Today is the birthday (1815) of Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco, popularly known as Don Bosco (sometimes John Bosco or St John Bosco), an Italian Roman Catholic priest, educator and writer. While working in Turin, where the population suffered many of the effects of industrialization and urbanization, he dedicated his life to the betterment and education of street children, juvenile delinquents, and other disadvantaged youth. He developed teaching methods based on love rather than punishment, a method that became known as the Salesian Preventive System.
Don Bosco was born in the hillside hamlet of Becchi, 30 km east of Turin. He was the youngest son of Francesco Bosco and Margherita Occhiena. He had two older brothers, Antonio and Giuseppe. The Boscos of Becchi were farmhands of the Moglian Family. John Bosco was born into a time of great shortage and famine in the Piedmontese countryside, following the devastation wrought by the Napoleonic wars and a drought in 1817. When he was little more than 2 years old his father died, leaving the support of three boys to his mother.
In 1825, when he was 9 years old, Bosco had the first of a series of dreams which would play an influential role in his outlook and work. This first dream “left a profound impression on him for the rest of his life”, according to his own memoirs. Bosco apparently saw a multitude of very poor boys playing and blaspheming, and a man, who “appeared, nobly attired, with a manly and imposing bearing.” The man said to him: “You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So, begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.” When traveling entertainers performed at a local feast in the nearby hills, Don Bosco watched and studied the jugglers’ tricks and the acrobats’ secrets. Then he put on shows of his skills as a juggler, magician and acrobat with prayers before and after the performance.
Poverty prevented any serious schooling for Bosco. Hiss early years were spent as a shepherd boy, and he received his first schooling from a parish priest. At the time, being a priest was generally seen as a profession for the privileged classes, rather than farmers, although it was not unknown. Some biographers portray his older brother Antonio as the main obstacle for Bosco’s ambition to study, since the brother protested that Giovanni was just “a farmer like us!”
On a cold morning in February 1827, John left his home and went to look for work as a farm-servant. At 12, he found life at home unbearable because of the continuous quarrels with Antonio. Having to face life by himself at such a young age may have developed his later desires to help abandoned boys. After begging unsuccessfully for work, Bosco ended up at the wine farm of Louis Moglia. In 1830 he met Joseph Cafasso, a young priest who identified some natural talent and supported his first schooling. In 1835 Bosco entered the seminary at Chieri, next to the Church of the Immacolata Concezione. In 1841, after six years of study, he was ordained priest on the eve of Trinity Sunday by archbishop Franzoni of Turin.
Don Bosco was first called as the chaplain of the Rifugio (“Refuge”), a girls’ boarding school founded in Turin by the Marchioness Giulia di Barolo. His other ministries included visiting prisoners, teaching catechism, and helping out at country parishes. At that time, the city of Turin had a population of 117,000 inhabitants. It reflected the effects of industrialization and urbanization: numerous poor families lived in the slums of the city, having come from the countryside in search of a better life. In visiting the prisons, Don Bosco was disturbed to see so many boys from 12 to 18 years of age. He was determined to find a means to prevent them ending up here. Because of population growth and migration to the city, Bosco found the traditional methods of parish ministry ineffective. He decided it was necessary to try another form of apostolate, and he began to meet the boys where they worked and gathered in shops and market places. According to his Memoires, they were pavers, stone-cutters, masons, plasterers etc. who came from faraway places.
Don Bosco developed his ministry for helping poor young boys into his permanent occupation. He looked for jobs for the unemployed. Some of the boys did not have sleeping quarters and slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories. Twice he tried to provide lodgings in his house. The first time they stole the blankets; the second they emptied the hay-loft. He persisted, however. In May 1847, he gave shelter to a young boy from Valencia, in one of the three rooms he was renting in the slums of Valdocco, where he was living with his mother. From that point on he and “Mamma Margherita” began taking in orphans. They sheltered 36 boys in 1852, 115 in 1854, 470 in 1860 and 600 in 1861. Some time later, the number had risen to 800. Bosco and his ministry moved around town for a number of years. He was turned out of several places in succession. After only two months based in the church of St. Martin, the entire neighborhood expressed its annoyance with the noise coming from the boys at play. A formal complaint was lodged against them with the municipality. Rumors also circulated that the meetings conducted by the priest with his boys were dangerous. It was argued that their recreation could be turned into a revolution against the government, and so the group was evicted.
