Skip to comments.The Secret of Saint John Bosco
Posted on 01/31/2003 4:45:00 PM PST by Lady In Blue
THE SECRET OF SAINT JOHN BOSCO
by Henri Gheon
Our world, having too long renounced obedience, is now in love with servitude. The individualist has become a Bolshevik or a Nazi. No longer ago than yesterday there were not enough sarcasms to hurl at a religion which tried, said the world, to force all men into one mould-for its confessed purpose was to imprint upon us all the likeness of Him who came among men and so assumed the fullness of man, that we can say Ecce Homo.
They forgot that this same religion also teaches the unalterable, irreducible diversity of creation. In the whole world there are not two daisies, two blades of grass, two butterflies alike: above all, not two men. Man is not simply a flesh and blood dynamo, mass-produced, complete with spare parts. For us, each soul, each human person, is the term of a separate act of creation, new, unpredictable, not to be copied. Not the least of us but has this essential originality; and the Supreme Artisan would scarcely have made us thus original merely to annihilate the gift in elevating us to Himself.
A Nietzschean friend of mine who had stayed at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, humbly confessed the thing that had surprised him most: in this society of monks living by a common faith, subject to a common rule, he had come to be aware of an extraordinary variety of type; individual characteristics, far from fading out, had apparently grown more distinct. If he turned Communist, could he say the same of Russia, where man is subject only to man, with no intrusion of God?
Experience teaches us-even if we will not take theology's word for it-that Grace respects the gifts of nature, adds to their power and value by purifying, elevating and bringing them to completion. The world of spirits and glorified bodies will be no less glowingly varied, contrasted, individual in its members than this earth and its inhabitants. There you will see every man as God created him, with his own special qualities fixed in their perfection: to the great surprise, no doubt, of those simple, harmless folk who smile superiorly and fear that heaven would bore them.
As a matter of fact, I was not too sure myself that I would not find the saints rather boring company. When I came to go into their affairs in my books and plays, I felt rather like my Nietzschean friend among the Benedictines. The saints gave me the same sense of wonder and surprise as one of those medleys of people that you get wherever many races mingle-in frontier towns, or on the piers of a great port, or on the deck of an immigrant ship-simple or subtle, prosaic or romantic, heroic or frail-seeming, tragic or comic: comic, indeed, surprisingly often. I went from St. Cecilia to St. Maurice, from St. Giles to St. Genesius, from St. Germaine to St. Alexis, from Aquinas to the Little Poor Man of Assisi. Each one was a totally different problem.
Nor need we look so far for our examples. Our own day furnishes plenty. Within the space of a few years the Church has canonised two men and two women, the women French, the men Italians, all four of the nineteenth century. The women, cloistered and contemplative, lived hidden from sight-Therese of Lisieux and Bernadette of Lourdes. The men, John Bosco and Joseph Cottolengo, were out in the world, in the very thick of it, never resting, but thrusting more boldly into it. There you have contrast in plenty-but no opposition: only proof of rich resources, a widening horizon for the divine field.
In this book I speak of St. John Bosco. One more saint, you say wearily. And one more personality, I answer.
Turin is the least tripped of all the towns of Italy. It has none of the things the tourist loves-neither paintings, nor great buildings, nor historical associations; not even charm. Founded under the Romans, it was already flourishing under the Emperor; but the centuries that lay before the Renaissance seem to have passed over it without leaving a trace of their passing. The turbulence of clans, bandits, communes: the activities of princes, popes, monks, merchants: the creations of artists, the eccentricities of saints: the violence and magnificence, the heroism and luxury, the sensuality and sanctity fermenting in the Italian peninsula-none of this disturbed its poise, its self-sufficiency, its placidity. The aesthetic sense, apparently, woke late in Turin; the Piedmontese school produced no real masters, as you may see from its museum, which does, however, contain some superb pictures-by masters not of Turin. The tourist, relying on his guide-book, passes a couple of profitable hours in the museum; sees also, perhaps, a collection of armour comparable to the Armeria in Madrid; then dashes back to his train.
I do not hold it against him that he refuses to waste any of his time in the countless churches (mostly Jesuit in style) which confront him at every step, with their over-painted, over-ornamented, over-gilded interiors like so many ballrooms or theatres. I do not, I repeat, hold it against him, though this style is dear to me for reasons that have no place here. Some of them-San Francesco, San Lorenzo, the Consolata, the Cathedral-are very beautiful; but Europe swarms with churches as good. From the artistic point of view, not one of them is worth a second look. But so much granted, everything still remains to be said-and to be seen and admired.
For Turin is not this museum or that picture, this hidden wonder or that picturesque surprise. Turin has no details to speak of. Turin is an ensemble, a totality. It is a city, the essence of city, city qua city, the most perfect specimen in all Europe. Doubtless there are small towns-Salzburg for one-as perfect and complete in their sheer town-ness. But of great cities, not one. And with all my heart I pity the poor wretch who does not, at first contact, fall under the spell of its order, its lines and masses, its unity, majesty, plenitude and vigour.
The Romans laid down its ground plan; from which, we may pretty safely conjecture, it did not depart. Certainly, in the course of those three "classic" centuries-the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth-it was redrawn and rebuilt upon the original design with a rigorous precision that left nothing to chance. It was then that it took its definitive form, and new sections added since have been carefully conformed to it.
Geometry presided at its birth, controlled its growth, watches over its maturity. It has vast open places all square or rectangular; long wide boulevards intersecting at right angles; arcades, arcades, more arcades, the Rue de Rivoli multiplied by a hundred; lofty facades; massive balconies, with the same type of brackets and railings; and there is the same sense of balance and proportion, repeated to infinity in windows and doors, where there are buildings and where there are none, in the thickness of walls and in the spaces between. And you would say that every block was from one single quarry, carved in the same light smooth hard luminous stone, of the same newness and the same antiquity. Add the churches, the cupolas, the campaniles, and you have the monument which is Turin, a great architectural design carried out without flaw, and each year spreading its order a little further into the disorder of the outer suburbs. You may accuse it of monotony, but it is the monotony of Versailles and the Vatican.
Don't think of it, either, as a lifeless city. It is alive with a population placid but active, a little heavy but quite vital. It is in business and in finance. The waves of the Dora and the Po link it with the life of the fields. It has wharves and bridges, and, beyond the circlet of river, rich orchards. Nature does not come much into the city, but rings it round enchantingly to a green horizon, with the Alps in an irregular half-circle touching in the sky-line to the north.
I love Turin and the country round it with the love one gives to rationality and economy, stability and largeness. I feel that the people there give themselves time to breathe and go steadily on their way. I should live there as happy as they: easily and decently, with no great spiritual tensions, certainly, but with the Faith as certainly there.
So much for the place as a place. But there is something more. Turin has three treasures beyond price, which the tourist wastes no time on, and the guide-book, any guidebook, barely mentions. They are not in the order of art and not in the order of nature; and what other order could detain the tourist?
First is the Holy Shroud, the true likeness of Christ, in reverse as on a photographic negative, imprinted on the cloth that wrapped Him in the sepulchre. This sorrowful relic is rarely shown to the faithful. It is in a golden shrine at the far end of the choir of the Cathedral, above the altar with its enormous silver candlesticks standing guard. The Cathedral is the oldest church in Turin, and different from the others in its sober gravity. Its tall white columns are plain and businesslike: so that your prayers there are plain and businesslike too.
