This Saturday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of St. John Bosco. Throughout the world St. John Bosco is synonymous with youth ministry. He founded the Salesians of Don Bosco and cofounded the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters)- two religious congregations who, besides being two of the largest religious congregations in the Church, are dedicated to ministry to young people, especially the poor and abandoned. He is the father of what is known across the globe as the Salesian Family- a network of young people (the Salesian Youth Movement), priests, brothers, sisters, lay volunteers, collaborators, parents, and a host of others who are in one way or another connected to St. John Bosco.
Don Bosco was famous for being able to tailor his ministry to a particular young person based on where he was in his journey of faith. He was a living example of the motto “Meet the young where they are, but don’t leave them there.”
To illustrate, I’d like to share a story with you-
On December 8, 1841, a newly ordained priest was on his way to celebrate Mass at a local church in Turin, Italy. As he neared the sacristy he could hear the sacristan yelling at a young man: “Get out! You don’t belong here!” When he got to the sacristy he saw what was happening- a teen had tried to sneak into the sacristy for warmth and the sacristan was not only yelling at him, he was swinging at him with a broom!
“Stop! That young man is my friend!” Don Bosco cried. The sacristan looked at him, not quite sure what to do. He walked off, and Don Bosco was left with this kid he had never met before. Don Bosco had known firsthand what poverty felt like as a child, and he wasn’t about to leave this young man in the same condition he found him.
“What is your name?” Don Bosco asked.
“Bartholomew. Bartholomew Garelli.”
“How old are you, Bartholomew?”
“Where are your mother and father?”
“Sir, I am alone.”
“Can you serve Mass?”
“No, father. I’m a bricklayer.”
Don Bosco invited Bartholomew to stay for Mass and breakfast, and afterwards he asked him if he could read or write. Bartholomew sadly replied that he could do neither.
Don Bosco was stumped. Sixteen, an orphan, illiterate, what could this kid do? How could he reach out to him?
“Bartholomew, do you know your prayers?”
“The Sign of the Cross?”
“Can you whistle?”
The boy’s eyes lit up. “Yes! I can!”
The two whistled and sang for a while, and then Don Bosco taught him some of his basic prayers. At the end of the lesson, he told Bartholomew to return the next week.
Bartholomew came back. And this time, he brought friends.
In the Salesian Family, the story goes that with that simple Catechism lesson, Don Bosco’s ministry began. Because Don Bosco was willing to meet young Bartholomew Garelli where he was, he was able to enter into a discipling relationship with him, and that relationship grew into a traveling Youth Center with hundreds of boys, and that grew into what Don Bosco called the Oratory, where boys and young men could live and learn a trade and study (and learn how to get to Heaven in the process). From that Oratory a group of Don Bosco’s boys made the lifelong commitment to stay with Don Bosco, and over 150 years later the Salesian Family is still growing and creating discipling relationships with young people, meeting them where they are but not leaving them there.
And it all began with one simple question.
Can you whistle?
Who are the Bartholomew Garelli’s in your life as youth ministers? Who are the young people who are longing for a place to belong and just need to be asked what they are capable of?
May we be as willing and courageous as Don Bosco was on that December morning. May we find in ourselves the patience and perseverance to find out what approach or group or ministry is the best fit for our young people. May we, like so many Salesians around the world, be Signs and Bearers of God’s Love for Young People.
Saint John Bosco, Pray for us!