In the archives of the Salesian Congregation is a contract of apprenticeship, dated November 1851; another one on stamped paper, dated February 8, 1852; and others with later dates. These are among the first contracts of apprenticeship to be found in Turin. All of them are signed by the employer, the apprentice, and Don Bosco. In those contracts, Don Bosco touched on many sensitive issues. Some employers customarily made servants and scullery-boys of the apprentices. Don Bosco obligated them to agree to employ the boys only in their acknowledged trade. Employers also used to beat the boys. Don Bosco required them to agree that corrections be made only verbally. He cared for their health, and demanded that they be given rest on feast days, and that they be given an annual holiday. But in spite of all the efforts and contracts, the situation of the apprentices of the time remained difficult.
One influential friend was the Piedmontese Justice Minister Urbano Rattazzi. He was anticlerical in his politics, but he saw value in Bosco’s work. While Rattazzi was pushing a bill through the Sardinian legislature to suppress religious orders, he advised Bosco on how to get around the law. He found a religious order to keep the ministry going after Don Bosco’s death. Bosco had been thinking about that problem, too, and had been slowly organizing his helpers into a loose “Congregation of St. Francis de Sales”. He was also training select older boys for the priesthood. Another supporter of the idea to establish a religious order to carry out Bosco’s vision was the reigning pope, Pius IX.
Bosco disliked the ideals that had been exported by revolutionary France, calling Rousseau and Voltaire “two vicious leaders of incredulity.” He favored an ultramontane view of politics that acknowledged the supreme authority of the pope. In 1854, when the kingdom of Sardinia was about to pass a law suppressing monastic orders and confiscating ecclesiastical properties, Bosco reported a series of dreams about “great funerals at court”, referring to politicians or members of the Savoy court. In November 1854, he sent a letter to Victor Emmanuel II, admonishing him to oppose the confiscation of church property and suppression of the orders, but the king failed to respond. Opposition to Bosco and his work came from various quarters. Traditionalist clergy accused him of stealing the young and old people away from their own parishes. Nationalist politicians (including some clergy) saw his several hundred young men as a recruiting ground for revolution. The Marquis de Cavour, chief of police in Turin, regarded the open-air catechisms as overtly political and a threat to the State, and was highly suspicious of Bosco’s support for the powers of the papacy. Bosco was interrogated on several occasions, but no charges filed. Closure of the ministry may have been prevented by orders from the king that Bosco was not to be disturbed. Several attempts were also made on Bosco’s life, including a near-stabbing, bludgeoning, and a shooting. Early biographers put this down to the growing influence of the Waldensians in opposition to Catholic clergy.
Some of the boys helped by Don Bosco decided to do what he was doing, that is, to work in the service of abandoned boys. And this was the origin of the Salesian Congregation. Among the first members were Michele Rua, Giovanni Cagliero (who later became a Cardinal), and Giovanni Battista Francesia. In 1859, Bosco selected the experienced priest Vittorio Alasonatti, 15 seminarians, and one high school boy to form the Society of St. Francis de Sales. This was the nucleus of the Salesians, the religious order that would carry on his work. When the group had their next meeting, they voted on the admission of Giuseppe Rossi as a lay member, the first Salesian brother. The Salesian Congregation was divided into priests, seminarians and “coadjutors” (the lay brothers).
Next, he worked with Maria Mazzarello and a group of girls in the hill town of Mornese. In 1871, he founded a group of religious sisters to do for girls what the Salesians were doing for boys. They were called the “Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.” In 1874, he founded yet another group, the “Salesian Cooperators.” These were mostly lay people who worked with young people like the Daughters and the Salesians, but did not join a religious order.
