John Bosco: A Showman for Souls

Can a dream change the course of your life? Well, it certainly did that for John Bosco!  A farmer’s son in rural Italy, nothing about him indicated that he would become a great saint, much less the spiritual model of all Catholic Educators. But one evening when he was nine years old, he dreamed of some incredibly poor boys playing and blaspheming. A man appeared who was, in Bosco’s words, “nobly attired with a manly and imposing bearing.” He said to Bosco, “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.”

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This dream changed Don Bosco’s life. After this experience, he was filled with a desire to give his whole life to others. He became a priest and his desire for loving the youth only grew over time. He wanted so badly to show them what was good, true, and beautiful. This was no easy task however, for he realized that he would have to gain both their respect and admiration. How does one do that? Turin in the 19th-century faced the combined ill effects of industrialization and urbanization. The boys were rough around the edges, hardly what you would call meek. Today, they would likely be those students making frequent visits to the principal’s office. These children were subject to harsh conditions. There were few child labor laws at the time, so many had to work long, hard hours in factories. Several even got into trouble with the law and ended up in prison. The accepted way to deal with children at the time was through high standards and firm punishment, but Bosco’s dream revealed that something else was needed.

He realized that the boys would never follow him or Christ willingly if the primary motive was force. He had to win them over by appealing to their deepest desires; they would have to follow him willingly. In short, they would have to love him. Just as the Lord commanded every Christian to become like a child, Bosco’s inner child came upon the solution--he would have to play with them! In order to gain their attention and interest, he watch the traveling entertainers who performed at the local feasts in the nearby hills. He studied the jugglers’ tricks and the acrobats’ secrets. Then, he demonstrated his skills as a juggler, magician, and acrobat for the boys. He said prayers with them before and after each performance. These drew the children to him and they grew to love him. Eventually, nearly 800 children followed him and were formed by him. This movement eventually springboarded the founding of the order of Salesian priests.

Seeing his spirit and virtues, it is no wonder that Saint John Bosco is one of Teach for Christ’s patrons! He taught us a valuable lesson: in order to get children and students to enter into your world, you must first enter into theirs. They will only follow you, learn from you, and grow in love for Christ if you have taken the time to know and love them first. Just as he was an entertainer and a showman, we strive to gain the trust, attention, respect, and affection of our students by entering into their world and showing them the joyful face of Christ. Saint John Bosco truly shows us how to teach, serve, love, and lead as Christ did. He was a showman for souls, modeling what all of us as Catholic Educators strive to be.  

Saint John Bosco, pray for us!



Stephen Barnhart