Second, there is the House of Divine Providence founded by St. Joseph Cottolengo, wherein the most hideous afflictions of our race are tended and loved for the love of God. With its inmates allotted to one or other section according to the nature of their suffering, the place has subsisted for a century with no regular means of support, yet always with sufficient for its needs. God keeps them from day to day; and in relays-the blind, the deaf and dumb, the crippled, the lame, hunchbacks, the cancerous, the incurable of every sort, idiots (fools too)-they come to the gleaming chapel to adore our Lord in His Eucharistic Body. This immense hospital gives us the measure of the miraculous charity of Christ. The whole thing has grown from the narrow room, still to be seen, where one winter evening a hundred years ago a worthy man put into his own bed a cripple picked up in the street.
Close by, in the same suburb of Valdocco, once a slum, now clean and new and crowded with institutions, is Turin's third treasure. It is the Don Bosco Institute. Like the House of Divine Providence, it is a city in little, or rather three cities in one, grouped round the statue of the Saint and the Church he built to our Lady Help of Christians, that she might watch over the souls of his young vagabonds. High above the church is the Virgin crowned with stars. With her right hand she blesses the nuns of her order, with her left the printing-works that scatter the gospel of her goodness over the whole earth; and with her cloak she seems to cast her protection over the buildings of the Oratory and the Salesian Order grouped at her back with their workrooms, classrooms, porches, playgrounds. Less than a hundred years ago it was a hovel of ill-repute, a dank and crumbling outhouse in the shapeless slum area of Turin. St. John Bosco made it into a spiritual paradise, a solidly grounded paradise, for the lost or imperilled children he had won back from the world; and his inexhaustible charity carries on the same battle to this day. From the miserable wreck of a house that he found here, Charity has radiated to the ends of the earth, from Europe to the wilds of Patagonia. No less is symbolised here; this city within a great city, concrete and massive as the great city, stands for the victory of the Spirit of God.
Thus for all its solid framework, for all the logic and clarity of its style, Turin is not simply a splendid body without a soul. What was in the mind of the Father when in this place, close by the shroud of His Son, He brought into being two such miracles of practical Christian charity? Surely He wished to show that the power of the Precious Blood was not to remain the secret of contemplatives whom the world knows not, that it must issue not only in prayer, but in works that all may see. Surely there could be no better way of meeting on its own ground the materialism of an age choking with the pride of its inventions, refusing to accept God on faith, clamouring for "results." Here are results with a vengeance.
We shall leave Turin, only to come back when Don Bosco comes. For the moment we turn to his birthplace, twelve or fifteen miles away, in the heart of the country. The mountains have vanished; the city is hidden by the line of hills that enclose the valley of the Po. Towards the south-east the hills slope less steeply. We come to Chieri, a little town in the plain, more country than town. The land round it is flat, then on a higher level flat again, pleasant, animated, without violent transitions. Meadows innumerable: grass, poplars, willows: hillsides deep in vines, the vines in regular rows like high walls between which a man could walk and be hidden; fields of corn and maize; scattered mulberry trees; and ever and again, on some higher point of ground, a charming village-Andezano, Asignano, Monbello, Muriundo, and, further off, Moncucco, of which we shall have more to say. So we come to Castelnuovo d'Asti, a fair-sized market-town, perched on a rock and crowned with three towers: its baptistery had the honour of seeing the spiritual birth of John Bosco.
This countryside has been with justice compared to Burgundy. But it differs from Burgundy by its square bell-towers, always light, often windowed, the slight slope of its roof, the height of its vines, the soft warm colour of its bricks and stones. Its wine is less potent, though as sparkling. But like Burgundy it is a pleasant country, quiet and unpretentious. It seems indeed to be less and less pretentious, to go out of its way to be even more humble, to soften its angles and tone down its emphases as it draws near the saint's birthplace: to the point of having no features at all when it gets there.
Becchi is not even a village. You could hardly call it so much as a hamlet: it has seven or eight peasant cottages scattered about a large-sized farm, where the cottage people go, from time to time, to work. The settlement is on a piece of rising ground planted with vines and orchards, sloping down again to meadowland, and on the left to woods. At our back, half seen through the trees, is the hamlet of Murialdo, Becchi's nearest "centre"; in front is the village of Buttigliera, its steeple clear against the sky, at the far side of a valley with level floor, open to the winds, and with the same grass, poplars and willows as all the other valleys of that region; to the right you can see as far as Castelnuovo d'Asti, the centre of canton and parish, of material and spiritual life.... Murialdo, Buttigliera, Castelnuovo: further off Moncucco: Capriglio d'Asti just out of sight: with one sweep the eye can take in almost the whole field in which the saint's childhood was lived.
Forget, if you can, the modern buildings which fortunately or unfortunately have replaced the cottages once grouped with the Bosco cottage on that slope. Obviously it was right to build a chapel: but not so obviously right to choose an angular style out of harmony with the place. It was right, too, to construct a terrace for the convenience of pilgrims; but scarcely necessary to build it so that it hides the field where as a boy John Bosco worked at winning souls by walking a tight-rope. They have painted this on the wall-but a painting is no substitute for the earth and the trees that witnessed it. Where is the barn, the square door opening on to the fields, the homely untidy farmyard? They have built up the house on its blank-wall side. At least they have respected its front and its interior. It looks out through the same windows, meets the world at the same door; the rooms are as they were, as poor as he knew them. The sky remains and the landscape. Imagination can do the rest: and piety, if by chance we have it.
On 16 August, 1815, one day after the Feast of the Assumption-a warm clear day we can pretty safely assume- John Bosco was born under the old round tiles of this same roof that still slopes gently towards us. Up the rough wooden staircase fixed on to the brickwork of the front they mounted to help the mother in labour in the second room under the roof. On the ground floor was a kitchen, on a level with the yard; on the floor above, two low rooms, narrow and without furniture-where would be space for furniture?-to take three grown-ups and three children; in the first is the fireplace, in the second the big bed; alongside is the loft, where presumably the boys slept. The whole place was neighboured on one side by a cowshed, on the other by a barn-grain, beasts, men behind one wall. Only down in the kitchen was there room to move. Poverty, bareness, meanness of aspect: but God's sky above: and God's presence within.
For this last explains everything. Nothing less could explain it. The poor mother may very well have gone, the day before her child's birth, to the Feast of Our Lady at the church in Murialdo-a good many miles, bad roads, but these peasant-women are so tough. Or perhaps the traditional procession may have come across the fields to Becchi for her consolation. Of this at least we may be sure, that Francesco Bosco's wife, Margarita Occhiena-a young woman still, barely twenty-seven, and very holy-passed the fifteenth in joyful and triumphant communion with the Mother of God. To the Mother of God she offered her sufferings, and surely, too, her son-still in her, still hers. He was born the next day.
They took him off at once, as was the custom, to Castelnuovo d'Asti; he was washed pure of the stain of original sin. Pure he remained to the end of his life. Well might he write, "I was born on the fifteenth of August." So he was, spiritually. He had two mothers, and he was a credit to both of them.
His father was a day-labourer, of the solid Piedmontese race. He worked his own small field, and he worked for hire on the one big farm of the neighbourhood. By a first marriage he had a son Antonio, a rough, stupid sort of boy. The sudden death of his first wife left him-with a son and an old mother to look after-no alternative but to find another wife. At Capriglio he found a girl of his own class who had brought up four younger brothers, now old enough to fend for themselves. Margarita Occhiena came to Becchi, accepting her new duties with the same seriousness and solicitude. Her husband's mother became her mother, her husband's son her son. When she had her own first-born, Joseph, she treated him no better than Antonio; and when her second was born, John, she again fought back the preference that in spite of herself she felt for him. He was strong and lively; he showed himself full of intelligence and ardour, the exact opposite of his brother Joseph, who was quiet, slow and timid. Their step-brother Antonio, older by ten years, was more than inclined to ill-treat them. It needed strength and prudence to keep them at peace while preserving the right balance of kindness and justice. But the father was there, and they stood in awe of him.
