When he was just 9 years old, St. John Bosco had a vivid dream that revealed to him the vocation that would shape his life: serving children.
He was born in 1815 in Italy, and his father died when he was only 2. As a boy, John dreamed that he stood in a crowd of children who were fighting and cussing and he was failing to quiet them. A mysterious lady appeared and told him, “You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. Take your shepherd’s staff and lead them to pasture.” As she spoke, the children turned into wild beasts and then into lambs.
John was disturbed by the dream, feeling it to be an impossible task. Still, he could not let the vision go, and as he matured, it led him to minister to the poor and neglected boys who lived in Turin, Italy. He would perform magic tricks and juggling and acrobatics in order to gain their attention, and then he would teach them about the faith and invite them to attend Mass with him.
He soon had a constant crowd of several hundred boys following him around. When other priests or nuns tried to help, they tired or became frustrated. He had little money and many thought him to be out of his mind.
He opened several centers where young people could come to play and pray, but was set back by finances and many people’s unwillingness to let a crowd of unruly children run through a property. He was undeterred, and even began to let some of the children live in his home with his mother.
Money started to come in for his cause, and he opened a church for these children as well as a home and school. He encouraged boys to learn trades to become shoemakers and tailors, and persuaded many who had a vocation to the priesthood. Soon he was serving, training, housing, and educating hundreds of boys, all with a gentleness and patience that they found nowhere else.
He became known as a popular preacher because of his eloquence and there were reports of miracles attributed to his intercession. At the height of an anti-clerical movement—when even the Jesuits had been expelled and several convents suppressed—he founded an order of priests to assist in this work with children. He named it the Salesians, after his favorite saint, St. Francis de Sales, and founded another order of women to work with girls, called the Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians. The work of these orders continues today.
St. John Bosco died on this date in 1888, and is honored as patron saint of children and magicians. His story and image are used by high school students who come to campus for a summer conference with the Notre Dame Vision program.
St. John Bosco, who loved neglected and unruly children with patience and gentleness, pray for us!
Image credit: Illustration by Julie Lonneman and used with permission.