The first Salesians departed for Argentina in 1875. After his ordination, Bosco himself would have become a missionary had not his director, Joseph Cafasso, opposed the idea. When Bosco founded the Salesian Society, the thought of the missions still obsessed him, though he completely lacked the financial means at that time. Bosco claimed he had another dream where he was on a vast plain, inhabited by primitive peoples, who spent their time hunting or fighting among themselves or against soldiers in European uniforms. A band of missionaries arrived, but they were all massacred. A second group appeared, which Bosco at once recognized as Salesians. Astonished, he witnessed an unexpected change when the fierce warriors laid down their arms and listened to the missionaries. It seems the dream made a great impression on Bosco, because he tried hard to identify the men and the country of the dream – and for three years collected information about different countries. A request from Argentina, turned him towards the Indians of Patagonia, and a study of the people there convinced him that the country and its inhabitants were the ones he had seen in his dream. Towards the end of 1874, John Bosco received letters from the Argentine consul at Savona requesting that he accept an Italian parish in Buenos Aires and a school for boys at San Nicolas de los Arroyos. Bosco regarded this as a sign of providence and started to prepare a mission.
Bosco proposed setting up bases in safe locations from which missionary efforts could to be launched. Negotiations started after Archbishop Aneiros of Buenos Aires had indicated that he would be glad to receive the Salesians. On 5th February he announced the fact in a circular letter to all Salesians asking volunteers to apply in writing. He proposed that the first missionary departure start in October. There were many volunteers.
Bosco died on 31 January 1888. His funeral was attended by thousands. Soon after there was popular demand to have him canonized. The Archdiocese of Turin investigated, and witnesses were called to determine if Bosco was worthy to be declared a saint. The Salesians, Daughters and Cooperators gave supportive testimonies. But many remembered Bosco’s controversies in the 1870s with Archbishop Gastaldi and some others high in the Church hierarchy thought him a loose cannon. In the canonization process, testimony was heard about how he went around Gastaldi to get some of his men ordained and about their lack of academic preparation and ecclesiastical decorum. Political cartoons from the 1860s and later showed him shaking money from the pockets of old ladies or going off to America for the same purpose. These cartoons were not forgotten. Opponents of Bosco, including some cardinals, were in a position to block his canonization. Around 1925, many Salesians feared that they would succeed. Pope Pius XI had known Bosco and pushed the cause forward. Pius XI beatified Bosco on June 2nd, 1929 and canonized him on Easter Sunday (April 1) of 1934, when he was given the title of “Father and Teacher of Youth.” Nowadays there are Don Bosco centers all over the world. There are 3 in Phnom Penh.
While Don Bosco had been popularly known as the patron saint of illusionists, on 30th January 2002, Silvio Mantelli petitioned Pope John Paul II to formally declare Bosco the patron of stage magicians. Catholic stage magicians who practice gospel magic venerate Bosco by offering free magic shows to underprivileged children on his feast day (31st January).
In previous posts I have given recipes suitable for young children. Here I would like to expand on the general idea a little more. My mother let me help her with some cooking, mostly baking, from a young age, and from about 11 onwards I could do a few simple things on my own. Likewise, I got my son involved in cooking quite young, and gave him weekly cooking lessons in his teens. Not everyone is going to fall in love with cooking at a young age. My son certainly did not. He does, however, know the basics and can cook for himself if he has to (although he is remarkably good at running from it). He did prepare a roast goose and all the trimmings for Christmas once when he was in New York and I was living in Argentina. He also had the idea to pit roast a whole pig for his friends for their college graduation, but I was relieved to hear that the plan fell through. Last year he stayed with me in Phnom Penh for a month and made detailed notes on the dishes I cooked so that he (or more likely his wife) could replicate them. The thing is that he has the grounding. My father used to make pasta by hand on Saturday mornings, so I naturally assumed that making pasta was easy and normal. It never occurred to me that the majority of cooks think of making pasta by hand as difficult.
Think of dishes that you make that your children could make by themselves with a bit of practice and some supervision at first. For example, I commonly made nachos as a late evening snack, and my son quickly picked up the method (just as my father used to make an Argentine tortilla for a snack when I was a boy, and now it is a staple for me). Your basics are tortilla chips and shredded Monterrey Jack cheese. You spread the chips in a single layer on a baking tray and sprinkle the cheese liberally on top. What else you add depends on what you like. My son used to add sliced black olives and pickled jalapeños, but you can also add refried beans, cooked (and seasoned) ground beef, or whatever takes your fancy. My son used to pile the ingredients he had on hand on the tortilla chips and then pop the tray into the microwave on high until the cheese was melted and bubbly. This is a safer method than using the broiler for a novice.