray with him and come to Mass with him.
Because he was needed to help work the family farm, Boscos education was intermittent, but he ultimately finished his studies and was ordained a priest in 1841. He moved to Turin to pursue further studies, hoping to reach out to the lost boys of the city as well.
The Beginnings of a Ministry. Bosco came to Turin with a calling, but he was not exactly sure how it would unfold. But it wasnt long before God placed an opportunity right in front of him. One day, not long after his arrival in Turin, Bosco was preparing to celebrate Mass when he heard a commotion in the sacristy. Going to investigate, he saw Comotti, the old sacristan, brandishing a rod over the head of a young ruffian. Bosco intervened just as Comotti was beginning to beat the boy. Evidently, Comotti had told the boy to help serve at Mass, but the boy said he didnt know how. I wont have street urchins cluttering up my church! Comotti cried.
Bosco, on the other hand, took a risk and reached out to the boy, asking him where he was from and what he did. He was sixteen, said the boy, a bricklayer from Asti, and couldnt read or write.
Can you sing or whistle? The boy broke into a smile. Sure!
Tell me, have you made your first Communion?
No, not yet.
Have you ever been to Confession?
Only a long time ago when I was a little boy.
Do you pray? I dont know how to pray.
Do you go to catechism classes?
No, Im ashamed to. All the other kids are younger than me, and they know a lot more than I do.
Well, what if I taught you catechism? Would you come?
Id be very glad to. When?
How about right now, after Mass?
And so, after Mass, John Bosco gave the boyBarthis first lesson. He asked Bart to come back the next week, which he did. This time, Bart brought eight friends, all tough teenagers. John Bosco gladly accepted them, and from this small beginning, a group rapidly grew. Within a year, St. John Bosco was teaching more than a hundred boys about Jesus and helping them to pray.
Winning the Boys through Normalcy. What stood out about St. John Bosco is how normal he appeared to these boys. The Church in Italy was being threatened by an increasingly secular government, and in response to these threats, many priests retreated into a life of spiritual seclusion. Bosco, on the other hand, made it a point to mix with the boys and win their hearts. A robust, athletic man, he never shied away from his outgoing nature.
He organized games, sporting events, and competitions for themand often joined in himself. He taught them how to read and helped them learn marketable trades so that they could escape poverty. Treating them with dignity and respect, he built a safe, healthy environment for the boys, something powerful enough to draw them away from the vices common to life on the street.
But Bosco was more than just a fun-loving older brother figure to the boys. Everything he did was aimed at showing them that God is interested in them and that Jesus really does love them. He didnt just tell them about prayer; he prayed with them. With his mouth, he explained the gospel, and through his witness of joy, peace, and enthusiasm, he showed them how exciting and fulfilling the gospel can be.
Within a few years, more than six hundred boys were coming to Bosco every week for spiritual guidance, education, love, and a lot of fun. Every Sunday, they gathered for prayer, Confession, Mass, and games. During the week, he met many of them in smaller groups, teaching them about Jesus, giving them reading and writing lessons, or helping them learn a trade. And over time, angry, lonely, violent castaways were converted to Christ. Many became teachers and public servants themselves, and others embraced the priesthood and became missionaries, reaching out to other troubled boys throughout the world. By the time he died in 1888, John Bosco was responsible for turning thousands of boys and young men to Jesus.
A Living Parable. To a large degree, St. John Bosco was so effective because he had allowed his life to become a living parable of the gospel he preached. It wasnt his wisdom, his teaching skills, or his spiritual depth that first attracted people to him. Rather, the initial attraction was to a person who was fully alive, a man who made full use of his gifts and talents, but who was also filled with the vitality of the Holy Spirit.
As far as Bosco was concerned, Jesus call to self-denial had nothing to do with denying his abilities and his natural gifts. Rather, it meant letting God fill these gifts with his power and direct them for his glory. He knew that he should deny the temptation to use his gifts for selfish ends. But at the same time he knew that he wasnt supposed to put those gifts on the shelf and embrace a false sense of humility.
John Bosco was so successful with the boys of Turin because he took what he had and dedicated it to the Lord. He let the Spirit fill his heart and flow out of his natural personality. And as a result, he was a model of what life could be like for anyone who followed the same path. His whole lifethe very way he went about even the most mundane of tasksembodied the heart of the gospel.
Being Fully Alive. St. Irenaeus once said that God is glorified when his people are fully alive. And that means each one of us. Being a saint calls for nothing moreand nothing lessthan letting Jesus fill us with his life and letting that divine life bring new energy, strength, and focus to the natural talents God has already given us.
The fact that there are so many saints in the churchall with such different personalities and callingsshows us that while Jesus is the only way to holiness, there are many paths that bring us to Jesus. They also show us that we dont have to go looking for something heroic or extraordinary to do. All we have to do is give ourselves unreservedly to Jesus and try to invite his Spirit into every aspect of our lives. Then the heroic will unfold in our everyday lives, and we too will become extraordinary witnesses to the glory and love of the Lord.
Leo Zanchettin is editor of The Word Among Us magazine.