I absolutely love being pastor of a parish with a school! I truly believe it is one of the greatest opportunities a parish has for evangelizing and passing on the Catholic faith.
But passing on the faith is not just passing on information about Jesus and His Gospel, but it is about forming hearts and minds. It is about helping people, through God’s grace, to be transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ!
Obviously to do that effectively, those responsible for passing on the faith must first be transformed by God’s grace themselves – they must be disciples and friends of Jesus Christ, living the faith in a dynamic way!
I am reminded of the words of Pope Paul VI, “Modern Man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nunitiandi, 41).
One person who understood this very well, even though he lived before Paul VI was even alive was St. John Bosco, one of my favorite saints.
This 19th century saint of Turin (northern Italy) known as the “Father of youth.” He born in 1815 to poor parents in a suburb of Torino, the youngest of 3 boys, whose father died when he was only 2 years old.
As a child, he was an extremely sensitive kid, who was very unique and had particular care for others, especially those who were marginalized. He also had a great love for the Catholic Faith.
Bosco was about nine when he experienced his first extraordinary dream. This first dream, the most important one, set the course for his whole life. He tells us of it in his autobiographical Memoirs of the Oratory.
He saw himself playing with a crowd of neighborhood boys; many of them were fighting and swearing. He told them to stop, then leapt in with both fists when they did not. Suddenly a stranger, a noble and radiant gentleman, appeared. He told John that he needed to use kindness, not blows, to win over these children. John did not understand. The man said he would give him a teacher, and a majestic Lady showed up.
She instructed John to watch, and the boys turned into wild animals—bears, goats, dogs, cats, etc. “This,” she told him, “is your field of work. Make yourself humble, strong, and energetic, so that you’ll be able to do for my children what you’ll see now.” And the beasts turned into gentle lambs. In his confusion, John began to cry. The Lady assured him that in due time he would understand. And he woke up.
This became more real as he became older and saw the economic troubles and the oppression of children who were forced to work in factories. They were stripped of dignity; they lost their childhood; they did not experience being loved.
Bosco began to establish oratories as places for them to be loved as children should be and educated in the faith, in academics and in different trades.
He believed that he should teach them to be not only good Christians, but also good citizens – teaching a way of life and forming their hearts!
Within a few years, more than 600 boys were coming to him every week for spiritual guidance, education, fun and to be loved. Every Sunday they would gather for Mass, Confession and recreation.
Throughout the week he would educate them academically and well as catechize them. St. John Bosco dedicated his whole life to the education of the young and it was in this context that he understood and achieved his call to holiness.
God made him a saint through his unique vocation to be a educator of hearts, recalling that, “The heart of education is the education of the heart.”
I remember visiting the oratory that Bosco had started in Turin and praying in the room where he died, with a window overlooking the playground where the boys would gather each day. His dying words capture his life’s work and mission, the form the hearts and minds of the children, helping them to be good citizens and good Christians. His dying words were, “tell my boys I will be waiting for them in heaven.”
It is the role of every priest, catholic school teacher and catechist to form the hearts of the children entrusted to them. Through the intercession of St. John Bosco, may we all do just that!