Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Homily for Solemnity of St. John Bosco

Homily for the Solemnity of
St. John Bosco
Jan. 29, 2017
Ezek 34: 11-12, 15-16, 23-24, 30-31
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

Salesian parishes have the privilege of transferring the “external” observance of Don Bosco’s solemn feast day to the closest Sunday. So we did at Holy Cross’s 4:00 p.m. Mass (followed by some more secular festivities in the parish hall).

“Behold I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out” (Ezek 34: 11).

The words of the Lord spoken thru the prophet Ezekiel ca. 590 B.C. were addressed to an Israelite nation broken by military conquest, the imposition of pagan gods, exile, the danger of religious contamination from their pagan neighbors, moral and national despair.

God promised to remain with this nation and look after them; preserve them, strengthen them, and nourish them.

John Bosco was born into a nation that had just come thru a nasty period of political and social upheaval—occupation by Napoleon’s French armies, exile of the royal family, changes in laws, and much more.  That was in Piedmont in northwestern Italy—a region famous for its wines like Barolo and Asti (John was from the Asti province), where the staple food of peasants like the Boscos was polenta.  Much, much more upheaval was to occur 4 decades later—more revolutions:  the industrial revolution with all its drastic social and demographic changes, and political revolution and wars leading to the unification of the entire Italian peninsula into one kingdom under Piedmont’s royal family, the house of Savoy.  All of that dramatic and at times violent change left many of the sheep confused, disoriented, and wounded, and many of them wandered away from Christ’s sheepfold.

Politically, the scene was outwardly calm when John Bosco was ordained by the archbishop of Turin on June 5, 1841, and he became “Don Bosco.”  After spending the summer as a “baby priest” in his home parish in Castelnuovo d’Asti, at the beginning of November he moved to Turin.  The harvest was over, and people had celebrated All Saints and remembered their dead in the traditional rites of All Souls.  Youngsters fortunate enuf to be able to go to school—meaning with a few lire to pay tuition—could return to their classrooms, no longer needed for hard field work after the harvest.

Don Bosco went to Turin to do “graduate work” in pastoral theology—practical courses in how to preach and hear confessions and minister to school children—and to prisoners in the city’s jails.  If the political scene was quiet, not so the social scene, as hundreds of boys and young men and some women migrated from the countryside into the capital city looking for work in the new factories going up, the building trades, and the shops that catered to a growing urban population.  They didn’t always find work and too often found trouble instead—from crime, from drink, from gambling, from gangs, from immorality.  On a smaller scale, it was quite like Dickens’s London—Oliver Twist was completed in 1839; similar to the situation of the working classes in Northern Europe that would lead Marx to publish The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Young Don Bosco—he was 26—was extremely blessed to have as his mentor-spiritual guide-professor-confessor the priest perhaps most responsible for the revitalization of the clergy of Piedmont in the 19th century, Fr. Joseph Cafasso—who was himself canonized in 1947 and bears the nickname “Pearl of the Piedmontese Clergy.”  Fr. Cafasso was chaplain of Turin’s 4 jails, and he had a particular gift or charism for accompanying those condemned to death for their crimes, a ministry so appreciated that on the centennial of his death the city erected his statue on the former site of the public gallows.

Fr. Cafasso brought his young protégé, the peasant from the vineyards and fields of Asti, into the jails to meet the prisoners, so many of them young.  Years later Don Bosco wrote:

     Fr Cafasso, who for six years had been my guide, was especially my spiritual director. If I have been able to do any good, I owe it to this worthy priest in whose hands I placed every decision I made, all my study, and every activity of my life. It was he who first took me into the prisons, where I soon learned how great was the malice and misery of mankind. I saw large numbers of young lads aged from 12 to 18, fine healthy youngsters, alert of mind, but seeing them idle there, infested with lice, lacking food for body and soul, horrified me. Public disgrace, family dishonour, and personal shame were personified in those unfortunates. What shocked me most was to see that many of them were released full of good resolutions to go straight, and yet in a short time they landed back in prison, within a few days of their release.

Art by Nino Musio
On such occasions I found out how quite a few were brought back to that place; it was because they were abandoned to their own resources. “Who knows?” I thought to myself, “if these youngsters had a friend outside who would take care of them, help them, teach them religion on Sundays and holy days... Who knows but they could be steered away from ruin, or at least the number of those who return to prison could be lessened?”