By sheer misfortune, for he was a strong man in his prime, he died when John was two. One day when he was working at the big farm and bathed in sweat, he had gone down into the cellar on some errand for his employer. He was an easy-going man, and said nothing about the pain that followed. Suddenly he was down with pneumonia, and in four days he was dead. The first clear memory Don Bosco retained of his childhood-as he tells us himself-is connected with this.
"Fortified with all the consolations of religion," he writes, "urging upon my mother trust in God, my father died at the early age of 34, on the seventeenth of May, 1817."
The child was present and did not want to leave the room.
"Come, John, come with me," said his mother sorrowfully.
"If papa does not come, I won't go away."
"Poor little son, come with me," said his mother once more. "You have no father now."
She had to take his hand and drag him struggling from the room.
"I cried," adds the saint, "because I saw her crying. For at my age I could not measure the extent of my loss."
The mind of a child refuses to entertain the thought of death: he could only see it as nothingness, and nothingness cannot be thought. The child is born for life, his powers reach out to what is. And he is in the right; there is no death.
So the young mother was left alone, to face an overwhelming task: an old grandmother practically helpless, a twelve-year-old step-son who was already a problem, two infants, barren fields. For her widowhood had come in a time of calamity that spared no one in the province. A flaming summer that came too soon had burnt up the harvest, ruined the vines; there was no money and no work. Food reached fabulous prices. "Men were found in the fields," Don Bosco tells us, "dead of starvation, their mouths full of chewed grass."
The situation called out every quality she had, her head, her heart, her trust in God. By what relentless economy she pulled through, what daily and hourly determination to waste no smallest shred of effort made or help offered, we do not know. Only the God who helped her knows. The crisis passed. The family survived. From now on she was more than ever the mother, her management more expert, her power of work stronger and more enduring, her faith firmer. She had set her hand to her destiny and would bring it to its supreme end-which was to raise her children in the supernatural order of grace. A mother of this mettle, of this quality, was the mother John Bosco had to have. The innate vocation of the saint from childhood cannot be explained without her. He brought much; she gave him more.
We of his day find it hard to imagine the solid piety of those peasant families which produce a Bernadette, a Cure d'Ars, a John Bosco. It is nowhere stronger than in the Piedmontese. Nothing troubles it, nothing lessens its integrity. To the ideas we call new, the emancipations and aberrations of the age, it is sheer granite. It takes the child in the cradle and before he knows reasons or joys or hopes he has the habit of the Faith. It would be folly to wait till the child is capable of choosing, freely and with full deliberation, this or that set of duties, beliefs, practices. One inalienable right the family has over the child, the right of choosing for him; and of so choosing that when his own time of choice comes he shall not choose error. And for them error means to forget God and God's purpose for men.
In the Bosco home, God was served first. In the early morning, the whole family was on its knees praying His blessing on the day, at table His blessing on the meal, at night His blessing on their rest. So a child learns to pray long before he learns to read, as early as he can utter a word or join his hands. The mother could not read; but her memory was richly stored and her speech was wise; all her life she had lived upon truth. Her devotion was not narrow and mechanical, divorced from life; for her children she drew lessons from the light, the flowers, night, the stars. If God has, for no merit of ours, given us so lovely or so magnificent a scene, what will Paradise be like? She was in rapture over a star, or a rose: "What lovely things the Lord has made for us!" In the evening, she told them stories with that easy racy homeliness that John was later to show-wonders from the Bible, from the Infancy of Our Lord, from the lives of the saints. She taught them, not grimly or as lessons, the elements of the catechism, and the notions of right and wrong. She made them talk and did not laugh as she heard them; she made herself one of them, and her authority did not suffer. When they did wrong, she corrected them with the uttermost gentleness, yet showing her own grief; she wanted them neither cowards nor hypocrites; within the freedom of God's law, they must develop freely. Her decisive word, constantly repeated, was "God sees you." They could hide nothing from God; they hid nothing from their mother.
Thus the existence of God-creator for our adoration, father for our needs-and of the pure and lowly Jesus His Son, was as real for them as the existence of the man next door mending his harrow in the yard; prayer to God was as natural and necessary to life as eating, drinking and sleeping. Their mother looked so happy at prayer that they could not but try to pray like her. They made the effort, and it came of itself.
How can we please God? By work and obedience, self-respect, love of others, the cheerful acceptance of things good and less good-the duties of our state, disappointments, hardships, misfortunes. The one goal of existence-since God has so decided and only a fool would choose some other-is to save our soul for eternity. They were poor people, but daily bread-lacking often enough-was never the first care. Salvation first: the most pressing reality is the soul; lose that and you lose all. But what is the soul? As their mother spoke of it, the two elder boys understood more or less; they believed and that was enough. But John opened his eyes wide, and within him something ardent and mysterious stirred to life at her words. Unknown to himself, his life had found its centre. He had received the seed of his future apostolate. At five, the seed began to quicken.
Do not for one moment picture him as a little monster of perfection, with no personality, no reactions, anaemic as a plaster saint. The retiring, timid, peaceable, passive one was not John, but his brother Joseph-an intelligent, hardworking boy, marked from the beginning with the mark of those who will never go above or below the level of a decent obscurity. But John was a very different matter: a square-set boy, with a strong shapely head hard as a pebble under its thick curly hair, the sort of head that knows what it wants and wants all it knows. Inside that head, as it chanced, there was a will for good; had it chanced otherwise, one may tremble to think how immense a power for evil he might have been. "With his ardent nature," writes his best biographer, Pere Auffray,* "he had a strong, concentrated self-will. We must face the fact squarely: it did not fall short of pride . . . obedience cost him very dear. 'If I had not become a priest and a religious,' he admitted one day to close friends, 'I should be the most abandoned [of] freethinkers."'
There then was the powerful will; guarding and guiding it was a vast and lucid intelligence, avid to know, to understand, to assimilate, to reduce to order, to see issues-equipped, thus, for decision and for action. What else? Eyes at once dark and clear, deep and sparkling, looking the world in the face, missing nothing, but tender above all; a body thick-set but flexible; strong, clever hands; a sensitive generous heart. All this is of Piedmont, a country of mountaineers and builders, robust, obliging, positive, rooted in the soil-and matter-of-fact, rooted in the "object." But there were other qualities in him that belong rather to Italy, poetry to go with the Piedmontese prose. He had a love of games and of good stories, a fertile imagination never at a loss for inventions, a gift for comic yet revealing mimicry, worthy of an actor at the Commedia dell'Arte. He was a serious small boy, reflective, sparing of words, thinking a great deal more than he said; but when he came out from his corner to amuse his brother, you would not have known him: he overflowed with whimsicality, gaiety, fantasy: he was poet and comedian with the barriers down. At such a moment you could see that he was twofold, divided between reality and fantasy, deeply rooted in the concrete and as easily free of it. He was at once solid and winged. And if one could have known his dreams!
