We celebrate on January 31st the Solemnity of St. John Bosco, who founded the Salesians of Don Bosco who give assistance and educate the poor children across the world.
Learning about St. John Bosco in Colombia
I remember when I first entered the catholic schools in first grade. I wondered about the priests’ white cassocks and if these outfits made them closer to God. There was a mysticism about their behavior and how they conducted themselves: adults with wisdom and knowledge who commanded respect and obedience, but also had a sense of humor and seemed kind, and easy to talk with. I wanted to get close to them, but not too close. Making the jump from a public kindergarten to a catholic school seemed to have enough unknowns. I needed to make new friends, meet new teachers, learn about the new classrooms and the cafeteria. I even wondered if the students at San Juan Bosco elementary in Cali, Colombia, South America, were different children from me, or whether they were they just like me.
With time, I became more comfortable in the new school environment. I made new friends and became acquainted with my new teacher, who fortunately knew both English and Spanish. When we moved to Cali, Colombia that year, I only knew English. Learning Spanish was a challenge, but I made friends who were eager to teach me their language as much as they wanted to learn some words in English. As I progressed in elementary, I came to appreciate the school’s teachings of compassion, kindness, and care for the poor. With time, these virtues became a way of life for me, and today I thank Don Bosco for helping me be God’s instrument.
Who was St. John Bosco?
As we celebrate the Solemnity of St. John Bosco, I think about his life and the challenges he had during his mission. Born Giovanni Bosco in 1815, he lost his father at the age of two and was raised, along with his 2 older brothers, by his mother Margherita. They were a poor family in Turin, Italy, where John worked as a farmer and shepherd. Despite their difficult financial circumstances and food limitations, they felt a strong sense of duty to feed the poor and hungry. John became a priest at the age of 26 years, founded the Salesian Order in 1859, and was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934, giving him the title of “Father and Teacher of the Youth.”
Dreams became an important way for God to communicate with Don Bosco. At the age of nine, he had his first prophetic dream where he found himself with a group of children who were being mean to each other, swearing and hitting each other. A man whose face was filled with light and dressed in a white flowing mantle appeared and told him, “You will have to win these friends not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness.1” Thus began his vocation and dedication to children. Later in his teen years, he learned to perform magic, acrobatics, and tricks after watching a circus perform in town. He used these tricks to get children’s attention and then discuss with them the homilies from the mass. At this point in his life, he discerned he wanted to become a priest.2
His style of work leaned on being patient, kind and understanding. Another dream that he had of walking on roses and thorns helped him develop perseverance. He needed this virtue to tackle the obstacles he faced through his mission. Government officials wanted him out of the way as they saw the homeless children as a nuisance and a danger; the entrepreneurs from the industrial revolution saw him as an obstacle to using the children for manual labor; he opposed the political fanatics who wanted to recruit the young for political gains; the bishop opposed his work, misunderstanding Don Bosco’s passion for pride; people from the “house of sin” near his oratory saw Don Bosco as an obstacle to their “business.”
But he was able to persevere because of his life in prayer. In particular, he had a deep devotion to our Blessed Mother. His way with children and teens, along with his sense of humor and teaching abilities, allowed many orphans to learn about God and learn trade skills for later in life. Today, the Salesian brothers are present in 1,830 institutions in 128 countries.2
We all care for children
When I think about the people and circumstances of life that played a role in my choosing to care for children, I think about those years at San Juan Bosco elementary in Cali, Colombia. As I contemplate the gift that God has given me to take care of children, I also think about all of us parents caring for our children, and the love we give them just as Jesus and Mary show their love for us.
Putting the final touches on this blog, I think of Jesus with his disciples. Jesus had left Capernaum and had gone into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Children were coming to Him, and the disciples were becoming annoyed and indignant. Reading from the gospel of Mark:
He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.3