This Tuesday, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. John Bosco, one of the foremost evangelists to youth and young adults.
John Bosco didn’t live in easy times. The church of his day was menaced by external persecution, and internal disunity. Any priest could have focused on matters relating to one or the other of these situations. Outreach and ministry could easily have been eclipsed and forgotten.
And yet, John Bosco ignored such possible distractions and instead saw the greater needs of humanity, especially the destitution of street children in his area.
The story is told that young Father Bosco was preparing for Mass when a child same into the sacristy to beg for food. The priest invited the child to stay for Mass and afterwards gave him food. The next day, more children arrived. Very quickly, John Bosco realized both the need of these young people and his call to service.
He began meeting with the street children in groups, and eventually this effort led to the organization of small oratories where the children would be fed and sheltered, taught virtue and prayer, and mentored in a trade that would keep them off the streets.
John Bosco’s efforts won him the esteem of many, and the hatred of a few. Street leaders saw the decrease in young people in their criminal efforts and threatened the priest. Bosco continued unwavered, however, and grew his outreach.
For the saint, it was never about public acceptance or rejection, it wasn’t about external threats or internal church chaos, it was always about fulfilling his vocation from God, helping the forgotten, and empowering the young for good and virtuous lives.
At the end of Bosco’s life, the Lord showed him an image of a long line of young people in white robes. When he asked who they were, the Lord responded, “These are the ones I was able to save because you trusted me.” The saint saw other figures. They were humanoid monster-like beings. When he asked who they were, the Lord responded, “Those are the ones I couldn’t save because you didn’t trust me more.”
And so, the life of Saint John Bosco reminds us of the need for spiritual clarity and trust. The witness of the saint stands as a mirror for us in the Church today. How are we serving the forgotten? How are we welcoming the young?
True to the sacred narrative of salvation history, another believer has been raised up with a similar vocation as that given to St. John Bosco. Once again, we find the Christian faith under external persecution and the Church weakened by internal bickering. Very easily the madness and mania of the day could disturb or divert a believer away from a call given by God.
And yet, Pope Francis has picked up the mantle of John Bosco and in spite of the squabbling within the Church, he has given an attentive heart and a summons to the young people of our day. Moving beyond the arguments and debates, the pope has turned to the forgotten and seeks to meet and serve the young of the twenty-first century.
In this outreach, the pope has noted the paradox of a culture that idolizes youth – everyone seems to want to be young, especially in the West – but yet such a culture has made no place for the young, especially in areas of employment or in the decision-making within society.
Imitating John Bosco’s efforts of the nineteenth century, the pope has called on the world, and especially the Church, to guide young people in finding their purpose and place in the world today.
At the beginning of the last World Youth Day, held in Krakow, Poland, the pope enthusiastically challenged young people by asking them boldly: “Can we change things?” And eagerly the young responded, “Yes!”
The pope has relied on that “yes” as he has repeatedly called on youth and young adults to lead a “revolution of tenderness” in our world today. He has summoned them to work against “the globalization of indifference,” and to look for ways to be a brother and sister to one another and to those around them.
The pope has not only turned the ear of his heart to the young, but in choosing the theme of the next synod, he has also turned his papal office to them. Entitled “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,” the next synod will be about the young.
In his letter announcing the synod, the pope wrote to youth and young adults: “A better world can be built also as a result of your efforts, your desire to change and your generosity…The Church also wishes to listen to your voice, your sensitivities and your faith; even your doubts and your criticism. Make your voice heard.”
And so, the next synod will be in the spirit of St. John Bosco. Once again, a holy person will work in spite of tension, answer a call from God, and turn to the young and offer help, dialogue, gentle mentoring, and great hope.