He was soon to be five, and he busied himself with all sorts of small tasks about the house. He untangled hemp, broke up small sticks of wood, swept or tidied the kitchen, and when needed watched the two cows in the meadow. The other small boys invited him to join in their games; his mother said yes, and he rushed out to them. He rushed out indeed more than she liked; the devil was in his limbs; she saw him return with lumps and bruises, half-sobbing.
"Every day it's the same," she said. "Why do you go with those boys?"
His answer was curious:
"Because, when I'm there, they behave better."
"Yes, and you come back with your head cut!"
"Oh! That was an accident."
"You are not to go again."
"Oh, all right! if you don't want me to; but when I am with them, they do as I wish and stop fighting."
And he believed it! The mother anyhow let herself be convinced. Perhaps already she saw the good that radiated from his small being. On one point only she was immovable; he must not go with boys notoriously bad; the rough and uncouth she would tolerate, not the downright evil. But in fact John had already made his own choice. He knew the scent of impurity before he knew what the thing itself was. He knew that a rotten apple will rot every apple in the basket; he must keep himself pure and clean; he was too weak yet to look upon vice with impunity. Even into old age he retained so close a devotion to chastity that he dared scarcely say the word for fear of evoking the contrary image in the hearer's mind. It is practically certain that in this matter his senses never troubled him; quite certainly he was always far too overwhelmed with the work in hand to listen to them.
So he ran, fought, played with the small boys of Becchi and seems to have gained a notable ascendancy over them. But one would hardly guess what this five-year-old set out to do: to teach them the catechism. Not all of them had a mother as he had; the church was a long way off; and what would become of them if they went on in ignorance of the elemental truths on which their salvation depended? "It seemed," he said later, "as though that were the one thing I had to do on earth." He had come to awareness of his vocation.
To be strictly honest, while he told them such exciting and gripping stories as those of Joseph and his brethren, Esther at the court of Assuerus, and Moses in the bulrushes, it all went beautifully; they listened breathlessly, for he acted the scenes, brought the characters to life with a naturalness and vivacity which held his young listeners spellbound. But when he came to the Commandments of God and the Church, they found it less entertaining and quickly had enough. As he stuck to it, they resisted; when he still stuck to it, they made fun of him. They played marbles and tossed pennies. They swore on purpose to annoy him. Some took his part, sides were formed, whence arguments, blows, general melee. Nor was he the last to plunge into the fray; injustice enraged him, and thus early his apostolate knew nothing of the soft answer. He knew his strength, and in the name of holy truth he tore into battle. He had come to bring peace, and lo there was war. It was a sad disappointment. When he got home, he could no longer say without conscious lying: "When I am there, they stop fighting." But he kept at it. If you are a John Bosco, nothing can discourage you. A day would come, perhaps, when he would be listened to.
Did he find peace at home? Antonio was growing up, already almost a man; he was a hard worker, a true peasant. He could not see beyond his field; God blessed his field' but his field it was; and for a peasant it is sufficient for salvation that under God's protection he should till, plant, harvest; there is indeed no other way of salvation. "Joseph should be one too; also John. Oh, and why not John? Because he had nothing to say? Because he had a lot to say? He seemed more intelligent than the others, did he? And he had a taste for study? He wanted to learn to read-a peasant!-rubbish all of it."
When the mother was away, Antonio gave orders, acted the master. The brothers resisted. They would obey their mother, but not him. Joseph gave way. But we have already seen something of John: the least abuse of power irritated him; a harsh or unjust rebuke struck at his self-will. He stayed obstinate; Antonio raised his hand; but the little fellow could look after himself, with feet, fists and teeth. Thus it was that one evening their mother, returning from the market, probably, where she went on Thursdays to sell her butter and eggs, found her three boys fighting, the elder mauling the two younger. She cried shame on him for abusing his age. Antonio taunted her:
She took it squarely.
"I have always treated you as my own son. You cannot deny that. I have the right and I have the strength to correct you. I will not. And now, strike your mother."
Antonio was beaten, naturally. That calm firmness in face of a tempest of passion was a mighty lesson for John. Would it have been enough to change him, in whose veins flowed all the violence of his elder brother? Not by itself; heaven was in it too. But we must marvel at the ceaseless collaboration, the way in which his earthly and his heavenly mother united for his formation till he reached manhood.
Antonio was against his being sent to college; they needed his work on the farm. But he went. The school of Castelnuovo d'Asti was some three miles away-too far for a child, even so strong a child. Margarita's birthplace, Capriglio, was much nearer. For two winters John Bosco trudged there daily to be taught by Don Delacqua, a very holy priest, to read and write, and-as an extra-to know God better. Between whiles, he took the cows to pasture.
Half-cowherd, half-schoolboy, he took his book to the fields with him, kept one eye on it and one on the cows. If he was too deeply absorbed in his reading, it was all one to the cows. Urchins came prowling round to break a silence that was beyond their understanding. The day was so fine and sunny, the perfect day for a game.
"Are you playing, John?"
"Not to-day. I'm studying."
"Oh, come. That can wait."
One day when they would not be shaken off, dragging him by the heels and throwing earth on his book, he hurled at them: "Leave me alone! I want to be a priest."
This admission, utterly unexpected, made such an impression on the boys that they stopped worrying him and went off quietly.
In this same field, close by the house, little John Bosco- John Boschetto as they called him-used every day to exchange his own piece of white bread for the black bread of another boy, on the presence that he preferred black bread. In his poor home beggars and wayfarers were received, sometimes given a bed, always food; from their poor portion the family fed the poorest. John was then about nine.
2. THE FIRST DREAM
At that time he had his first dream. Or at any rate the first he has told us of, the first he took seriously. Many another dream must have come by night to his teeming and inventive brain. He was to dream more and more, as reality came to take on the texture of his vigils, and confirm more precisely the visions of his sleep.
"A dream?"-asks Athalie. "Should I worry about a dream?" There are times when it would be prudent. It is an error to see in our dreams nothing but the divagations of our unconscious self. They are woven of the same threads-though unpicked and re-ordered-that compose the stuff of our life and our being. In them we find tossed together memories of yesterday and memories of our remotest past, significant things and totally insignificant, our regrets, hopes, fears, illusions, our most intimate impulses satisfied or repressed. There is in them some mysterious element which is in us yet may not be of us. Reality is transposed into another key, or in a different scale, logical or incoherent-and nothing is more incoherent than logic pushed as far as it will go-plausible or incredible. Sometimes it is like the casting of a spell, a gulf lost in mist in which we rise or sink, our senses receiving nothing, our soul alone receptive. Sometimes it appears as a material presence, more solid and convincing than the objects we can hold in our hand, and these times our bodies rejoice in it or suffer. Chance perhaps; more often reaction, an impression too powerfully received and still vibrating deep within us. But if it is chance it can be directed, if it is vibration it can be set stirring by one in us, but distinct from us.
Theology teaches us that angels-bad or good-have complete power over matter, provided God permits. Easily then they can stir some cell in our brain whose activity is associated with some special feeling or image or thought, so that we have the illusion of being tempted or enlightened. I do not say it happens often. But it is possible, and it is not unlikely. And obviously God can create a reality that fills our mind in sleep under the form of a dream as easily as He can create a vision for our waking mind. It is by the mode of dreams that God chose to guide Don Bosco along his way from early childhood to the end of life. Your unbeliever will, of course, find a perfectly natural explanation: John Bosco, obsessed by his vocation to the priesthood, invented images that favoured it-unconsciously, of course, but inevitably. Very well. Let us look at what he invented.
