In so many ways, Don Bosco was proof that ‘our native place makes us who we are’.
Don Bosco did not go to look for young people in faraway places or special locations; he simply learned to see everything that happened in the city with the eyes of God. Many people lived in the same city, many criticised these young people, but they were unable to look at them with the eyes of God. Young people must be looked at with the eyes of God.Pope Francis, World Youth Day, Panama, 2019
Don Bosco was born into a poor peasant family, living on the Piedmont slopes of Northern Italy – in a hamlet called Becchi, which is today the site of Colle Don Bosco. Bosco’s father, Francis, was a tenant farmer and his mother was Margaret Occhiena – who would later join him at his Oratory in Turin. Bosco had an older step-brother Anthony and a brother, Joseph. Bosco’s father died from pneumonia when Bosco was just two years of age, leaving the children to grow up in a one-parent family. From an early age, Bosco developed a belief in the importance of family. His family lived in great poverty, and in order to continue his education Bosco was forced to beg and ask for help from benefactors, while he also relied on his own resourcefulness, and competed for awards.
In 2019, the Salesian family in Ireland marked a hundred years of working and supporting young people and their families in this country – and today you will find Salesians wherever there is work to be done with needy young people.
From schools to youth clubs and homes for the homeless. From working as missionaries with street children to serving as chaplains in schools – Salesians are here to give our valuable young people hope, love and the chance of a better future.
It Started as a Dream
When he was 9 year’s old, Bosco had the first of what became known as his ‘vocation dreams’. He dreamed that he was in a large yard full of children who were playing games, laughing and some swearing. Bosco was about to intervene and take on the group in a fight to stop the swearing – but was stopped by the sudden appearance of a man. Nobly-dressed, the man called Bosco by his name and told him to take charge of the children – speaking the words that would form the basis of his pedagogy of education:
You will have to win these friends of yours not by blows, but by gentleness and love.
His mother’s hard work along with divine providence in the form of gifts from generous neighbours, friends and the local clergy – meant that Bosco could pursue the education he needed to enter the seminary, in Chieri, in October 1835. He was ordained on 5 June 1841.
On the advice of his mentor, Fr Cafasso, Don Bosco continued his studies at the Convitto in Turin. Here he worked as chaplain in the city prisons, which profoundly shaped his choice and style of work. He was shocked by the prisoners’ personal stories of hardship, their sense of rejection and anger, and the fact that many had stolen out of desperation, hunger and the sheer need to survive. He saw too that “many were released full of good resolutions to go straight – and yet in a short time, they landed back in prison”.
It was this experience that prompted Bosco to offer these young people what has become known as the Valdocco model of festive oratory. This centred on:
the creation of a time and space in which young people feel welcomed, are offered the basis for creating a livelihood for themselves and their future families, an opportunity for common recreation and to make friends, and to learn human and religious values to sustain them and society itself.
Creating Spaces for the Young
Don Bosco created spaces where young people felt welcomed and had a sense of belonging. He made sure these spaces had four key qualities – qualities which continue to define our work today.
- The feel of HOME – a secure space and a positive family experience.
- The learning energy of a SCHOOL, with a focus on knowledge and a positive and safe relationship between educator and the student.
- The relaxation of a PLAYGROUND, where friendships can be built.
- The spirituality of a CHURCH – where the young are invited and encouraged to embrace their faith and explore the purpose and meaning of life.
In this way, Don Bosco helped young people discover and develop their potential and become well-rounded adults who could bring value to their communities and the world.