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Don Bosco: He loved much. Dreamt big. Showed the way. Joe Mannath SDB April 1, 1934. “Raise your voices and the sing the praises of the father of all youth,” sang thousands of young men joyfully as they accompanied the vehicle carrying the mortal remains of a poor country priest who had died in 1888. The Italian text of the song referred to his remains being carried in triumph from the hill where he had been buried, comparing it to the twenty-kilometer walk the same priest had taken to Turin from his native village with his poor, illiterate mother, with nothing but a big dream in his heart—and lots of love. He was penniless, his family name did not count for much, he had no influential relatives or friends. But he had the deep trust in God that his mother had taught him, and profound compassion for the homeless boys who roamed the streets in search of work, for whom no one seemed to care. Today, this man’s name is magic. Millions of young people in one hundred and thirtytwo countries around the world have found hope and learnt to live responsible lives because of this man—Don Bosco. Who was he? What did he do? Why does his name spell magic in so many cities, towns and villages around the world? How did the name “Don Bosco” become a source of hope for countless young people? What was his secret? How did he achieve the apparently impossible? * * * Don Bosco loved the young. He loved them with a sincerity, intensity and tenderness that broke down walls. When, as a young priest, he came to know the pathetic conditions of the young men in Turin’s crowded prisons, he approached the authorities with a proposal that bordered on lunacy: He asked for permission for take them for a picnic to the countryside, where they could enjoy freedom, fresh air, fun and games for a day. The minister whom he approached wondered whether this young priest was crazy. “None of them will come back,” he said, “They will all run away.” “I can guarantee that they will all be back,” replied Don Bosco calmly. Relenting a little, the minister asked about the number of policemen needed to accompany the group. Don Bosco’s reply shook him; he did not want any policemen, with or without uniform. Having managed somehow to get the minister to let a group of young prisoners go with him for a day’s outing, Don Bosco took the boys to the country, where they could be free, laugh and sing and play. At the end of the day, every one of them returned to the prison, as Don Bosco had guaranteed the authorities. Prisoners or not, Don Bosco loved the young, and be believed that they would respond to love. In fact, he was convinced that love yields far better results than punishments. Contrasting two methods of education, one based on rules and punishments (the “repressive system”) and the other based on warm relationships and kindness (the “preventive system”), Don Bosco chose the second, and showed by his extraordinary success that loving kindness reaps much richer rewards than punishments. When asked about the pillars on which this system was based, he mentioned three: reason, religion and loving kindness. Reason: Ask what is reasonable. Show the young that what you ask for is for their good. The educator does not just impose things. Religion: As beloved sons and daughters of God, human beings carry the stamp of the divine in their hearts. No education is complete unless it trains conscience. Good morals belong to the heart of training. Loving kindness: All of us long for love. This is particularly true of young people. They know who loves them and who doesn’t. When loved genuinely and generously, the young respond with all their heart. Love has the power to transform a person that threats and punishments do not. Don Bosco learnt this, not from books or theories, but from his experience. Joe Mannath: Don Bosco 1 When Joseph Buzzetti, one of his early collaborators, decided to quit in a huff, found a job in the city, and came to wish Don Bosco good-bye, the saint did not lecture him on his fickleness nor scold him for quitting. This is what he told him: “Joseph, I am glad you have found a job. But, although you have a job, at the beginning there will be hardships.” Opening his desk where some money was kept, he told Buzzetti, “You know this desk better than I do. Take from it whatever you need, and, whenever you need something, don’t hesitate to come and get it.” Then, looking at his young friend with evident tenderness, Don Bosco added, “Joseph, we have been friends. I hope you will not forget me.” Joseph Buzzetti burst into tears; he never left. Rough, uncouth young men and boys who swore and gambled, smelt bad and worked 12 to 16-hours days for a pittance, found in this unusual sort of priest someone who understood them, and really cared. They were drawn to him like a magnet. One such boy, Paul Albera, who later became the head of the worldwide Salesian order, said this about his experience with Don Bosco: “We were drawn into a current of love. We felt loved as we had never been loved before.” This miracle continues. Recently, when a priest went to use the Internet at one of Bangalore’s cyber-cafes, the young man in charge told him how he had run away from home and was roaming the streets when he was picked by the Don Bosco fathers and brothers. “I had fought with my father, and did not want to go back home. I may have ended up washing plates in a restaurant the rest of my life, and getting beaten up. I am what I am today because of the Salesians. They loved me, trained me, got me to speak to my father again. I was never made to feel different or unwanted for being a Hindu. They taught me to love my family again.” Don Bosco’s path of love inspired many men and women to choose the same kind of life. He himself founded two Catholic religious orders, one for men, called the Salesians, and another for women, called the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians (or, Salesian Sisters). The name “Salesian” comes from a saint he admired, Saint Francis de Sales, who used to say, “We catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” In other words, loving kindness wins over people better than harshness. Today, these two groups, and 26 other groups founded by Salesians, work in over 130 countries. Their method is what Don Bosco lived and taught—the preventive system of education, based on reason, religion and loving kindness. Don Bosco wanted his institutions to be genuine homes for the young, not cold, businesslike