His first dream starts with reality. He is near the house, in a fair-sized yard where are playing a multitude of children; so far merely an enlargement of his everyday experience. Some laugh, some play, many blaspheme. This, too, he knows in real life. John Bosco cannot tolerate so direct, wilful and public an insult to God. He rushes forth to silence them, shouting, his fist raised. This is still normal; it is the way he always reacts, hot-blooded, carried away. So much of his dream is sheer matter of every day: he is simply re-living intensely an episode with the other boys that has occurred too often for his taste; even in sleep he is the champion of the Faith.
At this point in the dream, while he is lashing out vigorously, there appears "a Man in the prime of his age, nobly clad"; a white mantle covers all his body and his face shines so that one cannot look upon it. This personage calls him by his name, orders him to put himself at the head of the unruly troop, and adds this counsel:
"It is not with blows, but with gentleness and charity that you will make them friends. Begin immediately to instruct them on the ugliness of sin and the reward of virtue."
Confused, overwhelmed, John's one idea is to refuse; he is but a poor ignorant child, incapable of speaking on religion to boys of his own age. These, no longer laughing, quarrelling, blaspheming, are grouped about the Man.
"Don't you see," murmurs the child, "that you are commanding the impossible?"
"What seems to you impossible," replied the strange visitant, "you will make possible, if you choose, by obedience and study."
"Where and how shall I get the knowledge?"
"I shall give you a Mistress, under whose guidance alone one can become wise, without whom all knowledge is foolishness."
"But who are you, then, to speak like this?"
"I am the Son of Heaven whom your mother teaches you to salute three times a day."
"My mother has forbidden me to have anything to do with people I don't know. Tell me your name."
"Ask my name of my Mother."
At this word a Lady approaches, majestic to see, wearing a cloak that blazed in every tiniest particle, as if each point was made of the most brilliant star.
More and more overcome, John at her signal comes up to her, and the Lady takes his hand kindly.
"Look," she bids him.
The children had all vanished; in their place growled a multitude of wild beasts, wild goats, tigers, wolf-dogs, brown bears and white bears....
"This is your field, the field in which you must labour. Make yourself humble, strong, vigorous, and the miracle I shall work in transforming these wild animals before your eyes you shall work upon my children."
John looked again and now saw only a great flock of lambs, thronging and gambolling round the Man and the Woman.
At this point in the dream John began to weep and begged the Lady to explain, for he knew not what it meant. She laid her hand on his head, saying:
"You will understand all in due time."
Thereupon a great noise woke John Bosco; the dream was ended.
He could not get back to sleep; his fists and his face hurt him; he still felt the blows he had given and taken in the imaginary fight. Nor could he get the two mysterious personages out of his mind. In the morning he could not keep the dream to himself, but told first his brothers, then his mother and even the old grandmother, in the hope of finding some hint of a meaning in it.
"You are to be a shepherd," said Joseph.
"Or a bandit chief," said Antonio.
"Perhaps he will be a priest?" suggested his mother.
"You should pay no attention to dreams," was the prudent conclusion of the old grandmother. No more was said. But the boy thought of it endlessly, not as a fantasy embroidered by sleep upon some waking interest, but as a call or a message which he could not yet interpret, but must at all costs manage to interpret. This dream-prophecy was to be repeated a great many times, with a number of additional details, every one of which was to have its real counterpart in the future. It was an epoch in his life, the first intervention of the preternatural.
"I do want to be a priest," he confided to his mother. "I've had the idea a long time."
The confession was easier to make since she had thought of it as a possible meaning for his dream.
"It will not be easy. And why do you want to? Do you even know?"
"I know very well. I want to devote my life to children. I shall make them love me. I shall work for their souls."
He had already begun. His goal began to take clearer shape. He would use his gifts since he had gifts, his learning since he could already read and had a head full of stories and a few facts mixed in. Right down to his strong supple body he would put himself at the service of souls. All the talents he had received from Providence should be made to bear fruit to the very last one. From his tenth year his obsession was the apostolate, a total devotion, every means in his power used for that and for nothing else.
When there was a fair in the neighbouring villages, Margarita, who was already a saint but not above a little recreation, took her children to it as a treat. It might be Castelnuovo; first there would be vespers; then off to the low square with its little tributary shopping-streets gay with the coloured stuffs hung out by the drapers and the pedlars; there in the square they would stand in front of the baskets, and the counters and the booths; and the mother saw no harm but much fun in the absurd patter and the acrobatic tricks of the mountebanks. John was as happy as a king, but he kept his eyes wide open. Nothing could stop him observing, asking how and why. He had to know all things, for all things can be of use-especially, perhaps, the useless.
I have said that he was a great reader; it was a delight to hear him tell stories. At running and jumping he was the best of them; and he could turn somersaults; the other boys liked to watch him at it, and in any case his body needed action, needed to feel its own strength. Therefore he trained himself to every game that might be turned to advantage. It was an odd preparation for the priesthood, odd but not to be laughed at.
At one fair there was a ventriloquist who imitated a cow and a calf, and could speak without opening his mouth; John saw how he did it; he tried it himself. A comedian staged a whole comedy on his stand with a number of characters- Harlequin, Pulcinella, the Doctor, the Braggart; John's mind photographed the whole affair. A conjurer puzzled the yokels by taking coins out of their noses, changing water into wine, clubs into hearts, drawing live chickens out of omelettes or hats. How the devil does he manage it? No, it's not the devil, only the man. John did not quite see, but he would return; if the man could do it, John was no fool either. The same with the acrobat who walked a tight-rope and made three complete somersaults in the air before reaching the carpet; his body and John's were not made of different materials; what one body can do, another body can do.
"Come along, child."
"Another minute, Mother."
"Very well. A minute. Are you so much interested then?"
Back at home, the moment he is alone, he does his lessons, says his prayers, and starts on the reproduction of what the ventriloquist did, and the comedian, and the acrobat, and the conjurer. He spent hours out with his cows, practicing and risking his neck; he turned Catherine wheels, walked on his hands, did complicated somersaults, tried to keep his balance on a cattle-rope stretched between two trees.
Spills, failures, bruises: his will was stronger than all. He had brought his soul to obedience and was not going to be beaten by his body. He stuck at it, and with such success that very soon he was able to give a performance. All the decent amusements provided by the actor, juggler, conjurer, tightrope man at the fair at Castelnuovo-one small boy would provide for his own village. In my imagination I see his guardian angel keeping very close to him, breaking his falls, keeping his feet from slipping, speeding his flight in the air, landing him safe on his feet. It is pure imagination of course; but guardian angels are not a myth; and if John's angel did lend a hand in this performance, John's merits are no less for that.
Why did he take so much trouble? you ask; would it not have been better to pray a little more? But for John Bosco there was not then, and there never would be, any separation, segregation, of prayer from action. Doing meant no cessation of praying. His somersaults were prayers, as later his works were to be. His one thought was to give back to God all that he had received from God-his strength and agility and the colour of his personality, as well as his mind and his heart. God having inspired him to an apostolate among the children of his own age, he set about cultivating the means-the childish, frivolous, diverting means-most likely to win them. You don't catch flies with vinegar; that was how St. Francis de Sales saw it, who was later to be John Bosco's patron. He turned himself into an entertainer partly for his own sake- for the pleasure of difficulty overcome-but mainly for theirs.
John Bosco was a personality, a phenomenon. The rumour spread. In winter he was invited round to the houses of neighbouring farmers, to read aloud to them by firelight or candlelight. He would read with much gesture such things as the Reali di Francia. But he always began and ended with a Hail Mary, in which everyone must join, young and old, with a shrug of the shoulders often enough; there was no getting out of it; the boy had to be humoured. He held them, he had them.
