Most Catholics are well aware of the crisis of youth in our day, but what to do about it is less clear. It is in despair-inducing times like ours that the examples and attitudes of the saints are indispensable, and the saint we all should look to for inspiration and guidance when it comes to the trials and tribulations of growing up in the twenty-first century is St. John Melchior Bosco.
The moral breakdown of modern society is bringing up a generation without its moorings, whose members spurn tradition in favor of nihilistic pop culture, taken in by the twisted falsehoods of woke-ism, pornography, social media, and identity politics. Responses to our renegade young often tend toward restriction, punishment, therapy, medication, or stricter rules, implementing a severity commensurate with the gravity at hand—but these tactics often result in further and more entrenched rebellion or lassitude.
Although such measures are sometimes necessary and can be effective, charity and the wisdom of Catholic tradition challenge us to bring young people an environment where civility and moral virtue can thrive. John Bosco achieved just such an environment by providing the youngsters in his care with an education—a formation that was, in his words, reasonable, religious, and kind.
He had to suffer persecution in the process of saving souls, struggling with forces that feared him and his oratory for boys. They suspected that it was a front, and that John Bosco was secretly training an army to overthrow the anti-Catholic Italian government. They were right in one sense: Don Bosco was training an army, but it was meant for spiritual battlefields, in defense and for the glory of the kingdom of heaven.
Though a genius of education, John Bosco was widely seen as a lunatic as he roamed the streets and back alleys of Turin, a scruffy priest surrounded by an entourage of ragamuffins. There he came, smiling in a threadbare cassock at the center of a rough and rowdy crowd—but joyful, one and all. And there he went, his “Wandering Oratory” booted from place to place, with hundreds who looked to their patron for support and salvation. These were the sons of Don Bosco, whom he loved as a father as they wandered together, looking for refuge where they could play, learn, and pray.
John Bosco famously espoused St. Francis de Sales’s words in his educational approach: “You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” And so, Don Bosco formed the Salesian spirit of understanding, with tactics that consisted chiefly in friendly supervision, with the aim of building character and guarding against degrading influences: the combination of vigilance and affection to prevent falls rather than punish for them. “This system,” the saint wrote, “is based entirely on reason, religion, and kindness,” and John Bosco’s boys grew strong under his reasonable, religious, and kind tutelage.
The worth of almost any good and holy mission can be judged by the level of attack from secular or hellish fortresses. John Bosco had a slew of enemies, though he was not a party to their quarrel, just because he was becoming prominent as a Catholic priest making a difference. Given the saint’s indomitable optimism, it must be imagined that one of the things that continually confirmed Don Bosco in his ministry of picking up poor boys off the streets to give them a Catholic education was that powerful men picked on him.
Besides the disapproval aimed against him from his fellow priests, who regarded his efforts as drawing young people away from their parishes, Don Bosco’s Oratory was held with deep suspicion by Italy’s anticlerical nationalist government. Some even feared that the ragamuffin priest was training a secret revolutionary militia for the pope, for, humble priest that he was, John Bosco’s work was noticed and approved by Pope Pius IX, and the two worked together—as did John Bosco and Pius’s successor, Leo XIII—to strengthen the Church during their time of persecution.
These misgivings manifested themselves in a number of assassination efforts. From back-alley stabbing attempts to phony deathbed calls that resulted in ambush, John Bosco narrowly escaped with his life on several occasions. His tremendous physical strength served him, certainly, but there was another that came to his aid as well, and it wasn’t an underground army of mercenary street urchins.
By some circumstance that can only be marveled at, an enormous dog often appeared to protect the saint from murderers. The animal appeared so frequently to defend or guard Don Bosco that he was given a name, Grigio—meaning the Gray One—for besides being a lean gray wolfhound, he would emerge from gray fog and shadow whenever he was required, like an avenging ghost—or, perhaps, an avenging angel—and disappear as suddenly and as mysteriously as he appeared when the coast was clear.
And so the hand of heaven hovered over Don Bosco, who was not mustering a military force for the Church, but raising an army of souls to fight for the Faith and serve his unquestionable queen, Mary, Help of Christians. This fight and this allegiance are a part of every Catholic mission to this day, especially when it comes to the plight of the youth and the plot of their corruption.
While most of us are not plagued with violence as St. John Bosco was—thank God, and God protect us—we too can feel and find the protection of heaven from unforeseen quarters, appearing suddenly when we need assistance. We are all members of a spiritual corps as confirmed soldiers of Christ, and we ought to regard our blessings to live valiantly as Christians in an un-Christian land with the same wonder and gratitude with which John Bosco and his boys regarded Grigio, that hound of heaven, who stood fiercely by so that those who undertook the work of God could do so fearlessly.
That fearlessness is the linchpin of victory. Young people marched with John Bosco because he was not afraid of their youthful vigor. Many teachers and priests and fathers are not so brave. John Bosco understood the nature and spirit of adolescence, knowing therefore the critical, and even dangerous, balance between order and disorder, between discipline and spontaneity—and the truth that nothing is so important as joy. John Bosco’s outlook on education anticipated and incorporated the attitudes and aptitude of boys. Recreation was rowdy under his leadership, and so it was recreational. Education was exciting under his tutelage, and so it was educational.
John Bosco was a powerful teacher because he was willing and able to appreciate and accept the souls who flew to him as they were, and he was ready to make them something even better, harmonizing the wisdom of grace with the wildness of youth. In short, John Bosco was a great saint because he was willing to work with God’s little ones, to recruit and reform a savage yet innocent army, bringing the love of God into the frolic and the fray of childhood as both a friend and a father. And he was loved not simply because he loved, but because he showed his love in unflagging colors of reason, religion, and kindness.
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