The Story of a Dream

31 Dec

A Dream turns into Reality

The Dream
When John had a dream at the age of nine his eldest brother thought he was crazy and some of the neighbours wrote him off as a dreamer. But his saintly mother had a hunch that probably God had designs for him. Her three boys went their separate ways but John the youngest decided he would become a priest and work for deprived and abandoned youth. He went through difficult and trying times but he was able to get human and divine interventions to help him reach his goal. Providence continued to play a significant part in his plans and ventures. Soon John, as a priest, took on the establishment and set up organizations to address the youth issue.

At a time, in the 19th Century, when religious movements and Christian organizations were under scrutiny and were being suppressed by secular authority, John, almost singlehandedly organized groups and societies that would initiate and support educational and social ventures. He founded religious Orders for men and for women and other lay organizations that would support these initiatives.

John never forgot his roots. The loss of his father when he was only two years old, due to a severe bout of pneumonia, left a void that psychologists and sociologists believe propelled him into starting off the dynamic ventures and initiatives that made a difference to society. With no father-figure around he depended on his mother while growing up. She in turn watched over him and supported him even during his early days at the fledgling projects he started for young people. In fact she played a powerful role in shaping his personality and giving him a sense of direction.

The Dream shows promise
John was born in the evening of 16 August 1815 in the hillside hamlet of Becchi, in Piedmont, in northern Italy. He was the youngest of the three boys of Francis and Margaret Bosco. Together with his elder brothers, Anthony and Joseph, John helped to run the farm of his father. John was born into a time of great shortages, following the devastation caused by the Napoleonic wars and the drought of 1817

In 1825, when he was nine, John had the first of a series of dreams which would play an influential role in his life. This first dream left a profound and lasting impression on him, as his memoirs record. In his dream John apparently saw a great number of very poor boys who were blaspheming as they played their games. Then a man appeared who was nobly attired, with a manly and imposing bearing. The man told him: You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.

Meanwhile when the travelling entertainers performed at local fairs in the nearby hills, John watched and studied the jugglers’ tricks and the acrobats’ secrets. He then put on shows of his own showing off skills as a juggler, magician and acrobat, however with prayers before and after each performance. That was the twist that made the difference. These were his early attempts to try and get his message across to the great army of young people he (and later his followers) would one day encounter through schools, colleges, youth centres and institutions.

The Dream has problems
John’s family weren’t by any means well off and Margaret struggled to provide for everyone. There was little she could do to get John through any schooling. John’s early years were spent as a shepherd. He received his first instructions in academic learning from a kind parish priest. His childhood experiences are thought to have inspired him to become a priest. He had winning ways and knew instinctively how to stop a fight and how to comfort some of his mates when they suffered in any way.

But, at that time, being a priest was generally seen as a profession for the privileged classes, rather than farmers, though there was the occasional surprise when a farmer’s child achieved that position. Some of his neighbours and even some of his biographers portray his older brother Anthony as the main obstacle to John’s ambition to study. Whenever John brought into the home a book to read or some little assignment his parish priest had given him Anthony would bully him out of developing any form of study habits. Anthony kept protesting that John was just a farmer like any of them and did not need any book to do his farming chores.

Margaret however kept tabs on the sensitivities and aspirations of her beloved John. She did her best to shield him from the taunts of Anthony, and saved up her pennies to allow John to follow his aspirations. And so it all finally happened when, on a cold morning in February 1827, John left his home on an adventure that would lead him to new horizons. This was a small step, but a significant one. He went to look for work as a farm-servant. At 12, he found life at home unbearable because of the continuous quarrels with Anthony. Having to face life by himself at such a young age may have helped him develop his later sympathies to help abandoned boys. After begging unsuccessfully for work, John ended up at the wine farm of Louis Moglia.

However, John was not able to attend school for another two years. His first break-through came in 1830 when he met Joseph Cafasso, an elderly priest, who spotted the natural talent in John. He supported John’s early efforts at learning. This in fact was the first schooling that John went through. He had to use his own learning skills to enhance the bits that Cafasso had led him into. It is difficult to imagine the amount of specific and all-round knowledge that John had by now acquired. What was amazing is that he proved to be bright and qualified enough to enter the seminary. Life moved on, and after six years of study, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1836 in Turin.

The Dream moves on
At that time the city of Turin was just a reflection of what industrialization and urbanization had done. Young and old flocked to the cities for work of any sort. Numerous needy families ended up in the slums of the city, leaving poor but fairly stable settings in the countryside in the hope of a better life in the cities. In visiting the prisons John was disturbed to see among the inmates many 12 to 18-year-old boys. He was determined to find a means to prevent them ending up there. John found the traditional methods of parish ministry ineffective for this rapid increase of people migrating to the city. He decided to try another approach. He began to meet boys where they worked and gathered i.e. in shops, offices, market places. They were pavers, stone-cutters, masons, plasterers who came from far-away places

In addition to his search errands, he founded the ‘Oratorio’ (a modern-day ‘Youth Centre’, where educational nurturing leads young people towards healthy moral living and prayerful habits), as his main Sunday ministry. It was not however just a charitable institution, and its activities were not limited to Sundays. For John it became his permanent occupation. He looked for jobs for the unemployed young people who came to him. Some of these boys did not have any place to stay, and often slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories. On two occasions he tried to provide lodgings in his own little house. The first time he tried that the boys stole the blankets. On the second occasion they emptied the hay-loft. But John did not give up.

