Don Bosco – Father and Friend of Youth
Don Bosco, here in India and most especially in Northeast India is synonymous with education and youth-work. However, Don Bosco or Johnny Bosco was born when the agrarian was slowly making way for the industrial in Europe. He in some way was a child of change who went on to become a significant transforming force in the Europe of 19th century. Born on 16 August 1815, he lost his father when he was only two. Adverse circumstances conspired against Margaret, his mother. They were poor, the breadwinner of the family died suddenly and the elder step-son Anthony was unreasonable and unyielding. Young Johnny inherited the indubitable courage and dynamism of his devout mother who, against all odds, groomed her children well with her limited possibilities. She was the most significant earthly driving force behind all he was later to achieve. She taught him to rely on God and Mother Mary, especially when the going was tough.
Johnny was a born leader and mastered every art that he required to maintain this leadership through music, magic, gymnastics and most of all, prayer. Ordained priest on 5 June 1841, he decided to do what his heart longed for, to work for poor and abandoned youth. He pursued the motto “Give me souls, take away the rest”. He gathered his enthusiastic co-workers into a religious society and called them ‘Salesians’ and they continue this magnificent work in 132 countries today.
Radically responding to the challenges of the times was the raison d’être of Don Bosco’s life. Undertaking activities considered insolent in his day, he attracted the wrath of civil and ecclesiastical authorities. He dared differ with many and looked across and beyond the familiar waters of rudderless, snug existence most citizens of Italy were familiar with. The Italy of his day was in a social quagmire with mass migration from villages to cities in a fledgling industrial country. Brisk industrialization brought about swift growth in economy but the living standards of the working class declined and decayed rapidly with several social and moral evils to boot. Young Johnny Bosco, a youth in penury himself, perceived the impending danger and plunged heart and soul into the throes of this absolutely uncharted territory of youth apostolate utterly unheard of and possibly unorthodox in his day.
Neither did he have the men nor the means but was equipped merely with a compassionate heart. He knew that the souls of the poor youth who came to the cities of Italy would be irreparably doomed without his decisive and instantaneous intervention. His being was afire with a burning zeal for the souls of these young people. He ventured out with tucked-in soutane and mingled freely with the young in the playgrounds, farms, factories and prisons. He was almost sent to a mental asylum and considered unfit for normal social intercourse and attempts were made on his life. He cared little for what people thought of him, for deep in his heart he knew God and Mary were by his side, and they on occasions miraculously provided him with resources for sustaining his work. Today he is raised to the altars as ‘Father and Teacher of Youth’ – an acknowledgement by the universal Church.