Who is this Don Bosco? This is a question that many ask when they get in contact with the figure of a person with a deep influence in history. Definitively, he is not a politician and probably not an inventor or scientist. Such exclusion from those areas could mean that there would be a lack of interest on a man of religion. In our century and especially in the West, religion seems mostly something about fundamentalism, even terrorism and, even, obscurantism. What this Don Bosco has to say to the children and youth from the 21th century? The children of the galaxies, of the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets in far away galaxies, the children of the Curiosity robot explorer on Mars, of the quantum physics, artificial intelligence and black holes? Even worst, a man of the Catholic Church who was so near to the Pope during the Unification of Italy, to the children of globalization that become friends now of anybody across the continents, breaking barriers of languages, ideologies, ethnics and religions.
Going back almost 200 years ago, we find that Don Bosco was already a character of big interest in a century of global changes, not to far from the kind of changes we are living in our own time. The 19th century was also the end of a world as we used to know it. It was the end of the Napoleonic ambitions in Europe, the decay of the Spanish Empire, the beginning of European hunger to make new colonies in Africa, Asia and Oceania, the upcoming of new empires (UK, Russia, USA, Germany, France and Japan), the growing of new countries, the golden era of industrialization and the invention of almost most of the things we enjoy many decades after, from electricity to telecommunications, from medicine to physics and astronomy. How could a povero prette di campagna (a simple countryman priest) could survive in a so troublesome time of cleric persecution and even founded a new Catholic order?
The Diviner of the Century
The figure of Don Bosco attracted the attention of many people and groups in his own span of life (1816-1888). It is not only about Catholics or Church goers, but also people that supposed not to be near to the Church and even against it. Pope Pius IX, the last King-Pope of the Pontifical States, used to call him The Treasure of Italy. The Metropolitan Archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Gaetano Alimonda (1818-1891) referred to Don Bosco as the Diviner of the Century. But these characters were men of Church and it seems logic. It becomes more interesting when we explore the appreciation from persons who supposed to opposed any Church’s man. Here we have Primer Minister Urbano Rattazzi (1808-1876), anticlerical and nationalist, who said that Don Bosco was the biggest miracle of our century.
Today, 130 years after the dead of Don Bosco, we still talking about him. But not only talking, but acting in his name in 133 countries of the planet, most of them non-Catholic countries. What is behind this man who created a global movement of children, youth and educators able to stay inside the most dissimilar societies?
In his own span of life, Saint John Bosco was a man of difficulties, suffering and commitment. An orphan of father since he was 3 years old, his mother could not afford to give him education. The founder of a visionary educative movement that would prosper for the following two centuries, did not have a Don Bosco school to joint. Far from the assumption of a cruel brother that would not support his ideal to study (it was about a poor Piedmont farmer family of the first part of the 19th century, in a society that being poor meant to be a only a farmhand or to migrate to a city as a young worker inside a factory,) Antony Bosco was just following the tendencies of his own time. Far from a villain, his brother would meant his own father, ready to form his own character and to fight for his dreams. And it was about Don Bosco: a man with a dream.
Don Bosco was a son of his own century. He was a renascent man, learned in everything. He was a man of skills: from a baker to a carpenter, from a student of Latin, Greek, English, French and Spanish to a musician. A man difficult to forget if it happened to meet him in person, as it was witnessed in several written testimonies, from official to unofficial sources. As a Catholic priest, he would enter inside the chaotic system of the Turin industrial revolution after 1841 to rescue those with whom he felt more identified: the child and young migrants from the impoverished farms that were object of exploitation in the modern industries. He took out from those places those that were only important as cheap workforce – But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27).
With a handful of disinherited boys in Turin, he was going to change the past, to build the present and to touch the future. The history talks about Don Bosco as a visionary, able to see future events. Probably he could not imagine his special educative project walking throughout the steps of Siberia and Mongolia, climbing the Andes picks, entering the deep of the Amazon jungles, walking with African nomad tribes, sitting in contemplation on the Indian cities and standing on hundreds of islands, desserts, towns, cities of his time and the decades to come.
Keys of Don Bosco survival
Maybe one key of the Don Bosco survival was that he did not intend to let a monolith of an institution. Although he gave his rule to the first Salesian missionaries in 1877 going to South America, the Don Bosco method of education is based in very simple principles that we can resume in this: the rejection for any sort of punishment that would diminish the young and the preference for what he insisted to call the Salesian assistance and preventive system. It is being with the young all the time, any time in such a way that they never feel alone but promoted in their own talents and do not have the opportunity to fall into the traps of temptations.
In our modern society and with the development of the digital technologies, we witness a big network of interconnected people, especially the young, definitively busy online, but with a deep feeling of loneliness. Looking to the past, reviewing this treasure of the Don Bosco’s teaching, we find always the orientation of what we have to do: go along with the youth, stay at their side, learn their expectations and never get obsolete in our approach to the development of technologies, science and tendencies. He dedicated all his own personal resources and talents to the young people he cared more. He kept far from ideologies that could distract him from his mission. These were the keys that allow Don Bosco to enter into dissimilar societies from around the world, making great contributions.
Today, during the 130th anniversary of his dead in Turin, we can see students, teachers and past pupils from 133 countries, Catholics, Lutherans, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, all ethnics, most languages, calling John Bosco as their Don Bosco.
Happy Feast from Cambodia.