In the summer the method was different. In the field by the house he founded his first Sunday class, his first Oratory. He would take his stand under the big pear-tree, stretch a rope between two trees, spread his strip of carpet on the grass, arrange a small table, set down the bag with his conjuring things. Then he shouted and clapped his hands; the crowd gathered quickly, for shows are rare in the hamlet of Becchi. Then he took his rosary from his pocket.
"We shall say first the third part of the Rosary, the Glorious Mysteries, in honour of Sunday."
They grumbled under their breath, but they obeyed.
"And now, please, a hymn to the Blessed Virgin."
That over, he stood up on a chair and explained the Gospel of the day as he had heard it explained that morning at High Mass; and they might have been listening to the curate of Buttigliera or the parish priest of Castelnuovo d'Asti. If someone is foolish enough to object, his answer is instant: "Very well. But I won't do my tricks. Take it or leave it. Besides, if you don't pray, I may break my neck."
He could always turn a laugh. And then the show began. The preacher was transformed in the twinkling of an eye into a showman. He gave them everything, from farce to conjuring, from the leap of death to walking the tight-rope. He ended with prayer and a short sermon very much to the point on blasphemy, or obedience to God and the Church.
They came from many miles off to see the show. There were at times more than a hundred people in that small field, with all the children of the district in the front row, utterly dazzled. Taking advantage of his ascendancy, John Bosco took them aside, counselled them, composed their differences. The work of the Oratory was not simply here in the seed; it had already budded.
Thus it was that, thanks to his tricks, the farmers of Becchi and the places round, who had not the energy to go to mass at Castelnuovo or Buttigliera-the roads were bad to the one, the other meant a six-mile walk each way-yet did something to hallow the Sunday; and their children, left to themselves heard something of God.
At ten he seemed to the priest at Castelnuovo so advanced that he allowed him to make his first communion two years ahead of the age then usual. For some time past his mother had prepared him, explaining the difficult points in the Catechism, helping him to conform his conduct to its rules, taking him frequently to confession, guiding him in the examination of his conscience. He went to confession three times that Lent. On the morning of Easter Sunday, by her counsel, he spoke no word to anyone that he might be alone within himself preparing for the visit of God made Man. What the visit meant to him, he has not told us; he always kept silence on the deep joys of his soul. The family returned home, and till evening John, excused all household tasks, read and prayed.
"You are beginning a new life," said his mother. "Guard yourself and become better."
He made his first communion at the end of March, 1821, immediately after Easter. In the same season-from the beginning of April-a mission was preached in the village of Buttigliera, and John Bosco decided to follow it. A mission is an event in a remote hamlet. It was the year of Jubilee, and the Jubilee indulgences could be gained without actually going to Rome.
Hence a very great attendance at the sermons preached morning and evening by the famous preacher who was giving the Mission. If one went both morning and evening, it meant a double journey each way, a total of ten miles a day. There was nothing in that to daunt John Bosco. On the way home, while the others chattered, he thought about his future, and prayed God to change the mind of his very difficult brother Antonio. More from stupidity than ill-will, Antonio was heavily against John going on with his studies. Lessons were expensive, and John was now of an age to earn. A boy of John's build, strong to work and born a farmer, ought to be a farmer: why make a scholar of him, a gentleman? (For Antonio, and for many beside him, priests were "gentlemen.") Let people stick to their place.
So, one April evening when the buds were beginning to show on the branches, John Bosco was coming home from Buttigliera. A priest of seventy noticed his silence, which contrasted with the vigour of his stride.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"You are following the Mission? Your mother's sermons are not enough?"
"Her sermons are very good, but I like to hear the priest who is giving the Mission."
"And you understand some of it?"
"All of it, Father."
"You're very sure. I will give you four soldi if you can repeat even four of his words."
"From the first sermon or the second?"
"As you will. What was the first about?"
"About the necessity of giving ourself to God in time, lest we lose our salvation at the last hour."
"Shall I repeat the whole sermon?"
To the utter amazement of the priest, John repeated first the morning's sermon, then the evening's; not like a little parrot, but as a boy thinking, recapturing the words by first recapturing the ideas. He had not only remembered; he had understood. Then the priest questioned the boy closely, about his family, his tastes, and the education he had had. He could read and write, no more; he had not so much as a notion of what grammar might be. But he would have liked to study. He told of his ambition to be a priest, of his deepest ambition to preach to the young. But alas! though his mother was wholly with him, there was the veto of his brother Antonio.
The old priest looked deep into his eyes, read his soul. As they parted, he took the boy's hand and said:
"I am Don Calosso, from Murialdo. Come and see me on Sunday with your mother. Have confidence, my son. We shall see what can be done."
He took the road to Murialdo and John to Becchi, each in his own way overwhelmed, rather suspecting the immense horizon their meeting had opened.
A compromise was reached. The boy should go every morning to be taught by Don Calosso in his presbytery; the rest of the day he should work on the farm as before. Antonio took it sourly, but Margarita stood firm. For the first time John knew the friendship of a priest. Almost all the priests he had tried to approach looked down on the peasants. Don Calosso was a simple gentle soul; he loved his pupil, taught him grammar and the elements of Latin. For Latin his head was thick; but what got into that head stayed in it. With tenacity and memory together, he had to succeed. He always took a book with him into the fields; and at night he buried himself in it. Which exasperated his elder brother beyond endurance.
"Where will it get you? You will never be anything but a peasant like the rest of us, whether you like it or not."
"I shall be what God wills."
At that point he had to rush away to escape a box on the ears; but nothing discouraged him. The whole of Sunday he spent at Murialdo; he served mass, sang, began the practice of meditation upon divine things, and by taking part in games made new friends. Consider one incident. One feast day there was an open-air dance close by the church; the crowd was flocking to it, though the bell had sounded for vespers. John tried to get the boys to come to church, but failed; his protestations, arguments, appeals to their piety made them laugh. So he began to sing a popular song so beautifully-the beauty of his voice was another of his talents which we have not so far had occasion to mention-that they gathered round to listen. Slowly he began to move; the crowd followed; still singing, he moved towards the church, into the church; the crowd went in with him.
With the fine weather, the work to be done on the farm increased, and Antonio's hostility passed all bounds. He could not stand the sight of a book in John's hands. That summer was a season of storms in the home-abuse, arguments, violence. The elder brother's jealousy turned to hatred. The mother intervened, but in vain: she now had a man to deal with.
"John is not to study any more."
The beloved lessons with Don Calosso had to stop till the autumn. John gave way, but his submission did not do him much good. It was as though his elder brother read the vocation ever present, ever alive, in him, and raged with the determination to stifle it; no humiliation, no futile persecution, was spared. He was head of the family and in charge of the work: the Bosco's small belongings were his to order as he would. For the sake of peace, the mother proposed a solution that was agony to her; but we know that she never shirked sacrifice.
"John, my son, life is no longer possible here. God cannot bless a disunited family. Your brother Antonio is risking damnation. Go and find work somewhere else, on some other farm. I know God will guard you." John went.
3. OUT IN THE WORLD
It was the February of 1829, a hard winter. He was fourteen. He took his books and his few clothes in his knapsack. He set off along the valley like a tramp, making towards Castelnuovo. Wherever he asked for work he was refused. Winter slows down everything; only in the spring do the farmers want extra labour. They gave him food and a place to sleep; in the morning he must be off. He thought he might have luck with the Moglias, mentioned to him by his mother. Their farm was, and is still, on the earth track that swings up rather abruptly to the left off the Moncucco road, half a mile or so short of the village. The Moglias were successful farmers, good and charitable people by all accounts; but they saw no point in taking on one more farm-hand, probably unskilled, who would cost more than he could possibly be worth; in the dead season it would have been utter folly.