In May 1847, John gave shelter to a young boy, in one of the three rooms he was renting in the slums of Valdocco, in Turin, where he was living with his mother. They then began taking in orphans. Before they could realize it the number of sheltered boys had grown from 36 in 1852 to nearly 800 in the late 1860s. John struggled to find a permanent home for his Oratorio. He was turned out of several places in succession. Some people even lodged complaints to the municipality because these street boys had not yet been trained enough to behave properly all the time. But John was an optimist. He never gave up.

The Dream keeps growing
Some of the boys helped by John were inspired by him, and offered to do what he was doing. They began to help John in his work in the service of abandoned boys. They liked what he did and decided to team up with him wherever and whenever they could. This was the origin of the Salesian Society. Among the first members were Michael Rua, John Cagliero (who later became a Cardinal), and John Baptist Francesia.

John took heart from that and, in 1859, selected the experienced priest Vittorio Alasonatti, 15 seminarians and one high school boy and formed them into the ‘Society of St. Francis de Sales.’ This was the nucleus of the Salesian Society, the religious Order that would carry on his work. He chose Francis de Sales, the French saint, as his patron because he wanted his followers to imitate the kindness and gentleness of this Saint. The word ‘Salesian’ in fact comes from ‘Sales’. When the group had their next meeting, they voted on the admission of Joseph Rossi as a lay member, the first Salesian Brother. The Salesian Society now consisted of priests, seminarians and Lay Brothers.

John then worked out a similar plan for women with a lady, Mary Mazzarello, in the hill town of Mornese, in Piedmont. In 1871, with her he founded a society of religious Sisters to do for girls what the Salesians were doing for boys. They were called the ‘Daughters of Mary Help of Christians’.

The Dream crosses boundaries
When John founded the Salesian Society, the thought of setting up his centres in ‘foreign’ lands still obsessed him, though he knew realistically that he lacked the funds to support his plans. John himself expressed his wish to go to work for young people in other lands. John claimed he had seen another dream where he was on a vast plain, inhabited by primitive peoples, who spent their time hunting or fighting among themselves or against soldiers in European uniforms. He then saw a band of priests but they were all massacred. A second group then appeared which John at once recognized as Salesians. He was then surprised to witness an unexpected change. When his Salesians approached them the fierce savages laid down their arms and listened to them. This dream made a great impression on John but he remained puzzled for the best part of three years trying to identify the places he saw in the dream.

As his society began functioning requests began coming in from countries in Europe and from beyond. One of the requests was from Patagonia in Argentina. A study of the people there convinced him that the country and its inhabitants were the ones he had seen in his dream. It was not long before John did receive requests to open centres in Argentina. John regarded this as a sign of providence and joyfully began preparing his followers for these projects. He sent letters to his Salesians asking for volunteers for these plans. He got more volunteers than he needed which spoke of the generosity of his first Salesians. He also ensured that in the arrangements he made with Bishops that his Salesians would not be placed where unfriendly tribes could harm their work.

The Dream Today (2014)
The Head of the Salesians is the Rector Major. The Society has 94 geographical provinces each of them headed by a Provincial, who serves a six-year term. The Rector Major and his General Council of Advisers also have a six-year term and are chosen by representatives from all the provinces in the world who form the General Chapter. Each local community is headed by a superior who is called a Rector who is appointed for a three-year term.

The present Rector Major is Father Angel Fernandez Artime, who was elected on 25th March 2014. Perhaps it was not by a mere coincidence that Father Angel, during his time as a Provincial in southern Argentina, came into close contact with Pope Francis, who was then Archbishop (later Cardinal) Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The Salesians today operate shelters for homeless or at-risk youths; schools; technical, vocational, and language instruction centers for youths and adults; and boys’ clubs and community centres. In some areas they run parishes. The Salesians are also active in publishing and in communication activities, and in educational-pastoral work across the world. The Salesians publish their official publication, the Salesian Bulletin, in 32 languages.
The Salesians (SDB) today number over 17,000 working in over 120 countries. The Salesian Sisters, [the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians] (FMA), number more than 15,000 in the world. The Salesians today also run over 58 colleges and universities. The official university of the Salesian Society is the Salesian Pontifical University (UPS) in Rome. In India, the Salesians started India’s first Catholic University, in Guwahati, Assam: Don Bosco University.
John also established a group called the Salesian Cooperators and another worldwide group called the Past Pupils (of the SDB & of the FMA). The Cooperators are lay people who live the spirituality and ministry of the Salesians. The Past Pupils are men and women who as young people attended a Salesian school, club or parish. Both these groups bring to the workplace, the home and to society the special Salesian ‘charism’ of joyful service that they imbibed during their student days.
John also pioneered a different style of education. He introduced the ‘Preventive System’ which provides guidance and a sense of direction to youth so that they can focus on their personal growth and development. The ‘preventive’ criterion believes in the strength of the good already present in every youngster, and seeks to develop this through positive experiences. It uses three pillars as supports in this system: reason, religion and charity.

‘Reason’ allows for flexibility and persuasiveness in the education process. ‘Religion’ seeks to develop the sense of God present in every person. ‘Charity’ or loving-kindness enables growth and socio-educational development. This System has proved itself over time more than 125 years after John, popularly known as Don Bosco, left this world in 1888. ‘Don’ meant priest [Father or Reverend] in Italian and John wanted to be known simply as Don Bosco. The Church by making him a Saint in the Catholic Church not only singled him out as an outstanding model of holiness but also confirmed the effectiveness of his System of Education.

Young people today across the world stand in endless queues to enrol in a Don Bosco institution, or proudly proclaim the ‘Salesian’ experience they treasure. The Salesians [men and women Orders, and associate Institutes] celebrate the feast of their Founder, Saint John Bosco, or Don Bosco, each year on 31st January.

[Facts from the DB Net sites: written jointly by Una Reeves and T.D’Souza –for Trodza: 31.12.14]

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