ST JOHN BOSCO – To God who gladdens my youth

– Aurelio Porfiri

If a Martian landed now from a distant planet on our land, what kind of news would he see about the Catholic Church? Reading the press, one would think that this religious institution is known almost only for its great problems with youth, for the abuses, scandals and cover-ups.

I try to imagine how Saint John Bosco (1815-1888), whom the Church celebrates on January 31st, would react to a situation like that. He was the apostle of youth and care for the young has always been one of the characteristics of the religious congregation he founded, the Salesians.

Don Bosco was active in the Turin (North of Italy) of his time and, although he was a priest of great doctrinal integrity, he was able to reconcile justice with Christian mercy. These were times of great attacks outside of Catholicism and of great social hardships, also due to the rapid advance of industrialization. Don Bosco did not flee the struggle, he did not retreat before the battles to give dignity to those whom providence had entrusted him with. His “dreams,” which were often prophecies, guided him in making important decisions and he was also well-liked by prelates and Popes.

In his biographical memoirs he affirmed: “The coryphaeuses [from Greek, literally the top of the head, figuratively the leader of the group] of the sects studied to establish a state that no longer governed in the name of God, nor according to God-made laws, but in the name of the people and according to the changing will of the people, that themselves with their skills would have formulated. Little by little they wanted to overturn what they hypocritically had so far preached having to respect, so that the peoples did not notice it, or only when they were already prepared for corruption of customs, for errors of mind drunk from the newspapers, books, theaters, schools, and political meetings. To this end, preaching the necessity of the independence of the nation, they  were made apostles of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and the press. It was that freedom defined by St Peter: Velamen habentes malitiae libertatem, that is to say nothing more at the bottom than war against all that from far or near reminds of human pride, that there is a God to whom absolute obedience is owed. And this is why the sectarian legislators have proclaimed and proclaimed: We are the law and above the law there is none, neither God nor Church. They considered the Catholic Church as a simple private society, without value, without rights, without interest in civil life, separated from the State and, worse still, an enemy one has to fight incessantly. ‘Rex sum ego!’ [I am king] Jesus Christ proclaimed: but they answer him. ‘Nolumus hunc regnare super nos’ [We don’t want this man to reign over us]” (my translation) In short, a saint who loved the people but loved justice even more.

We were talking about the relationship between youth and the Church. In a booklet of 1847 called Il giovane provveduto (something like “the wellbehaved young person”), Don Bosco speaks of the respect that young people must hold towards the men of the Church: “I commend you then a high regard for priests and religious. Therefore you receive with veneration those advices that they will suggest you; uncover your head in reverence when you talk to them or find them in the street. Beware of principally scorning them with deeds or words, because some youngsters, having mocked the prophet Elisha with nicknames, were punished by God by letting some bears come out of a forest, and ate forty of them. Those who do not respect the sacred ministers must fear great evil from the Lord. If you talk about them you imitate the young Luigi Comollo who used to say: of the priests or speak well or keep quiet. When you pass before the churches or some image of Mary or other saints do not go on without uncovering the head as a sign of reverence. In this way you will show yourself true Christians and the Lord will fill you with blessings for the good example you give to others” (my translation). These are very beautiful and true words, but we do not deny that today they sound very strange to us. Strange because the good priests who do their duty and try to fulfill their mission as best they can have to pay for the bad image given by those who abuse their ministry and enjoy unworthy and immoral coverage. Unfortunately, let’s not deny it, there is also a crisis of the priesthood itself, a crisis of identity, for which the priest thinks that it is more acceptable if they behave “like us,” they dress “like us,” they are in the world “like us,” when “we” (the Catholic people) would like them to show us the way to be “like Him,” which is the only thing that matters.

What a great responsibility for those who corrupt youth at its most delicate age! In the work cited above, Don Bosco states: “There are two places that are prepared for us in the other life. A hell for the bad ones, where every evil is suffered. A paradise for the good ones where all the goods are enjoyed. But the Lord lets you know that if you begin to be good in youth, such will you be in the rest of life, and will be crowned with a happiness of glory. On the contrary, the bad life begun in youth too easily will be such until death, and will inevitably lead you to hell. So if you see men advanced over the years given the vice of drunkenness, of play, of blasphemy, for the most part you can say: these vices began in youth: Adolescens juxta viam suam, etiam cum senuerit non recedet ab ea. [“A boy will keep the course he has begun; even when he grows old, he will not leave it.” — from the Vulgate] (Prov. 22:6). Ah! Son, God says, remember your Creator in the time of your youth: elsewhere he declares blessed that man who from his adolescence will have begun to keep his commandments. This truth was known by Saints, and especially by St Rose of Lima, and from St Aloysius Gonzaga, who, having begun to serve the Lord fervently since they were five years old, did not find in adulthood any more pleasure except for things concerning God; and thus they became great saints. The same is true of the son of Tobias, who was already very young, already obedient, submissive in all things to the will of his parents, who died, and continued to live virtuously until his death. But (some will say) if we begin to present to serve the Lord, we become melancholy. It is not true, he will be melancholic who serves the devil, who however strives to show himself happy, but will always have the heart that cries, saying: you are unhappy because you are the enemy of God. Who is more affable and jovial than St  Aloysius Gonzaga? Who is more joyful and more cheerful than St Philip Neri? Nonetheless their life was a continuous practice of every virtue. Take courage, my dear ones, give yourself to virtue in good time, and I assure you, that you will always have a happy and happy heart, and you will know how sweet it is to serve the Lord” (my translation).

But what will happen to those who corrupt this goodness in youth? I would really like to be able to listen to Don Bosco and see how he would act in this difficult time. There is no simple solution to these problems. Certainly not silence. This was also recognized by Pope Francis who recognized the service of those who courageously denounce those who used their priesthood to corrupt, to abuse. It is a difficult system to undermine, but nevertheless it is necessary to act with decision and courage, so as not to abandon the image of the Catholic Church to the action of a minority of malefactors.

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