Don Bosco lost his father when he was two, an event that shaped his whole life. Growing up without a father’s love made him sensitive to young people on the margins, lost and in danger, to whom he became a father; a father to the ‘fatherless’.
The gospel image he found most expressive was that of the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and is prepared to give his life for them. In his own life this became, ‘For you I study, for you I work, for you I live, for you I am even willing to give my life’. As the burden of caring grew, he gathered around him men and women willing, in similar fashion, to share their lives with the young and the poor. He chose Francis de Sales as patron for his gentleness and patience to guide them.
His life’s direction was confirmed by certain recurring dreams, the first of which, at nine years of age, never left him. It describes a field of young people at play and the young Giovanni getting involved with loud words and fists to stop them ‘swearing’. A man dressed in a white cloak appears whose face is dazzling. He calls the boy by name and asks him to take charge of the others but says that they can only be won over by gentleness and love. He then points to the lady beside him who takes the boy’s hand. She will teach him how to be sensitive to the most troubled hearts.
This then becomes his whole life, this desire to bring the good news of unconditional love to the young and to bring young people to accept Jesus as their closest friend. In the context of education (in the broadest sense), based entirely on ‘reason, religion and loving kindness’, he found a way to do this.
Don Bosco’s way is about presence, about family, about ‘being there’ for young people – sharing time, fun, prayer, encouragement, love. The credo of the Salesian family reads: ‘we believe that God awaits us in the young to offer us the grace of serving him’.
The arrival of a relic of Don Bosco in February next year is an opportunity to re-visit his spirituality and be inspired once again. Our focus will not be on the relic itself but on the blessing which his ‘presence’ among us brings. As much as in his day, young people need the affirmation of fathering; you are my beloved son/daughter; I believe in you! ‘They must know they are loved’.