St. John Paul II, speaking of Don Bosco, said “St. John Bosco was one of those who, in the history of the Church, best understood Christ’s words on the kingdom of Heaven as exemplified by means of a child. He was one of the most understanding of the child’s soul, one of the greatest educators of youth. The saint comprehended that in every young human being, in a boy, in a girl, the kingdom of God is proposed in a particular manner as a task for man.”

St. John Bosco (1815-1888, feast day January 31) can really be understood by that other great saint and doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales (d. 1622, whom I’ve written about in these pages) who proved not only a spiritual father to Don Bosco, whose own father died when he was only two, but provided the very name for St. John’s new foundation, “The Salesians”. Indeed he was Don Bosco’s favorite saint because of his gentleness and openness to the times.

Don Bosco was unique for several reasons. First, he knew from a very, very young age what his mission in life was to be: he was nine years-old when his vocation of saving young boys came to him in a dream—which is ironic in that he himself was still a child.

But like other great saints in the history of the Church, he was surrounded by other saints to help him in this brand new endeavor. St. Joseph Cafasso, a pastor at a parish church, confirmed St. John Bosco that his “mission” was not saving children abroad, but right there in Turin, Italy. St. Joseph also provided Don Bosco conacts with that city’s moneyed elite who would help fund his work at the oratory he intended to build for the first forty boys he was to work with.

Some religious institutes are blessed in that they both sprout and grow quickly and the Salesians were one of these: by 1856 (when Don Bosco was only 39 years of age) there were over 150 resident boys, four workshops, a printing press, a Latin class, ten priests (along with the Oratorians)—and 500 children to instruct.

However, while Don Bosco was a most charismatic figure for youth, he seems to have been a difficult act for other priests to follow. One reason was a lack of method. Don Bosco was famous for saying, “Give me souls! Take away the rest!” This is a visceral rallying cry, but not exactly a pedagogical model.

Still, there was a tight band of devoted followers including Frs. Cagliero, Rocchetti, Artiglia and Rua (who took over when St. John died in 1888) who, in 1854 took the name of “Salesian”, though the society was not to obtain official papal approbation until 1874.

In the meantime St. Mary Mazzarello, F.M.A. (1837-1881) co-founded with Don Bosco the Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians, more simply called the Salesian Sisters. The two had met when Mary was a member of a Marian sodality in Mornese a village in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy which provided for poor young girls what Don Bosco had done for boys: an open and loving atmosphere in which learning, play and prayer took place.

“The Salesian charism revolves around work with poor and abandoned children,” says Sr. Louise of the Salesian Sisters provincialate in Haledon, New Jersey. “But it should be remembered that there are many different ways of being ‘poor’ and ‘abandoned’: children can be spiritually and emotionally poor though their parents may be relatively affluent.”

We have seen pairing of saint-founders (St. Ignatitus Loyola and St. Francis Xavier), saint-reformers (St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross) and saint-coworkers (St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marrillac).

However, what makes the Salesians particularly unique is the presence of so many holy followers of these two saints, among them St. Dominic Savio, who died in 1857, aged 14 who served as a sort of precursor. He was a student of St. Don Bosco, who wrote that young man’s biography. In 1954 Blessed Pope Pius XII canonized Dominic Savio, the youngest non-martyr in the history of the Catholic Church—and one of the glories of the Salesian Order.

Although his mentor, St. Joseph Cafasso, had advised Don Bosco to work only in Turin, once the Salesian model was in place it spread very quickly throughout Italy—and then the world. In 1863 there were just forty members; at Don Bosco’s death there were 768. “Today there are over 13,000 Salesian Sisters,” says Sr. Louise, and over 15,000 Salesian priests, making it one of the largest religious societies in the Catholic Church (after the Jesuits and Franciscans).

The Salesian growth in Italy—a country that had only recently come together as a true nation-state (like Germany) in 1861— was followed by a rapid spread to both North and South America and indeed throughout the entire world. Part of their success as a Society is their need: “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus told us. This is, regrettably, true. It is, of course, scandalous that so many children live in so many different forms of poverty. However, because these children especially need not only food, shelter and education, but love, the Salesians will “be wherever there are children in any sort of need.”

John Bosco was not above playing the part of a gymnast, juggler and jokester to attract young people by keeping them entertained— and then moving on to the catechism lesson. It was all part of his advice to his followers that they should love what the young people love, and then they will love what you love. Added to this was his incredibly handsome bearing and his truly charismatic character. Even during his lifetime he was acclaimed as a living saint and miracle-worker, not only in his native Turin—where he’d grown up poor and fatherless—but throughout the new Italy, especially in Rome where he helped build, at the behest of Blessed Pope Pius IX—the same saintly pope who had encouraged the entire Salesian experiment—the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with money he’d gathered not only in Italy, but France as well.

It’s always difficult to follow a saintly founder, but the Salesians were blessed with many holy successors, among them Fr. Michele Rua, who understood Don Bosco’s work to the point of becoming like him in all things, and the great missionary, Fr. Giovanni Cagliero the apostle of Patagonia. Further glories to the Salesian Order include Blessed Philip Rinaldi, Don Bosco’s third successor whom the Church numbers among the Beatified, and in the Missionary field, St. Callistus Caravario, S.D.B., who died a martyr in China in 1930.

Indeed Blessed Philip Rinaldi’s relative, Sr. Mary Rinaldi, F.M.A. is the director of the development office at the St. Joseph Provincialate right here in New Jersey — and, on a personal note, my great aunt, Sr. Mary Di Camillo, F.M.A., received papal dispensation to enter the Salesians when she was just 15!

What St. John Bosco and St. Mary Mazzerello created, almost out of whole and holy cloth, was an order where children are at the center. One can only be reminded of Jesus Himself who “took a child and put him in the midst of them and taking him in His arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.’” (Mark 9: 36-37) This is exactly what the Salesians have done for over 175 years.