March 2012 Print

St. John Bosco The Life of a Popular Saint

Fr. Emanuel Herkel, SSPX

“Suffer children to come to me, and forbid them not.” (Lk. 18:16)


A Wonder-worker

It is an embarrassing problem when there are not enough hosts to give everyone Holy Communion. Possibly it was Fr. John Bosco’s fault, but more likely it was another priest who said Mass before him and left an almost empty ciborium in the tabernacle. There should have been a note taped to the door of the sacristy.

If there was a note, Fr. Bosco did not see it. He was a busy man. When he went into the sacristy that morning, he saw the vestments neatly arranged, and he assumed that everything was under control. It was only at the time of Communion, when he opened the tabernacle, that he found the nearly empty ciborium. There were 500 boys in the pews and only a few hosts.

If a priest is aware of the need, it is not hard to set an extra ciborium on the altar, to be consecrated during Mass. However, if this is not done, there is one option. The hosts that are in the ciborium may be broken once or twice. Jesus is really present in the smallest particle, but there is still a need for reverence. The hosts could not be broken enough to satisfy this crowd.

Fr. Bosco bowed his head and offered a silent prayer of resignation. This was not something he could deal with at the moment. It would be best to give Holy Communion to a few boys and then tell the others to wait for another priest to offer Mass. As he walked along the communion rail, Fr. Bosco kept his calm. He gave Holy Communion to the kneeling boys, and then he walked back across the church to start on another row until the hosts ran out.

Fr. Bosco looked into the ciborium. There were still some hosts left, so he continued to distribute Holy Communion. Each time the priest reached the end of the row he looked down and made a quick count. It looked like there were enough, so he kept going. It takes half an hour for one priest to give Holy Communion 500 times. As the minutes passed, the altar boys became aware that the ciborium should be empty.

John Bosco smiled. Jesus was working a miracle, just like the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The crowd had come to be with Jesus and to honor Him. He was not willing to send them away hungry.

Only at the end of the line did the number of hosts really begin to diminish. When the last boy had received Holy Communion, there was one host left. With joy in his heart, Fr. Bosco went back to the altar and finished Mass.

Later, the boys in the sacristy asked him how he did it. Again, he just smiled. There really was no way to explain what had happened. He had not done anything; God had worked the miracle in front of his eyes.

The boys were not too surprised at this. They seem almost gullible in the accounts, but that is what happens when miracles take place too frequently. The human mind can accept almost anything as normal if it happens often.

Gift of Prophecy

Occasionally, God gives such saints to the Church as an extraordinary sign of sanctity. Fr. Bosco cured the sick and the blind with his touch and his prayers. His greatest gift, however, was prophecy. In the form of dreams or visions, God taught John Bosco about present events which he could not naturally know, and about the future. Several times he foretold the death of one of his orphans, and it always came to pass.

The prophecies and miracles are exciting, and they are worth studying. But John did not become a saint because he had these gifts. John was a saint because he used these gifts well and practiced virtue in his daily life.

When Fr. Bosco went into the dormitory of his Oratory for orphan boys and announced that one of the boys would die within the week, all of the boys tried to be on their best behavior. It proved true. Then Fr. Bosco would do it again. If any of the boys had made a joke out of the first announcement, the joke was over, and everyone was very serious. This was not a bit of guess-work or bluff. The things which this saint predicted always came to pass. It made the boys think about the last things.

God imparted these revelations for the sake of the boys. For Fr. Bosco it was a burden; sometimes he was overcome by fear or sorrow at the thought of what he had dreamed. But he was willing to bear this burden if he could help his orphans to get to Heaven.

Friend of Street Kids

One day, early in his career, Fr. Bosco was visiting a church to offer Mass. There was some noise in the sacristy as the old sacristan tried to push out a young boy. The boy did look like a dirty tramp, but that is because he was a tramp. He had nothing; his parents were both dead; no one cared about him. So he had come to the city of Turin, Italy, to find work, and to find Fr. Bosco, whom he had heard about. The boy’s name was Bartholomew, and he just wanted to talk to Fr. Bosco.

The priest interrupted his prayers and walked over to them. He put his arm on Bart’s shoulder and sternly said: “That’s no way to treat a friend of mine.” The sacristan backed off in confusion. Fr. Bosco had never seen the boy before, but he knew the type. The poor and the wretched were his friends, as they were the friends of Christ.

With kind words he asked Bartholomew who he was, and why he was here. The boy gave the whole sob story, and it was true. Fr. Bosco threw in religious questions, and the boy admitted that he knew almost nothing about his catechism; he had not even received his first Holy Communion. “If I teach you, are you willing to learn?” “Yes,” the boy replied. So Fr. Bosco arranged to meet him later.

This was the beginning of the Oratory. At first it was just a catechism group for a number of street kids. Most of them were orphans who had been baptized and perhaps been to confession and Communion, but they knew little about their faith. To make the lessons interesting, Fr. Bosco played games and told stories. Soon he had dozens of boys coming to see him. They usually met on Sunday, which in Catholic Italy in the mid-1800s was the only day off work. To find a place to accommodate them, Fr. Bosco began renting barns and halls. Often these were in the countryside or in a bad part of town. The boys made so much noise that the neighbors always complained and the rich citizens did not want orphans loitering near their mansions.

Father to His Orphans

There was also the issue of housing. The Oratory was more than a place of prayer and catechism. It was a workshop, a dormitory, and a soup-kitchen. Most of the boys who came to Fr. Bosco needed handouts. He gave them a place to live, fed them, bought clothes for them, and tried to find them employment. Some of the boys had skills and found work. Still they came to sleep at the Oratory each night; the Oratory group became their family. Many had no skills at all, and for these boys Fr. Bosco taught school and apprenticed them in trades. One of his best ideas was the print shop. Fr. Bosco bought a printing press and started a magazine. He wrote many of the articles himself, and the older boys worked with the press, while the younger ones stood on the street corners and sold the magazine. “St. John Bosco works another miracle. Read all about it!”

It was a life full of the difficulties of dealing with people. Fr. Bosco was truly a father to his orphans. To the citizens of Turin, he was a beggar, always asking for their help. The civil authorities thought this priest was organizing a sort of Communist cell, and tried to break it up. The Vatican had to consider Fr. Bosco’s application to found a new religious order—the Salesians—to continue his work with poor children. By the end of his life, Fr. Bosco was a figure similar to Mother Teresa in the modern world. Everyone knew his name. Some thought he was a fraud or a maniac, but most people had come to recognize him as a saint.

Fr. Bosco explained his work to the authorities of the Church in words that form a fitting summary of his ideal. On his first visit to Rome, Fr. Bosco discussed the subject of education with Cardinal Tosti. Fr. Bosco said: “You can do nothing with young people unless you have their confidence and love.” “How do you get it?” “By doing one’s utmost to win their friendship.” “By what means?” “By putting oneself in contact with them, by being like one of themselves.” (F. A. Forbes, St. John Bosco (Rockford, Ill.: TAN), pp. 77–78.) On another occasion Fr. Bosco told his disciples: “If you want to be loved, you yourselves must love, and make your children feel that you love them.” (Ibid.) Throughout his life John Bosco was a model of love for his neighbors. He is still a model for us.