     I talked this idea over with Fr Cafasso. With his encouragement and inspiration I began to work out in my mind how to put the idea into practice, leaving to the Lord’s grace what the outcome would be. Without God’s grace, all human effort is vain.[1]

You all know that Pope Francis wants priests and bishops to “have the smell of the sheep.”  So Don Bosco did—going after those young sheep in so much danger.  He began to gather them on Sundays and the many religious holidays—in those times there were many more than the 5 or 6 holy days we’re used to—in order to offer these youngsters Mass, confession, catechism, and wholesome recreation.  So many of those job-seekers came from other parts of northern Italy, were on their own (without family support), spoke different dialects, didn’t know where their proper parish churches were—or if they did, didn’t find themselves particularly welcome in them or in the catechism classes.  So when they weren’t working, they roamed the streets or hung out in the bars, getting into legal or moral trouble.
Art by Nino Musio
When Don Bosco began gathering these roughnecks and spending all his spare time with them and (horrors!) even playing games with them (races, soccer, probably cards) or demonstrating his juggling and sleight of hand skills or taking them on long hikes, the respectable parish clergy were scandalized.  At one point some of them conspired to have Don Bosco taken away to the madhouse for evaluation—which didn’t work out so well for the conspirators themselves, because Don Bosco smelled out their plot (he could smell rats as well as he could smell sheep), and he sent them to the asylum instead.
Invitation to a carriage ride--to the madhouse.
Art by Nino Musio.

But enuf people saw the social and religious good that Don Bosco was doing and fully supported him:  the influential Fr. Cafasso, the archbishop, some of the nobility, government ministers, and even the royal family.  So gradually this ministry, which in 1844 Don Bosco had placed under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, flourished.  In the 1850s it developed into a brand-new religious congregation—part of whose basic set-up was suggested by none other than the anticlerical government minister who wrote the laws that suppressed most of the monasteries and traditional religious orders and confiscated their lands.  That new religious congregation, the Society of St. Francis de Sales, spread rapidly beyond Turin and became what is now the 2d-largest religious order of men in the Catholic Church, with about 15,000 members (priests and brothers).  Indeed, Don Bosco’s work grew into a large charismatic family that today includes the largest congregation of sisters in the Church (the Salesian Sisters, whom many of you know), 16 small congregations of sisters, 1 small congregation of religious men, 3 secular institutes (vowed men and women who live on their own in the world instead of in community), the worldwide Salesian alumni associations, and 7 lay associations of the faithful, including the Salesian Cooperators, whom we have right here in our parish, living the spirit of St. John Bosco as husbands and wives, parents, and young (or not so young) singles.  Come meet them after Mass at our Don Bosco social in the parish center.

Salesians at the Marauiá mission among the Yanomami people
in Amazonian Brazil (ANS).
In about 135 countries around the world, on 6 continents, Don Bosco’s religious family continues his work on behalf of poor and endangered young people:  in city slums, in impoverished rural areas, in mission territories like the Amazon and Papua New Guinea and post-Christian Europe, and in First World settings like the U.S. trying to evangelize and catechize youngsters and their families in schools, parishes, youth centers, and retreat houses.  We serve the wider Church by filling offices in the Roman Curia, running the Vatican printing presses, administering the catacombs of St. Callistus (visit them if you ever go to Rome), and operating a pontifical university with campuses in Rome and Jerusalem.  Don Bosco’s youthful, simple, joyful spirituality makes saints—by my count, 121 canonized saints and blesseds, including 2 school children (Dominic Savio and Laura Vicuña) and 102 martyrs of the Communists and the Nazis.  Both Karol Wojtyla in Krakow (JPII) and Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires (Francis) belonged to Salesian parishes as young men.

Not bad for a boy from a little farm in Piedmont who tended cows and hoed weeds in vineyards—but learned to smell the lambs and the sheep of God’s flock and tend them with extreme care, literally wearing out his body in the process.  He was just 72 when he passed into eternal life in 1888, leaving a heritage that, by God’s grace, continues to bring blessings to you and me.

[1] St. John Bosco, Memoirs of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, trans. Daniel Lyons (New Rochelle: Salesiana, 2007), pp. 101-102, slightly adapted.

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