St. John Bosco has got to be one of heaven’s busiest intercessors. In addition to serving as patron of editors, apprentices, boys, teachers, students and Mexican youth, he oversees a bailiwick unique in heaven and on earth: Don Bosco is patron of magicians.
Which raises the question: What does magic have to do with the Catholic faith? St. John Bosco (1815-1888) would be glad you asked.
Don Bosco (“Don” is an Italian honorific for priests and noblemen), a priest born in Italy’s Piedmont region, invented what later came to be called “Gospel Magic.”
The 19th century brought great suffering and spiritual alienation to Europe’s poor and Don Bosco recognized this. He grew up very poor but, whenever he had an extra coin, he would go to the many circuses, fairs and carnivals that came to town. He watched the magicians and figured out some of their tricks — or persuaded the performers to divulge their trade secrets.
After practicing and mastering the techniques, he put on free magic shows for the children in his village — where he would take the opportunity to repeat the homily he heard at church on the previous Sunday.
When Don Bosco became a priest, he dedicated himself to helping children. But the latter weren’t interested in the sacraments, much less spiritual wisdom. Father Bosco remembered the magic, puzzles, gags, riddles and juggling he used to amuse poor children and decided to try using the magician’s arts again. Using sleight of hand, he pulled coins from ears and changed pebbles into candy, delighting the children under his care.
Don Bosco’s efforts at using amazing tricks to impart the faith were the beginning of what Christian magicians refer to today as “Gospel Magic” — the tailoring of a magic performance to evangelize or catechize an audience.
It was here that I first encountered St. Don Bosco. I’m what’s referred to as a Gospel Magician. Don Bosco is my patron saint because of the joyfulness of his spirituality and his dedication to magic as a vehicle of catechetical instruction.
I can think of very few times in my life when my profession as a stage magician has dovetailed with my profession of the Catholic faith so perfectly as it did in Turin, Italy.
Don Bosco is well loved everywhere in the world, but he enjoys particular popularity in Italy — and no Italian village, town or city holds him in higher esteem than does Torino.
As I stood before the Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, the church he built, I recalled the saint’s “magical” coin purse. No matter what the scale of the projects he undertook, he always had sufficient funds to accomplish what he envisioned. Whether it was raising a few lire to buy sausage and bread for his boys or coming up with the funds needed to build a magnificent church like this one, he knew that, with faith, Deus supplet. God provides.
I recall my first magic show, offering a nervous prayer to St. Don Bosco asking for a successful performance. As I prayed, I remembered the saint’s spirituality and his philosophy of joy and hope. In all of his exhortations to his children, the saint begged them to be joyful and to exult in the Lord.
St. Don Bosco was the antithesis of the stereotypically over-strict Catholic schoolmaster. He wanted his students — and Christians of all ages — to delight in the Lord. He dedicated himself to Christ’s admonition that we should all become “as little children” (Matthew 18:1-4).
For Don Bosco, wholesome entertainment was a celebration of the natural joy of life that God gave to children. The saint even encouraged his confreres who worked with children and youth to similarly be “young with the young.”
Upon arriving in Turin, I contacted a friend, Salesian Father Silvano Mantelli, the world’s best known Gospel Magician. He readily agreed to meet me.
Each year on Don Bosco’s feast day — Jan. 31 — he celebrates the “Mass of the Conjurers” for Catholic magicians. Father Mantelli also is the director of the Magicians Without Frontiers Foundation, which offers magic performances for children in Third World countries.
In front of the basilica is the famous drinking fountain Don Bosco installed especially for poor children. Even something as simple as water was a blessing to the poor in pre-industrial Italy.
While I was waiting outside the church, Father Mantelli suddenly appeared. Surprise! He’s a skilled magician. We took a few minutes to get reacquainted and then decided to escape the oppressive heat by stepping inside.
As I stepped through the doorway, I was struck by a strong chemical odor. The church was, just that day, completing a massive, three-year renovation project.
The church bustled with workmen frantically dismantling scaffolds to prepare for Mass. But I was oblivious to all the commotion. The basilica was perfectly resplendent with all manner of sacred art and architecture. Every square inch of wall, floor, column and ceiling shouted the joy of Christ that Don Bosco surely felt in his heart. The scene is such an explosion of the theological virtues, one would have to shut his eyes not to get caught up in St. Don Bosco’s faith, hope and love.
After the tour, my friend received my confession and dispensed Christ’s forgiveness. Considering I couldn’t speak many of the other languages in the countries through which I traveled during my European pilgrimage, it was a great joy and blessing to finally find a confessor with whom I could effectively communicate.
I came to the sacrament with a sense of my own sinfulness and the sorrow of that self-knowledge. But my Salesian confessor showed me the joy that can be and ought to be a part of a confession, too. Even to this day, the Salesians embody the joyous spirit of their founder.
In thankfulness, I visited St. Don Bosco’s tomb, which is part of the basilica’s altar. I offered a prayer of thankfulness for the saint’s vision and asked his intercession for my personal intentions. Around me, dozens of people paused at the altar to do the same.
I might have been the only magician by the saint’s side at that moment, but I was not the only soul to be dazzled by Don Bosco’s spirit.
Angelo Stagnaro is chairman of the Catholic Magicians Guild (CatholicMagic.com).
Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians
Via Maria Ausiliatrice 32
10152 Torino-Valdocco, Italy
Planning Your Visit
Confession is heard in several languages, including English. Photos are allowed in the compound but not during Mass. For more information, or to donate to the basilica’s restoration fund, go to donbosco-torino.it and click on the “English” link.