April 1, 1934. Thousands of young men sang 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 remainsbeing 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 village with this 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 deep 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 thirty-two countriesaround the world have found and learnt to live responsible lives because of this man – Don Bosco.
Who was he? What did world? What did he do? Why dies his name spell magic in so many cities, towns and villages around the world? How did the name “Don Bosco”becomea 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 thatbroke down walls.
When, as a young priest, he cameto know the pathetic conditions ofthe young men in Turin’s crowdedprisons, he approached theauthorities with a proposal thatbordered on lunacy. He asked for permission to take them for apicnic to the countryside, wherethey could enjoy freedom, freshair, fun and games for a day. The minister whom he approached wondered whether this young priest was crazy. “None of themwill come back,” he said, “Theywill all run away.” “I can guaranteethat they will all be back,” repliedDon Bosco calmly. Relenting alittle, the minister asked aboutthe number of policemen neededto accompany the group. DonBosco’s reply shook him; he didnot want any policemen, with orwithout uniform. Having managedsomehow to get the minister tolet a group of young prisonersgo with him for a day’s outing, Don Bosco took the boys to thecountry, where they could befree, laugh and sing and play. Atthe end of the day, every one ofthem returned to the prison, asDon Bosco had guaranteed theauthorities.
Prisoners or not, Don Boscoloved the young, and he believedthat they would respond to love.In fact, he was convinced thatlove yields far better results thanpunishments.
Contrasting two methods ofeducation, one based on rulesand punishments (the “repressivesystem”) and the other based onwarm relationships and kindness(the “preventive system”), DonBosco chose the second, andshowed by his extraordinarysuccess that loving kindnessreaps much richer rewards thanpunishments. When asked aboutthe pillars on which this systemwas based, he mentioned three: reason, religion and lovingkindness.
Reason: Ask what is reasonable.Show the young that what you askfor is for their good. The educatordoesnot just impose things.
Religion: Human beings carry thestamp of the divine in their hearts.No education is complete unless it trains conscience. Good moralsbelong to the heart of training.A right relationship to God is thebasis for a happy life.
Loving kindness: All of us long forlove. This is particularly true ofyoung people. They know wholoves them and who doesn’t.When loved genuinely andgenerously, the young respondwith all their heart. Love has thepower to transform a person thatthreats and punishments do not.Don Bosco learnt this, not from books or theories, but from hisexperience.
When Joseph Buzzetti, one ofhis early collaborators, decidedto quit in a huff, found a job inthe city, and came to wish DonBosco good-bye, the saint didnot lecture him on his ficklenessnor scold him for quitting. This is what he told him: “Joseph, Iam glad you have found a job.But, although you have a job, at the beginning there will behardships.” Opening his deskwhere some money was kept, he told Buzzetti, “You knowthis desk better than I do. Takefrom it whatever you need, and, whenever you need something, don’t hesitate to come and get it.”Then, looking at his young friendwith evident tenderness, DonBosco added, “Joseph, we havebeen friends. I hope you will notforget me.” Joseph Buzzetti burst into tears; he never left.
Rough, uncouth young men andboys who swore and gambled,smelt bad and worked 12 to16 hours a day for a pittance,found in this unusual sort ofpriest someone who understoodthem, and really cared. Theywere drawn to him like a magnet.One such boy, Paul Albera, wholater became the head of theworldwide Salesian order, saidthis about his experience withDon Bosco: “We were drawn intoa current of love. We felt loved aswe had never been loved before.”
This miracle continues. Recently, when a priest went to use theInternet at one of Bangalore’scyber-cafes, the young man incharge told him how he hadrun away from home and wasroaming the streets when he waspicked by the Don Bosco fathersand brothers. “I had fought withmy father, and did not want to goback home. I may have ended upwashing plates in a restaurant therest of my life, and getting beatenup. I am what I am today becauseof the Salesians. They loved me, trained me, got me to speak to myfather again. I was never madeto feel different or unwanted forbeing a Hindu. They taught me tolove my family again.
Don Bosco’s path of love inspired many men and women to choosethe same kind of life. He himselffounded two Catholic religiousorders, one for men, calledthe Salesians, and another forwomen, called the Daughters
Of Mary, Help of Christians (or, Salesian Sisters). The name”Salesian” comes from a saint headmired, Saint Francis de Sales, who used to say, “We catch moreflies with a spoonful of honey thanwith a barrel of vinegar.” In otherwords, loving kindness wins overpeople better than harshness.
