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Loving the Hearts of Our Youth (a la St. John Bosco)

feast of st. john bosco

For a brief period of time in my young adult life I explored a vocation as a high school science teacher. As I immersed myself in the day-to-day joys and challenges of classroom life, I found myself developing a fond devotion for the Italian saint we celebrate today: Saint John Bosco.

The beloved “Don Bosco”, as he preferred to be called, turned out to be my intercessor for every single kid who was struggling with home life, with a particular sin, or with memorizing the minutiae of some tough concept in biology or anatomy. In a special way I asked for his intercession whenever I knew one of my students felt unloved, unwanted, or unseen. Don Bosco held a particular love for such young people.

What St. John Bosco Would Want Us to Know about the Youth

If you’ve never read any books on this mid-19th century Italian priest with a love for youth, this little one is a gem. Whether you work with youth as an educator or youth minister, or whether you are simply a parent, godparent, aunt, or big sister, you know that the challenges facing our youth today are many. I often wonder, if dear Don Bosco were alive today, what wisdom he might offer for bringing the hearts of today’s youth to the heart of Christ.

Our hearts form their hearts.

St. John was born impoverished into the little village of Becchi, Italy, in the summer of 1815. By the age of two, he has already lost his father to pneumonia. He began his discernment toward the priesthood as a young boy, and would often find that Our Lady would visit him in his dreams, encouraging him as he steadfastly saved the money necessary to attend seminary.

I find it striking that Don Bosco, fatherless from such a young age, would go on to become a spiritual father to hundreds of orphan boys. It was as if the Lord was preparing his heart to be attentive to the needs of young men and boys who were grieving similar losses. It reminds me that the Lord continually uses the crosses of our own lives to connect with the hearts of our youth.

Confidence and love.

“You can do nothing with young people unless you have their confidence and love,” St. John was known for saying.

At an early age, St. John connected with a traveling circus, and learned from them the arts of juggling and acrobatics. He’d later use those skills to attract school children to a performance, only to follow it with a preaching of the homily he had heard earlier in the day! Good Don Bosco knew that souls come to Christ through relationship. His playful, unassuming character meant that youth were drawn to him and trusted him. This formed the foundation for their relationship.

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Our Sacraments become their Sacraments.

Don Bosco’s approach wasn’t all fun and games, though. Fiercely devoted to the sacramental life, to prayer, and to the study of Scripture, he continually availed himself of the Sacraments and encouraged his boys to do the same. An afternoon of soccer in an Italian field, for example, would always be followed by Mass and Confession. St. John’s love of Christ and His mother couldn’t help but rub off on the boys, who desired to emulate their spiritual father in all things.

At one time one of Don Bosco’s younger boys had his heart set on making a good Confession. According to author F.A. Forbes, the story goes something like this:

Boy writes his sins down on a piece of paper.

Boy promptly loses them.

Boy is found in tears by Don Bosco.

“What’s the matter?” he asks.

“I have lost my sins.”

“Good business!” says Don Bosco encouragingly. “You will go straight to heaven if you have no sins.”

“It’s the paper where I’d written them,” the boy persists, “I can’t find it!”

The boys face lights up as Don Bosco pulls the list of sins out of his pocket and he quips, “If I’d known it was you who had them, Father, I should just have said, ‘Father, I accuse myself of all the sins you have in your pocket.’”

The tenderhearted approach that Don Bosco had with his youth is a reminder that our young people will find a home in the Church when they know that they are first, loved, and second, forgiven.

But it must start with ourselves. Are we also finding mercy in the Sacraments and inviting our youth along for the same? We could learn so much by Don Bosco’s example.

“Always leave something with Providence.”

While Don Bosco’s imprint on the hearts of Italian youth was impressive, his pocketbook was not. He was born poor and died poor. Between birth and death he was always begging for one thing or another—money for a new church or school or other program for his growing Oratory for boys.

“Leave something with Providence,” he would often say. By that he meant that in spite of the most magnificent plans we can make, God is always the one who meets our needs. Perhaps we can be mindful of that wisdom in our own work with youth. We may pour in hours of sacrificial time and energy but ultimately, our children’s hearts are in the hand of Providence. Don Bosco entrusted everything to the Lord, and we can, too.

“A largeness of heart as the sand on the seashore.”

John Bosco died on January 31st, 1888. His last message for his many dear spiritual sons was this:

Live together as brothers, love each other and bear with each other. The protection of Our Lady, Help of Christians, will always be with you.

At the time of Don Bosco’s death, close to 800 boys were living at the Oratory that he had built. Forty-six years later, over 80,000 people gathered in Rome for his canonization, and since then his order has gone on to serve young people throughout the world.

Wrote Pope Pius XI of the beloved saint, “God gave him largeness of heart as the sand on the seashore.”

That, I think, is the heart of Don Bosco that we can emulate today in serving our youth. Whether we are classroom educators or mothers or simply the woman leading Wednesday night Bible Study for the local 8th graders, may our hearts always be enlarged as good Don Bosco’s was.

St. John Bosco, pray for us and pray for our youth, today and always.

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Karen Schultz is a regular contributor to the BIS blog and a devotion writer. She hails from the Land of 10,000 lakes, where she is often found in or near one of them. As a doula, lactation educator, and FertilityCare Practitioner, she finds joy in helping women to embrace the gift of their bodies. Downtime is found in quiet adoration chapels, farmers markets and gardens, listening to bluegrass music, and embracing the diversity of Minnesota’s seasons. You can find out more about her here.

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