By Jim Fogarty
On August 16 this year, the bicentenary of the birth of John Bosco will be commemorated, not alone in Ireland, but throughout many other countries. The saint is the patron of young people and to-day the Salesians are carrying on the work of their founder.
The basis of their work is to serve the youth and inspire them to create their future wellbeing with hope and joy.
John Bosco was born in Castelnuovo d’Asti, east of Turin, in North Italy, in 1815, two months after the Emperor Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in Belgium. Like so many great saints, John Bosco was born of parents who found every day existence just at an acceptable level.
They were poor farmers in a bad economic society at a period when there was mass movement of people to North Italy. Large cities were growing up rapidly. The great industrial revolution saw many young people – before their teenage years – working long hours in factories and they lost trust in adults and faced a difficult future.
To mitigate matters Don Bosco’s father died when he was two years old. His mother, Margaret Occhiena, struggled to rear her family of three – John, Anthony and Joseph- but always was an educator with unbounded faith and made religion a priority for her siblings and neighbouring children.
This was a period when forty per cent of youths in the city of Turin were illiterate.
As a youngster John Bosco had a dream to become a priest. He had the gift to perform magic tricks, had a great love for young people and, with his background, knew their very needs. He was inspired by divine providence that his life was to take this path and he organised young boys in his own hamlet to teach them catechism and encourage them to attend church. This was made easier for him as they were attracted to his tricks and approachable manner.
He was fifteen years old when he began formal schooling (five years older than most of his contemporaries) and he often begged for money to pay the school fees. But he struggled on and was ordained a priest at twenty five years of age and then spent three years in a pastoral centre in Turin.