Growing up, I experienced the excitement of living in a predominantly male household. My brothers and I would regularly tap into some wellspring of energy within ourselves and cause all sorts of trouble for my poor mother to sort out if we somehow didn’t already exhaust ourselves. Now that we’re older and (hopefully) more mature, I find myself wondering 1) where did that incredible energy go? and 2) how did my mother ever put up with us? It certainly takes a special type of person to remain steadfastly patient and loving in the face of such chaos; mothers are a wonderful example, but what about those who are not parents (and would not be obligated to do so) who look after the young?
St. John Bosco, whose feast we celebrate today, is similarly venerated for dedicating his life to the betterment and education of street urchins, juvenile delinquents, and other disadvantaged youth. Born in Italy, “Don Bosco” was first the chaplain of a girls’ boarding school in Turin called the Rifugio (“Refuge”). His other ministries included visiting prisoners, teaching catechesis, and assisting at the country parishes. While visiting the prisons, Don Bosco was troubled to see so many adolescent boys and became determined to prevent them from ending up there. Finding traditional methods of parish ministry inefficient due to the urbanization-driven influx of migrants, Don Bosco developed another form of apostolate: meeting the boys wherever they were in life—be it offices, shops, or marketplaces. While society might have looked the other way or written off these little ones, Don Bosco would unceasingly offer help to those he encountered throughout his ministry.
I could focus on the well-documented efforts of the saint’s ministry, such as the establishment of permanent youth centers (which he called oratorio), contracting dignified jobs for the unemployed and obtaining fair conditions for those who held jobs, caring for the boys’ health, or instructing those willing to study after the work day, but I’d like to dwell on the special aspect of his numerous dreams which helped to reveal God’s will for his life. In one particularly, the Blessed Mother led Don Bosco into a beautiful garden, bidding him to pass through a rose arbor after removing his shoes. Shortly after doing so, his feet were cut and bleeding from the thorns of the roses on the path he was taking, yet he refused to turn around. Observers in the dream remarked, “How lucky Don John is! His path is forever strewn with roses! He hasn’t a worry in the world. No troubles at all!” They attempted to follow, but many who had been expecting an easy journey turned back—only some stayed with him. Finally, after successfully enduring the journey, he found another incredible garden where a cool breeze soothed his torn skin and healed his wounds.
I agree with Don Bosco’s interpretation: the path was his mission, the roses were his charity to the boys, and the thorns were the distractions and frustrations that obstructed his efforts. The message of the dream was clear to the saint: keep going, do not lose faith in God or His calling! For Don Bosco, challenges would always remain, such as financing. Don Bosco kept going and did not lose faith in God. His mother, a 59-year old poor peasant, even left her house and sold her jewelry to become a mother (“Mamma Margherita”) to those her son took in, eventually numbering 800! Acts of faith such as these reflect the fact that human works are very limited; it is God who is able to do the impossible. One can see this also evident in the efforts of St. Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta, the witness of the shepherd children who saw our Lady at Fatima, or the strength and determination of Mother Angelica in the founding of the Eternal Word Television Network.
In surrendering ourselves to be like “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God,” as Mother Teresa referenced in an interview, and not worrying about human measures of success, we can follow the example of saints like Don Bosco who effected great change in both society and the individual lives of those they served. The saints never worked for their own sake, but simply did the work they were guided to do by Providence. To echo the words of Don Bosco, “I have done nothing by myself. It is the Virgin Mary who has done everything.”