John Bosco grew up a farmer’s boy in rural Piedmont, north Italy, in the 19th century. From an early age he was inspired “to rescue young lads from evil ways, and through gentleness and kindness train them in an honest trade.” As a young priest in the city of Turin he set out deliberately to gain the confidence of youth and employed every skill to win their friendship – for example, juggling, tight-rope walking, music, singing and telling stories, amateur theatricals, games and excursions. These were years of turbulence in Italy. Republicanism and atheism were destroying the traditional piety of society. Growing industrialization meant that large numbers of young men and women were cast adrift in the cities. The young priest was soon recognized for his sterling work with youth and attracted the help from many established citizens, his “cooperators”, as he called them. He set up a “Salesian Institute” in Turin, placing it under the care of Mary, Help of Christians, and his inspiration, St Francis of Sales. Full time technical schools, apprentice workshops and dormitories were set up. Reading, writing and practical trades were taught here, with a solid catechism based on daily Mass and frequent confession. It was a remarkable educational system, with physical chastisement completely excluded. The Salesian society he founded has spread this charism across the world even to today. It is one of the largest congregations in the Church. With St Mary Mazzarello, he also founded the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, to extend help to girls as well. Wherever the care of youth is a priority, the name of Don Bosco is revered.
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