John Bosco grew up a farmer’s boy in rural Piedmont, north Italy, in the 19th century, and from an early age was inspired “to rescue young lads from evil ways, and through gentleness and kindness train them in an honest trade.” As a young priest in the city of Turin he set out deliberately to gain the confidence of youth, and employed every skill to win their friendship – for example, juggling, tight-rope walking, music, singing and telling stories, amateur theatricals, games and excursions.
These were years of turbulence in Italy. Republicanism and atheism were destroying the traditional piety of society, and growing industrialization meant that large numbers of young men and women were cast adrift in the cities. The young priest ‘Don’ — to give him his honorific title – Bosco was soon recognized for his sterling work with youth, and attracted the help from many established citizens, his “cooperators”, as they were affectionately called.
He set up a “Salesian Institute” in Turin, placing it under the care of Mary, Help of Christians, and his inspiration, St Francis of Sales. Full time technical schools, apprentice workshops and dormitories were set up. Reading, writing and a practical trade were taught here, with a solid catechism based on daily Mass and frequent confession, a remarkable educational system from which physical chastisement was completely excluded. The Salesian society he founded has spread this charism across the world even to today. It is one of the largest congregations in the Church.
With St Mary Mazzarello, he also founded the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, to extend his beneficent work to girls as well. Wherever the care of youth is a priority, there the name of Don Bosco is revered.