Today, these two groups, and26 other groups founded bySalesians, work in over 130countries. Their method is whatDon Bosco lived and taught – the preventive system of education, based on reason, religion andloving kindness. Don Boscowanted his institutions to begenuine homes for the young, notcold, businesslike operations runby rules. Hence the insistence onfamily spirit as the leading traitof a Salesian house and warmpersonal relationships as the fuelthat makes everything run.
Don Bosco knew how to combinea tender heart with great practicalsense. Boys need love, boysneed God, yes. But they also need food, jobs, recreation, and wise guidance for the future. So, he wanted his Salesians to providean integral education that helps ayoung person to earn a learning,become a responsible citizen anda caring spouse and parent, withconcern for others and readinessto help.
He himself had to learn all thisthe hard way. His father, a poorfarmer, died when Johnny was just two. His illiterate mother hadto raise three boys all by herself.Poverty drove the little boy to goand 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, hedecided he would grow up intosomeone who would treat poorkids differently. He learnt manytrades, slept under staircases ona sack, and went to school withmuch smaller boys. Felt called tothe priesthood, and decided tospend his life for homeless youth. His mother’s words to him on the day he was ordained a priest wasa surprising bit of advice. Aftertelling him that the priesthood wasa path of suffering, she added,”If ever you have the misfortuneto become rich, I will never crossyour threshold.” Although muchmoney passed through his hands, Don Bosco remained poor, andhe stayed close to the poor.
Even when famous and soughtafter by crowds and adored byroyalty and common folk, DonBosco remaineda humble manwho never forgot his origins, andwho attributed all his successto God. He saw himself simplyas a tiny, imperfect instrument inthe hands of the good God. Ina dream at the age of nine, Godrevealed to him how to changeapparently wild and incorrigibleyoungsters: “Not with blows, butwith kindness.” That was to behis method for winning over theyoung, and teaching them whatwas good for them.
When he was in Paris, and hugecrowds thronged to have aglimpse of this miracle-workerfrom Turin, bringing sick peopleto him to be blessed- many weremiraculously healed-Don Boscoturned to someone standing nextto him and asked him whether heknew a particular country roadgoing from Turin to his nativevillage. When told yes, he replied,”By the side of that dirty road is ameadow; that is where I used tograze cows as a boy.”
God raised this poor countryboy and made him the fatherof millions of youth around theworld. His secret is no secret: Anunruffled trust in God that madehim dream big, face what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles, and keep his soul at peace; genuine love for poor youth;confidence in the young. Whencriticized, for instance, he wouldquote this little bit of folk wisdom,”Do good, be cheerful, and let thesparrows chirp.”
At his deathbed, as he laydictating his last will andtestament, when he uttered thewords, “my dear boys,” DonBosco was overcome by suchtenderness his voice failed. Hefelt choked with emotion. This isthe man whose heart embracedthe world, and whose self-giftbrought hope and new life tomore young people than probablyany other person in recentcenturies.
God blessed his work-bettersaid, God’s own work, donethrough this humble, good manbeyondthe wildest dreams ofhis contemporaries. Over 30,000thousand Salesian Fathers, Brothers and Sisters work in 132countries today, by preferenceamong the poorest and the mostforgotten. Other groups started bySalesians, too, count thousandsof members.
The Don Bosco family in India is large and very much alive, stretching from gigantic urban centers like Mumbai or Kolkatato the remotest villages. Itsmore than one thousandservice centres include the largest network of technicalschools in the country (after thegovernment), the largest networkof shelters for street children, 226 “youth at risk” centrescatering to 292,000 boys andgirls, sought after schools andcolleges, popular youth centres.It aims at loving the young asDon Bosco loved them, providinga happy home for each childwhere he or she can grow upinto a responsible, productiveadult. The Salesian system ofeducation, its results tested bytime on every continent, is an integral programme of formation, training the body, head andheart. It is marked by trust, notsuspicion; by prevention, nothumiliating punishments; byoptimism about the young, notdisparaging comments. WithDon Bosco, it believes in theyoung, and sees not only theirneeds and pains, but also theirextraordinary potential. Thissystem of education, much likeparenting, is not easy, but thecountless success stories incountry after country have provedits effectiveness.
Together with the young, theSalesians, Don Bosco’s spiritualsons and daughters, want tobuild a better world-of mutuallove, prosperity and peace.One hundred and fifty years ofexperience in almost as manycountries of the world shows thatthis dream has become a heartwarmingreality for so many.
Don Bosco would often say, “Itis enough for me that you areyoung, 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 hisdream to continue
We want to dream with the young, and make their best dreams cometrue.
May the God-given power to love, which all of us carry in our hearts, find expression in reaching out towhoever needs us the most.
This is what Don Bosco did.
This is what Don Boscoinstitutions in India and aroundthe world are all about.