operations run by rules. Hence the insistence on family spirit as the leading trait of a Salesian house, and warm personal relationships as the fuel that makes everything run. Don Bosco knew how to combine a tender heart with great practical sense. Boys need love, boys need God, yes. But they also need food, jobs, recreation, wise guidance for the future. So, he wanted his Salesians to provide an integral education that helps a young person to earn a learning, become a responsible citizen and a caring spouse and parent, with concern for others and readiness to help. * * * He himself had to learn all this the hard way. He was born in 1815 in Becchi, a tiny village in Northern Italy. His father, a poor farmer, died when Johny was just two. His illiterate mother had to raise three boys all by herself. Poverty drove the little boy to go and work as a servant on a farm. He knew the meaning of hunger, helplessness and the indifference of clergy and other “big people.” Far from becoming bitter, he decided he would grow up into someone who would treat poor kids differently. He learnt many trades. Slept under staircases on a sack, and went to school with much smaller boys. Felt called to the priesthood, and decided to spend his life for homeless youth. His mother’s words to him on the day he was ordained a priest was a surprising bit of advice. After telling him that the priesthood was a path of suffering, she added, “If ever you have the misfortune to become rich, I will never cross your threshold.” Joe Mannath: Don Bosco 2 This poor, illiterate woman taught him more than his professors and books. She stood by him and cooked and washed and mended for his increasing groups of starving and homeless teenagers who knocked at their door. For them, she was simply “Mamma Margaret.” These kids needed a mother, and she was that for them. Even when famous and sought after by crowds and adored by royalty and common folk, Don Bosco remained a humble man who never forgot his origins, and who attributed all his success to God. He saw himself simply as a tiny, imperfect instrument in the hands of the good God. She saw Mary, the mother of Jesus, as his mother and teacher, and believed that it was she who did the wonders. In a dream at the age of nine, Jesus had given Mary to him as his true teacher, and told him how to change apparently wild and incorrigible youngsters: “Not with blows, but with kindness.” That was to be his method for winning over the young, and teaching them what was good for them. When he was in Paris, and huge crowds thronged to have a glimpse of this miracleworker from Turin, cutting off pieces of his cassock to keep as relics and bringing sick people to him to be blessed—many were miraculously healed—Don Bosco turned to a Salesian priest standing next to him and asked him whether he knew a particular country road going from Turin to his native village. When told yes, he replied, “By the side of that dirt road is a meadow; that is where I used to graze cows as a boy.” God raised this poor country boy and made him the father of millions of youth around the world. His secret is no secret: An unruffled trust in God that made him dream big, face what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles, and keep his soul at peace; genuine love for poor youth; confidence in the young. When criticized, for instance, he would quote this little bit of folk wisdom, “Do good, be cheerful, and let the sparrows chirp.” At his deathbed, as he lay dictating his last will and testament, when he uttered the words, “my dear boys,” Don Bosco was overcome by such tenderness his voice failed. He felt choked with emotion. This is the man whose heart embraced the world, and whose self-gift brought hope and new life to more young people than probably any other person in recent centuries. God blessed his work—better said, God’s own work, done through this humble, good man—beyond the wildest dreams of his contemporaries. Over 30,000 thousand Salesian Fathers, Brothers and Sisters work in 132 countries today, by preference among the poorest and the most forgotten. Other groups started by Salesians, too, count thousands of members. The Don Bosco family in India is large and very much alive, stretching from gigantic urban centres like Mumbai or Kolkata to the remotest villages of the North East. Its more than one thousand institutions include the largest network of technical schools in the country (after the government), the largest network of shelters for street children, sought after schools and colleges, parishes and missions. It aims at loving the young as Don Bosco loved them, providing a happy home for each child where he or she can grow up into a responsible, productive adult. The Salesian system of education, its results tested by time on every continent, is an integral programme of formation, training the body, head and heart. It is marked by trust, not suspicion; by prevention, not humiliating punishments; by optimism about the young, not disparaging comments. With Don Bosco, it believes in the young, and sees not only their needs and pains, but also their extraordinary potential. This system of education, much like parenting, is not easy, but the countless success stories in country after country have proved its effectiveness. Together with the young, the Salesians, Don Bosco’s spiritual sons and daughters, want to build a better world—of mutual love, prosperity and peace. One hundred and fifty years of experience in almost as many countries of the world shows that this dream has become a heartwarming reality for so many. Joe Mannath: Don Bosco 3 Don Bosco would often say, “It is enough for me that you are young, for me to love you.” His life was a living out of this love. We want to keep this love alive. We want the miracles of his dream to continue. We want to dream with the young, and make their best dreams come true. May the God-given power to love, which all of us carry in our hearts, find expression in reaching out to whoever needs us most. This is what Don Bosco did. This is what Don Bosco institutions in India and around the world are all about. Write down, in your own words: 1. What does it mean to me to be a Salesian of Don Bosco? 2. What attracts me to the priesthood/brotherhood? 3. Have I entered the spiritual journey—following Jesus and finding happiness in it— of this life, or am I merely doing some work, and leading a worldly life? 4. What are the things I like about Salesian life? And the things I do not like? Joe Mannath: Don Bosco 4