Don Bosco worked magic. He could walk a tightrope, make things appear, juggle, do card tricks and entertain young people with stories and skills that would amaze them.
He learnt these skills in childhood so that he could keep his friends away from bad behaviour and language and lead them towards prayer.
His mother, Margaret, was worried that he was spending time with the wrong sort, but the young John Bosco argued that when they were with him they were better. He was right.
Even in his early years Don Bosco could distract others from destructive behaviour and lead them towards being cheerful, forgiving and friendly.
The source of his compassion
His care for young people emerged from at least two sources: his family experience and especially the example of his mother.
Life in John’s family was marked by death, poverty, uncertainty, famine, bullying and hard work. The emotional impact of such deprivation raised a compassion in John that focused his vocation to poor youth.
It was the experience that he was to recognise years later when he was a young priest living in industrial Turin. The street youth there had the same look of abandonment that he had felt in his own youth. He recognised it and it called him into action, at times to the point of recklessness, as he later commented.
The other significant influence in his call was his mother: she taught him how to talk to God about one’s struggles and how to stay cheerful because of that presence. It was that example that led Don Bosco to say to his leaders
Here we make holiness consist in being cheerful. We want no long-faced saints here!
Shared dreams become real
Don Bosco is also known as a dreamer. He dreamed of new developments, the conversion of England, the building of churches, establishment of youth clubs and schools and the expansion of his work in the developing world.
But he was also able to recognise intuitively the way that God was working in people around him. He predicted the pathways of many boys in his schools. He arrived at sick calls before he was called.
He had a wisdom about people and saw the good in them. Perhaps that is why he was a good risk taker. He took all the youths out of the juvenile prison for a day and brought them all back safely.
He challenged authorities, robbers, assassins and even bishops when he felt that there was just cause. He had a pastoral courage and a heart as wide as the sand on a seashore.
His dreams for young people became real because he shared them with others by starting the Salesian family: lay co-operators, priests, brothers and sisters to continue his work.
Spirituality for life
The spirituality he left to us is very simple but extremely challenging. It consists in four words: Home, School, Playground, Church, which fit together to form a holistic way of balancing life around the presence of God. Too much of any one will upset the apple cart and lead to problems.
For example, Don Bosco often pulled young people out of church if he felt they were there too much and especially when games were going on in the yard outside. He would tell them to find God in the games and in their friends. He was aware of who felt at home and who did not and he encouraged others to help unhappy youth to feel more at home.
He was also aware that learning was happening all the time and not just in class. He encouraged his community and staff to use a quiet word in the ear to correct behaviour rather than embarrass them in front of friends. Every relationship was a school for learning about life and about God.
Don Bosco today
By the time of his death in 1888 on January 31st, he had established two religious orders, a network of schools in Europe and in South America, a publishing house, children’s homes and training colleges for priests.
Today that network extends to over 132 countries. The British province of the Salesians is involved in schools, retreat ministry, in publications, vocational development, parish work and volunteering abroad.
The common culture for all these communities is Don Bosco four words: we create a home, a playground a school and a church in all our communities.
Don Bosco said that we all need to know that we are loved, Salesians do that for young people and share that ideal in community. It is a good way to live Don Bosco today.
That way of life can also be lived in the heart of the family and Don Bosco’s four words can shape relationships into a healthier pattern for parents and children. All of this can happen if people in the family know that they are loved. If that is a lived experience everything else follows.
Pray to Don Bosco for young people and those who care for them and he will not let you down.