Lessons from Saint John Bosco on Educating the Heart, Mind and Soul
Over the years, one of the great things that I’ve seen serving as a priest is with respect to what happens with respect to helping younger people grow. For instance as I shared last week as we celebrated Catholic Schools’ Week, there’s a deep dedication from our staff and parents and volunteers to help make our school thrive. I’ve also seen the hard work our faith formation team, led by Kayla Rooney and Gabe Leahy have done in helping children and youth grow in the faith.
However let’s face it, helping kids grow in the faith and gaining an appreciation for the world around them and learning how to use their gifts is tough. It’s one thing to hold an infant, but every parent soon finds sometimes the infant screams and gets fussy; then gets older and maybe at times can’t see that a parent is trying to help them; or, as we all do since Adam and Eve listened to the serpent, at times makes bad choices.
As time has gone by, greater attention has been given to children, but unfortunately at times kids can get neglected. Some come from rough home situations; other times a parent or teacher just wants to throw in the towel. But as Christians, we must remember how much Jesus cared for the children; the apostles tried to keep them from coming to Jesus, and Jesus rebuked them, and also warned them in Matthew 18:6 that whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for you if a millstone was placed around your neck and you were hurled into the see. It would seem Jesus here is trying to get us the message: kids matter.
Last week, our Church honored Saint John Bosco, who I’ve always admired for what he did for kids in an era where so many children suffered greatly.
Here’s his bio, taken from “catholic.org” & “saintoftheday.org,” two great websites with biographies on the saints:
John Bosco, was born in Becchi, Italy, on August 16, 1815. His birth came just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars which ravaged the area. Compounding the problems on his birthday, there was also a drought and a famine at the time of his birth.
At the age of two, John lost his father, leaving him and his two older brothers to be raised by his mother, Margherita. His “Mama Margherita Occhiena” would herself be declared venerable by the Church in 2006.
Raised primarily by his mother, John attended church and became very devout. When he was not in church, he helped his family grow food and raise sheep. They were very poor, but despite their poverty his mother also found enough to share with the homeless who sometimes came to the door seeking food, shelter or clothing. When John was nine years old, he had the first of several vivid dreams that would influence his life. In his dream, he encountered a multitude of boys who swore as they played. Among these boys, he encountered a great, majestic man and woman. The man told him that in meekness & charity, he would “conquer these your friends.” Then a lady, also majestic said, “Be strong, humble & robust. When the time comes, you will understand everything.” This dream influenced John the rest of his life.
Not long afterwards, John witnessed a traveling troupe of circus performers. He was enthralled by their magic tricks and acrobatics. He realized if he learned their tricks, he could use them to attract others and hold their attention. He studied their tricks and learned how to perform some himself.
One Sunday evening, John staged a show for the kids he played with and was heartily applauded. At the end of the show, he recited the homily he heard earlier in the day. He ended by inviting his neighbors to pray with him. His shows and games were repeated and during this time, John discerned the call to become a priest.
To be a priest, John required an education, something he lacked because of poverty.
Eventually leaving home to work on a farm, he found a priest to help him gain an education, and in 1835, John entered the seminary and following six years of study and preparation, he was ordained a priest in 1841.
His first assignment was to the city of Turin. The city was in the throes of industrialization so it had slums and widespread poverty. It was into these poor neighborhoods that John, now known as
Fr. Bosco, went to work with the children of the poor.
While visiting the prisons, Fr. Bosco noticed a large number of boys, between the ages of 12 and 18, inside. The conditions were deplorable, and he felt moved to do more to help other boys from ending up there.
He went into the streets and started to meet young men and boys where they worked and played. He used his talents as a performer, doing tricks to capture attention, then sharing with the children his message for the day.
He came up with what was called the preventive system, rejecting harsh discipline and placing students in surroundings removed from the likelihood of committing sin. He advocated frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance & Holy Communion. He combined catechetical training & fatherly guidance, seeking to unite the spiritual life with one’s work, study & play.
After serving as chaplain in a hospice for working girls, Don Bosco opened the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales for boys. Several wealthy & powerful patrons contributed money, enabling him to provide two workshops for the boys, shoemaking & tailoring.
By 1856, the institution had grown to 150 boys and had added a printing press for publication of religious and catechetical pamphlets. John’s interest in vocational education and publishing justify him as patron of young apprentices and Catholic publishers.
John’s preaching fame spread and by 1850 he had trained his own helpers because of difficulties in retaining young priests. In 1854, he and his followers informally banded together, inspired by Saint Francis de Sales.
The model of Saint John Bosco reminds us that our eyes need to be open to the needs of children and youth.
First, we are reminded that education starts at home; parents are the primary educators and it’s important to strive to help learn what matters most, which is why learning the faith matters and praying as a family and, of course Mass.
It means opening our eyes to when kids are hurting. Every parent knows that their children, just like they did, go through ups and downs. Being involved in their lives, knowing their friends, what they are looking at online or social media, or dealing with at school is so important. Or maybe we are aware of a situation in a home we are concerned about; as the Church abuse crisis reminded us, we must never be silent but always be proactive in protecting kids by reaching out to the authorities if we have a concern.
It means patience and perseverance. John Bosco dealt with a lot of negative people saying he couldn’t make a difference, even jealous priests saying he was taking parishioners from their flock. But he kept going. How patient God is with us, forgiving seventy times seven. Kids like adults, make poor choices at times. But with that, there’s the patience of remembering siblings learn differently and are unique personalities; the patience of working on homework after a busy day at work; or dealing with a child who would rather do anything but homework. All that work though is worth it, because it helps a child to grow and see one day “yes, I get it now, mom and dad knew what they were talking about.”
And lastly, let us never forget the importance of leading by example. When a child sees mom and dad say “I’m sorry” if they made a mistake; when a child sees mom and dad taking the family to Mass; or the hard work they do for the family; or the sacrifices they make, these things have a lasting impact.
Childhood is such a special time, and as I look back on mine I have many great memories, but also realize how much I learned about what ultimately mattered through the efforts of family, teachers & loved ones. Let us never forget what a difference we can make in helping our young learn about what matters most.
God bless, ~Fr. Paul
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