When he presented himself, the family were occupied in binding osier into bundles, from which you can guess how little there was to do.
"Go straight home, my boy," said the father. "Wait till the Annunciation. Then you can come back."
"For charity," begged the poor child. "You won't have to pay me a penny, I don't ask for anything . . . but let me stay!"
"Impossible. Off with you."
"No. I'll sit here on the floor and I won't budge. You'll have to throw me out."
He did as he said. He began to gather up the osier like the others. And he wept.
Luigi Moglia's wife, Dorothea, began to coax her husband.
"You might take him on trial, for two or three days."
"Give him my cows to mind," suggested Teresa, Luigi's fifteen-year-old sister. "I shall go and work in the fields with you."
So it was decided. And John Bosco made himself so useful that he soon received a salary of fifteen fire a year, rising to twenty, and even as high as thirty. He stayed at the farm two years.
It was a time of hiddenness and obscurity, such as all saints must pass through. His Memoirs tell us little about it, save that he was not idle. "My eyes were barely open when I was at work, and I did not stop till I went back to bed." Yet, as he later avowed, it was "the loveliest and most romantic time" of his life. For the first time he was away from home, the centre of all his actions, the corner-stone of his thought; and he had set out into the world on his own to seek his fortune. A boy of his mettle had to learn to fend for himself. A John Bosco only knows himself, only finds himself when natural supports are shorn away, and he has no one but God to rely upon.
The Moglias' farm is worth a closer look. It remains as he found it, a good hundred years ago. It is barely visible from the main road, half-way up a slope between ploughed fields and vines, facing the deep wheel-ruts of a lane that leads to a handful of poor houses. It reigns unpretentiously over the hamlet named from its owners. Weatherworn, cracked, crooked, still sturdy; its sole concession to appearances an occasional coat of whitewash. Round reddish tiles; a wooden balcony just under the roof; cowshed, barn, house, all three shoulder to shoulder in one continuous line; the farmyard piled thick and slippery with manure-nothing healthier, they say- sheds, an ancient mulberry tree, hay everywhere, washing hung out to dry. There is nothing whatever to distinguish it from all the other farms of the district, all faithful to tradition and scornful of what is called hygiene-leave that to the sun and the air, the rain and the cold. A massive flight of stairs leads down to the yard, up to the living-room, far bigger than the kitchen at Becchi; it has a long table, and you are still shown at the lower end the exact spot where John Bosco stood his bowl. An ancient, very ancient Moglia-she is not far off ninety-told us with tears of the friendly visits the saint used to pay to the family he had served so long before.
"One thing you must grant him-he never forgot a kindness."
And here, under the roof, is the attic, or rather cupboard, that was his bedroom; we know he wasn't very tall, but there was just space for him to stand or lie down. It was in this dark corner, frozen in winter, roasting in summer, that in the silence of the night he clung to his hope. For he had not given up; he could still dream.
In the shade of the mulberry tree, the last living witness of his testing-time, we saw a cart standing with two oxen, its curious shaft raised in the air like a horn. A small boy clambered up the ladder with a bundle of sheaves. It might have been John Bosco. Here, indeed, time seems to have stood still. If you would live again for a brief moment the heroic boyhood of the founder of the Salesians, it is to the Moglias' farm that you must go.
The farm-hand toiled away; the apostle clung on. At every free moment he refreshed his memory, ran over again Don Calosso's lessons; he prayed and meditated; entertained and instructed the children round. When the lady of the house was away, she confided her three-year-old boy to John; the child loved him and followed him everywhere. Luigi Moglia was more surprised than pleased at the manifold gifts of his farm-hand. One day, when they were out together sowing, the Angelus rang from Moncucco. John stopped, and knelt in the furrow. The good man shouted his disapproval.
"Here, what's this? Get up, get on with your work."
"I do more by praying than you by working," answered John. "If you pray and sow two grains, four ears grow. If you don't pray and sow four grains, two ears grow. I'm giving you good advice."
"I don't want advice from a bit of a boy like you."
He was a very odd bit of a boy. He had already won the heart of Don Cottino, who was in charge of the parish. On Sundays he went off to mass, over the fences and through the gardens of the charming village of Moncucco.
With his games and his prayers he gathered the children together in front of the brick tower and the white-columned peristyle of the church. Don Cottino gave him permission to assemble his little crowd in one of the schoolrooms and teach them in his place-and better luck to him than Don Cottino ever had.
Month followed month.
The Moglias had no thought now of letting him go. Antonio did not want him back. Margarita kept patience, perfecting herself in the exercise of total abandonment to God's will. That summer John would be fifteen. Could he ever catch up with the others, even if he were able to resume his studies? But how could he possibly resume his studies? There was no point in thinking about a thing so hopeless.
At that moment, heaven raised up an uncle: one of those uncles who, if they don't come from America, at least deserve to have gone there; one of those angel-uncles, uncles ex machina, who turn up just when everything is wrong to put everything right.
Margarita had a brother, Michaele Occhiena, who had made money in cattle-raising. He had, of course, helped his sister, but she was not much given to asking. From a distance he followed the progress of his nephews Joseph and John; but he was not told of their troubles. Probably he had heard John spoken of as an unusual boy, a boy with a future: he was with the Moglias, it seemed.... And then one winter morning, crossing a meadow, he met the boy.
"How are things, youngster? You're satisfied with your place?"
"Yes and no."
John seized the ball on the first bounce. He told his uncle how matters stood, told him his hopes, all that was in his heart, his grief and disappointment. The uncle was surprised and much moved; he decided to set matters right instantly: and with him instantly meant instantly. He was that kind of man.
"Take your herd back, say good-bye to your master and mistress, and pack your things. I am going to market at Chieri. I'll meet you at Becchi this evening and talk to your mother. If anyone objects, tell them it's by my orders. You understand?"
That night-pushing in front of him the boy who had not dared to go home by himself and so had spent a good part of the day hiding in a ditch-Michaele came into the livingroom, confronted the raging Antonio and announced his decision: John was to live in the house, and go every day to Buttigliera or to Castelnuovo and have his lessons from the parish priest. As both parish priests declined, they fell back on Don Calosso, who was growing daily more infirm, but was delighted to see his pupil again.
Then, at the last moment, Antonio, who had been champing at the bit all through, opposed his veto. This was too much for Margarita. She asserted her rights with masculine energy. Since they could not agree together, they had better separate. The court should divide up the small heritage of Francesco Bosco between Antonio and the two younger boys. Antonio should cultivate his share, she would handle the children's. After the usual lengthy formalities, it was so arranged. Antonio went to live in the hamlet near by. Margarita and Joseph stayed in the farmhouse; and John went as a boarder with his old master in the presbytery of Murialdo.
There was perfect accord in the tiny book-littered room between the boy of fifteen, vowed totally to God, and the gentle infirm old man whose one thought was to give him to God. Work went with a magnificent sweep, with master and pupil linked in love and praying together without ceasing.
"You shall be the son of my soul, little John, the last, the dearest and surely the best. All that remains to me in this world, I bank on your future. You have taken the decisive step; the road is open. Living or dead, I shall ensure you the means of going to the very end of the road without hindrance."
