Feast Day : January 31
Patronage: apprentices; editors
Name meaning: “God is gracious”
John Bosco, mentor to St. Dominic Savio, was renowned for his work with boys. He could well be called the “Dreaming Saint,” for he used his frequent and vivid, lucid dreams not only for his own guidance but also as teaching tools to his young charges. At the request of Pope Pius IX (r. 1846–78), he kept detailed records of his dreams. John Melchior Bosco was born in Becchi, Piedmont, to a peasant family. His father died when he was two, and he was raised by his mother. He had his first lucid dream when he was about nine years old, which left an impression on him for the rest of his life. In it he learned of his spiritual mission, which he undertook with great seriousness and from which he never wavered. In the dream, John was in a field with a crowd of children. They began cursing and misbehaving. Shocked, John jumped into their midst and shouted at them to stop. John wrote of his dream: At that moment a Man appeared, nobly attired, with a manly and imposing bearing. He was clad with a white flowing mantle, and His face radiated such light that I could not look directly at Him. He called me by name and told me to place myself as leader of those boys, adding these words: “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.” Confused and afraid, I replied that I was only a boy and unable to talk to these youngsters about religion. At that moment the fighting, shouting and cursing stopped, and the crowd of boys gathered around the Man who was talking. Almost unconsciously, I asked: “But how can you order me to do something that looks so impossible?” “What seems so impossible you must achieve by being obedient and by acquiring knowledge.” The Man (perhaps Jesus), said he would give John a teacher. Then appeared a Lady (perhaps Mary) of majestic appearance, wearing a beautiful mantle, glowing as if bedecked with stars. The children all vanished and were replaced by wild animals. The Lady told John this was his field where he must work, and to make himself humble, steadfast and strong. The animals then turned into gentle lambs. The Lady said to the confused John, “In due time everything will be clear to you.” John shared his dream with his family the next morning. His brothers laughed, and predicted that he would become a shepherd of animals or the leader of a gang of robbers. His mother said, “Who knows? Maybe you will become a priest.” And his grandmother said, “You mustn’t pay attention to dreams.” John was inclined to agree with his grandmother, but his lucid dreams only increased as he got older. At age 16 he began studying for the priesthood and was ordained on June 5, 1841, at age 26. He was so poor that all of his clothes came from charity. He went to Turin and enrolled at the Convitto Ecclesiastico, a theological college that trained young priests for the pastoral life. There he began a Sunday catechism for poor boys, a sort of wandering oratory that changed locations several times in Turin. This proved to be quite successful, and soon John was taking in and housing destitute boys. In 1853 he opened workshops for tailors and shoemakers. He succeeded in constructing a church, placing it under the patronage of his favorite saint, Francis de Sales. By 1856 he had 150 resident boys, plus four workshops and some 500 children in the oratories. This effort became the Society of St. Francis de Sales in 1859, when John received permission to establish a religious congregation from Pope Pius IX. In 1872 John established an order of women called Daughters of Our Lady, Help of Christians, which also grew rapidly. John was adept at building churches, and raised funds for a large basilica in Turin, dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. In Rome he undertook a project to build a church in honor of the Sacred Heart. But funds were not forthcoming, so he went to France, where he was hailed as a miracle worker. The church was built and consecrated in 1887. By then, John’s health was failing due to overwork. He deteriorated and died on January 31, 1888. Forty thousand people came to see his body prior to burial. Today the Salesians extend around the world. John’s unusual dream life attracted the interest of Pope Piux IX who instructed him to write his dreams down for the pope. More than 150 of John’s unusual dreams were collected and recorded by his followers. Many of the dreams were prophetic and concerned his boys and the Salesian Order. Other dreams were pedagogical and still others were parables. These dreams were in harmony with his religious training and beliefs, couched in symbols of his religious life, and concerned the need to follow Catholic doctrine in order to attain salvation. John’s lucid dreams were quite long and involved much specific detail. Unlike most ordinary dreams, they were logical and followed a complete story line from beginning to end. He was usually accompanied by a guide figure, variously an angel, St. Francis de Sales, St. Dominic Savio, or a man he referred to as “the man with the cap.” He would carry on long conversations with others in his dreams, which he was able to remember. The dreams seemed more like real experiences than dreams. His sensory impressions were so strong that sometimes he would clap his hands or touch himself in the dream to try to ascertain whether he was dreaming or was awake. This is a technique used today by lucid dreamers to verify that their experience is real. Sometimes physical phenomena followed him out of the dream and into waking consciousness. He would awaken exhausted. In one dramatic dream where he was shown the horrors of hell, the putrid smell of evil remained after he awakened. This bleed-through between worlds is characteristic of shamanistic journeys, and belongs to Jung’s “psychoid unconscious,” a level in the unconscious that is not accessible to consciousness, but has properties in common with the physical world. Similarly, St. Jerome was beaten in a dream and awakened bruised and sore. John derived a great deal of guidance from his lucid dreams. He was intensely devoted to his young charges, and his prophetic dreams seem to have had the purpose of learning about certain boys’ spiritual misconduct so that he could try to set them on the right course again. His dreams were uncannily accurate in revealing the secrets of others, and also in matters concerning impending deaths. John would recount his dreams in lectures to his young audience. He would sometimes say that “it was a dream in which one can know what one does; can hear what is said, can ask and answer questions.” He cautioned his boys not to speak of his dreams in the outside community, for others would consider them fables. When peers and superiors questioned his dreams, he would gravely reply, “It was a great deal more than a dream.” If he did not wish to answer probing questions, he said that he could remember so much detail “by means of Otis Botis Pia Tutis.” This was a meaningless phrase that served to deflect further questioning. If not for the papal interest, John’s dreams may have been lost to history. They remain interesting to researchers who study dreams and prophecy. In addition to his unusual dreams and powers of prophecy and clairvoyance, John is credited with multiplying food—some nuts—for his boys, levitating during Mass, and influencing the weather. In 1864, John was invited to preach at the feast of the Assumption in Montemagno, which was suffering a severe drought. He promised rain if the people would make good confessions, attend three nights of prayer and receive Communion, and if farmers would invoke the intercession of Mary when in a state of grace. On the night of the feast, a great storm broke and pelted the town with rain. John was protected by a mysterious dog who suddenly appeared whenever he was in danger. The dog looked like a large and ferocious Alsatian. John named it Grigio because it was gray in color. In the 1850s, religious factions were opposed to his teachings and threatened him. Once someone even shot at him; the bullet passed under his arm, making a hole in the cassock but leaving his flesh untouched. John also was accosted as he walked about, especially in lonely places. Grigio would suddenly appear and attack anyone who assaulted him or seemed threatening. The dog would mysteriously disappear when he returned safely to his oratory. Grigio refused offers of food; however, others could see him and touch him. Grigio’s vigilance lasted far longer than the typical lifespan of a dog. Some people suggested he was an angel in animal form. John’s scapular was found in perfect condition when the saint’s body was exhumed the first time. All other fabric in the coffin had deteriorated.