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Sanctity No Elder than a Boy


Many a lover of man's best friend has hoped to find a shaggy welcome in heaven, as if the old fellow would wag his tail to say, "It's you! I'm glad you made it. I wasn't sure."

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bosco32Saint John Bosco
1815 -1888

But what about a dog sent from heaven?  A big gray scruffy wolf of a dog, who appears out of nowhere when you're in trouble, and when you look around after the thieves or killers have run away, he's gone?  Saint John Bosco had that dog, or the dog had him.  It's hard to tell which.

I'll tell about the dog because I'm telling about the boy that John Bosco was.  There are two kinds of people who should never teach boys: people who don't like boys or know what they are, and people who do not like men or know what they are.  John Bosco was the greatest teacher of boys the modern world has seen, and that was partly because he remained a boy all his life long.

More than one kind of beast

John Bosco was only a small boy when, one night, he dreamed he was being pursued by ferocious animals, but while he was running away, a woman's voice told him instead to bring those animals into pasture.  So he did, and they became a flock of gentle sheep.  John took the dream to heart, and when he grew up and became a parish priest in Turin, he saw plenty that was wild and fierce roaming the streets.  They were the homeless boys of that big city black with soot from the factories.  Those boys were growing up to be worse than beasts.  John Bosco's heart went out to them.

What would you do if you wanted to bring God to rough boys on the streets?  Whatever you'd do, it would help if you had the physique for it.

What would you do if you wanted to bring God to rough boys on the streets?  Whatever you'd do, it would help if you had the physique for it.  John Bosco had that strength.  He grew up doing hard physical work on his mother's plot of land in the country, which she and he and his brother had to tend themselves after the father died, plowing, planting, reaping, caring for the cows and horses and pigs, and keeping the vineyard.  But John also had a hobby that did not require shovels and pitchforks.  He would set up a small stage in front of his friends and repeat what the priest had said on Sunday.  So has many an altar boy done.  But John added things that the priest couldn't have done without earning him a visit to the bishop.  John walked on his hands and did cartwheels.  He did magic tricks, picking coins out of people's ears.  He did as a boy the things he would later do for the boys.  He was already an athlete for God.

Let me have the boy

When he became a priest, John Bosco did not forget that he had been a boy.  He could be found walking a tightrope in front of twenty cheering and very dirty boys, catching their attention by his strength and agility, and winning their hearts with his good humor and his love.

Who was the first boy that Father John Bosco — Don Bosco as they called him — saved from poverty and ignorance?  One day he overheard his sacristan scolding a teenage boy, a ragged lad from the streets.  He wanted the boy to assist at Mass, but they boy said he didn't know how to do it.  "Then get lost!" hollered the sacristan, but Don Bosco interrupted.

"Let me have the boy," he said.

The boy's name was Bartolomeo Garelli.  He was about sixteen.  Did he know when to kneel at Mass and when to stand?  He didn't even know how to make the sign of the cross.  Don Bosco taught him how, and made him promise to return on the next day.  The boy kept his promise, won over by the priest's kindness.  But he did more than keep his promise, just as Don Bosco was more than simply kind.  Bartolomeo brought a couple of other boys with him.  That is how Don Bosco's ministry to the wayside youth of Turin began.  If the boy had a home, Don Bosco would visit him there, and meet his mother and father and his brothers and sisters.  If the boy wanted food, he got it for him.  All the boys, just like the rest of us, needed the grace of God, so he took them to Mass and instructed them in the Faith.  They needed recreation, so he took them also to the park, where he mingled instruction with games and athletic feats.

Kindness, not punishment

You must not think that Don Bosco was a man of ordinary intelligence who was simply good with children.  He was a brilliant man.  He wrote more books in his life than a lot of people have read — nearly a hundred.  His superiors gave him the chance to be a professor at a university, and he would have taken it, because he was an obedient priest, but he told them that he still felt he needed to take care of the poor children — that was where his calling lay.  Three hundred boys — and his ministry was just beginning!

The boys would remember those Sundays for the rest of their lives.

Imagine having three hundred boys playing in the courtyard of your church.  Not all priests were happy about that, or the parishioners either.  Boys are noisy creatures.  They trample the grass.  The ball they're kicking bounces off into the flowerbeds.  All kinds of terrible things like that can happen.  So you must imagine Don Bosco leading the boys on a Sunday walk, miles and miles into the countryside, arriving at a church, asking permission to say Mass there, doing so with all those boys in attendance, then having breakfast in the open air, followed by play, and catechism, and the long walk back into Turin, singing hymns as a choir would sing them, and praying the rosary.  The boys would remember those Sundays for the rest of their lives.

Don Bosco went on to found the Salesians, named after Saint Francis de Sales.  The Salesians follow the wisdom of their founder.  Kindness, not punishment, was the key; Don Bosco could always obtain from his boys the obedience he wanted by being kind to them, by praising their good works, and by showing them that he loved them and would do anything he could to feed them, house them, teach them, and build their souls.  During the life of Don Bosco, the Salesians spread to several countries and ministered to hundreds of thousands of boys.

Our needs are just as great now as their need was then.  How many boys in our time grow up without a father, to model for them, if only in a distant way, the love of the Father?

Mamma and the dog

But I will conclude with two more things that should warm the hearts of boys everywhere.

One was the mother.  Many of the boys were orphans, and whether they were or not, Don Bosco was a man, and a boy needs a mother's care too, something he could not give them.  That was why he begged his mother Margarita to come and join them.  It meant a great sacrifice for her to leave her beloved little cottage in the country, and the farm she had worked from the time she was married, to go to dingy and noisy and dangerous Turin, the big city, and be mother, housemaid, nurse, and teacher to hundreds of boys.  But she did it.  They called her Mamma Margarita, and what that one old woman did freed Don Bosco to build more and more — teaching, always teaching, establishing the Oratory of Saint Francis, hiring professors for it, and reaping the reward of vocations to the priesthood.  Man and woman, mother and son, working together as if in a dance, as God intended it to be.

He could put the fear of dog into the criminals who infested the alleys of the city. 

The other was a dog named Grigio.  He was three feet tall at the shoulder, as big as a Newfoundland or a mastiff.  He had thick white-gray fur, and a muzzle like a wolf's.  He could put the fear of dog into the criminals who infested the alleys of the city.  Where did Don Bosco find him?  Nowhere.  Don Bosco did not find him.  Grigio found Don Bosco.  "It was not you who chose me," said Jesus to the Apostles, "but I who chose you."

Often, when Don Bosco was walking from the country into Turin, or walking the city's streets at night, this magnificent animal appeared out of nowhere to walk beside him, just when assassins were about to waylay him.  Once, Grigio pinned a thug by the throat, and would have killed him if the man hadn't pleaded with Don Bosco to call his dog off.  The boys loved Grigio, but nobody ever gave him any food.  Grigio refused, even when once they got him to enter the refectory where everybody took their meals.  Grigio came and went when Don Bosco needed his protection, and that was that.

He even appeared to the priest and a friend of his thirty years later, when they were lost at night in a dangerous marsh.  "If only my Grigio were here!" cried Don Bosco, when sure enough, there was the dog, who led them by a meandering path out of the danger.

The dog may have been a guardian angel.  But wouldn't our own dogs be guardian angels, if they could?



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Sanctity No Elder than a Boy." Magnificat (January, 2020).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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