What exactly did he mean by that? John Bosco thought it was all a dream. After so many obstacles, so many reverses, could he now simply glide with a stream that would take him where he would go?
"Don Calosso," he wrote later, "was for me as the Angel of the Lord."
John loved him more than a father; he did nothing save for him; his joy was to serve him, to wear himself out in his service. With him, all seemed easy. Suddenly Don Calosso was taken from him.
The old priest had sent him on an errand to Becchi. Hardly was he there when someone from Murialdo came after him with the news that his master had had a seizure and urged him to return. John found him in bed; Don Calosso knew him, looked at him, tried hard to speak to him, but could not utter a word. He groped under his pillow and managed to drag out the key of his drawer: he placed it in his hand, with a gesture as though to say: "For you. Don't give it to anyone else. What you find in the drawer is for you. For you alone."
Don Calosso was two days dying. When his heirs-distant relations-arrived John gave them the key. He knew that in the drawer was six thousand fire, and that Don Calosso meant them for him-enough to carry on his studies without worry. But he feared to do harm to his neighbour.
He could think only of his grief, his loneliness of spirit, the loss of his master and friend. So utterly overcome was he that Margarita, fearing for his health, sent him off to his grandfather at Capriglio for rest and change. There, in a dream, he saw himself severely rebuked for having put his trust in mortal man and not in the goodness of God.
God's goodness never wearies; but God does not mind wearying men. Don Calosso was dead; but John must not despair. A month before that, Don Calosso's successor had appeared. A month before, the boy had met a young theological student, Don Joseph Cafasso of Castelnuovo d'Asti. He was to meet him again, but the first meeting must be related.
It was a Sunday in October: a feast of Our Lady had gathered all the people of Murialdo in the square. Before the religious ceremonies, the crowd of grown-ups and children were looking at the games or taking part; there were shooting galleries, stall, booths. John noticed a young ecclesiastic who seemed to stand apart; he leaned against the church door, a small man, with shining eyes and pleasant face. John was charmed by his appearance and could not resist speaking to him.
"Father, if you would like to see the fair, I should be glad to take you round."
The young ecclesiastic thanked him, and asked a few questions about the boy and his studies. John answered-he never needed a second invitation. Then he repeated his suggestion.
"My dear friend, the only performances that priests need to see are those that take place in church. The only novelties that should interest them are the practices of religion-these for the priest are ever new, ever more new. I am waiting for the church to open to go in."
"Father, there is a time for everything, a time for games, a time for prayers."
The cleric began to laugh, but was calm and serious again as he replied:
"When you embrace the clerical state, you sell yourself to Our Lord; nothing of the world's sights should concern you save what turns to the profit of your soul and the greater glory of God."
John Bosco might have replied that he had already succeeded in serving God by his "tricks"; the accent of Don Cafasso was so deep and pure that it touched the very depth of his soul; and it was as though he had met an angel on his way, whom it would have been great profit to see more of.
But the time for Don Cafasso had not yet come. The new masters, into whose hands he now fell, were inadequate, supercilious and even some of them hostile.
First, he went to Castelnuovo for Latin classes with a certain Don Moglia; he went morning and evening-twelve miles a day on foot. He did not mind about his legs, but he had to be careful of his shoes; he carried them on his back. To save a journey, his mother soon decided to give him food to take in his wallet. Then she arranged for him to lodge in Castelnuovo with the tailor Roberto Gioanni, she paying for his board in kind.
He was not happy there. His companions jeered at him; for he was older by years than any of them and more backward than any; and dressed like the ace of spades. The teacher, being a fool, had got it into his head that John was a stupid yokel, incapable of learning. When John handed in a badly done exercise, the master was noisily sarcastic. When-by how much labour!-John did a good exercise, he accused him of copying from the next boy. It was useless for the next boy to protest that it was not so; useless even for the whole class, as they did one day about one of John's translations.
"I know what I am saying, be silent. He is an ass. And he will always be an ass. Nothing good comes from Becchi!"
Away from home, John had lost his prestige; he had to learn humility. When he went back to Roberto's house, discouraged by the master's injustice and the jeers of the boys, he thought of Don Calosso and of his mother. Gioanni tried to distract him a little.
"Sing with me," he said.
The tailor was a good singer; bending over his work, he would be singing love-songs all day; he even went in for a little plain-chant.
"You can work while you sing. Take a needle. I'll teach you to sew."
John, endlessly curious, quick with his hands, soon was able -as he tells us himself-to sew buttonholes, hems, seams, and to cut out drawers, breeches and waistcoats. At the end of a few months
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"Painting (c) Matthew Brooks, used with written permission">
In the midst of this endless sea, two solid columns, a short distance apart, soar high into the sky. One is surmounted by a statue of the Immaculate Virgin, at whose feet a large inscription reads Auxilium Christianorum (Help of Christians). The other, far loftier and sturdier, supports a Host of proportionate size, and bears beneath it the inscription Salus credentium (Salvation of believers).
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Thank you very much for the beautiful prayer to Saint John Bosco.
I attended Mass today in our humble rural church and all the eight grades were in attendance to conclude Catholic Education Week.
I sent your prayer to our Pastor Father John so that he could put into his computer's memory for next year. God bless,
BTTT of 01-31-05, Memorial of St. John Bosco.
Praises offered to the Lord to instill in us a mighty faith.
Here's wishing all FReepers a peaceful night's rest. We can rest secure, knowing that the Lord is in control.
BTTT on the Memorial of St. John Bosco, Jaunary 31, 2006!
January 31, 2006
St. John Bosco
John Boscos theory of education could well be used in todays schools. It was a preventive system, rejecting corporal punishment and placing students in surroundings removed from the likelihood of committing sin. He advocated frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. He combined catechetical training and fatherly guidance, seeking to unite the spiritual life with ones work, study and play.
Encouraged during his youth to become a priest so he could work with young boys, John was ordained in 1841. His service to young people started when he met a poor orphan and instructed him in preparation for receiving Holy Communion. He then gathered young apprentices and taught them catechism.
After serving as chaplain in a hospice for working girls, John opened the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales for boys. Several wealthy and powerful patrons contributed money, enabling him to provide two workshops for the boys, shoemaking and tailoring.
By 1856, the institution had grown to 150 boys and had added a printing press for publication of religious and catechetical pamphlets. His interest in vocational education and publishing justify him as patron of young apprentices and Catholic publishers.
Johns preaching fame spread and by 1850 he had trained his own helpers because of difficulties in retaining young priests. In 1854 he and his followers informally banded together under Francis de Sales.
With Pope Pius IXs encouragement, John gathered 17 men and founded the Salesians in 1859. Their activity concentrated on education and mission work. Later, he organized a group of Salesian Sisters to assist girls.
BTTT on the Memorial of St. John Bosco, Jaunary 31, 2007!
Saint John Bosco, Priest
St. John Bosco (1815-1888) founded the Salesian Society, named in honor of St. Francis de Sales, and the daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians. His lifework was the welfare of young boys and girls, ence his title, "Apostle of Youth." He had no formal system or theory of education. His methods centered on persuasion, authentic religiosity, and love for young people. He was an enlightened educatior and innovator.
Source: Daily Roman Missal, Edited by Rev. James Socías, Midwest Theological Forum, Chicago, Illinois ©2003
You called John Bosco
to be a teacher and father to the young,
Fill us with love like his:
may we give ourselves completely to Your service
and to the salvation of mankind.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.
First Reading: Philippians 4:4-9
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:1-5
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them, and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
"Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me."
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