When most people, Catholics or not, find out that there actually is a Catholic saint whose sphere of influence includes stage and close-up magic, they generally question the fact. After all, Biblical references to "magic" are, without exception, the manipulation of supposed preternatural powers usually associated with conjuring spirits in order to foretell the future (1 Samuel 28:7), sorcery (Acts 8:11) or dealing with astrology (Isaiah 47:13).
Suffice it to say that, inevitably, the kind of "magic" that is referenced in the Bible is not stage magic.
January 31 is the day set aside on the Catholic liturgical calendar to honor Don Bosco. This month, Catholic magicians around the world will celebrate the 202nd anniversary of the birth and the 129th anniversary of the death of St. John Melchior Bosco, an Italian priest born in Becchi, Castelnuovo d'Asti, Piedmont, Italy.
Many people wonder how the Catholic Church and magic could get together in the first place. During the latter half of the 19th century, as Europe's poor were suffering from the effects of industrialization, Don Bosco saw how most of the children in his village remained uneducated and without faith in God.
John's father died when he was only two years old. As was common at the time, he helped the family's finances with different jobs. Whenever he had an extra penny for himself, little John would go to the many circuses, fairs and carnivals that visited his part of Italy. He watched in rapt attention when magicians performed seemingly impossible, preternatural effects. Being a precocious child, he reasoned some of them out and those he could not, he would beg magicians to teach him. With the knowledge he cobbled together, he was able to put on little magic shows free of charge for his friends. Even at that age, he would make sure that the poorest children in his neighborhood would be in attendance. Being devout, he would take the opportunity, in front of his impromptu congregation, to repeat the homily he heard at church on the previous Sunday.
As Don Bosco ("Don" is an Italian honorific equivalent to "Sir" or "Mister") grew up, he chose to became a priest. He was ordained in 1841 and dedicated his priesthood ministry to teaching and working exclusively with the poor children and youth in the city of Turin. He served as chaplain for a hospice for wayward girls and feeding and clothing the poor was his main concerns. Once accomplished, he turned his attentions to their spiritual development.
He needed a way to get kids interested in coming to church, back in school and accepting the aid he was offering. He remembered his early success as a child with the impoverished children of his neighborhood and decided to use puzzles, gags, riddles and juggling. But it was the magic that caught the kids' attention the best. Stories that have come down from Don Bosco's contemporaries include some specific tricks he used. He was said to be especially good at tying three ropes together to form one seamless rope in order to explain the mystery of the Most Blessed Trinity. He also would pull coins from ears and change pebbles into candy, delighting the children who were under his care.
Later in life, Don Bosco started a community of Catholic priests, nuns, brothers and lay people who to this day help street kids and youth in gangs throughout the world — including the largest cities in the United States, South America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Don Bosco was canonized in 1934 by Pope Pius XI. Considering Don Bosco's association with magic during life, it's not a stretch of the imagination to understand why he is dubbed the "Patron of Magicians". Catholic magicians in Europe and North and South America still celebrate by performing benefit shows for children on that date.
In January, 2002, hundreds of European and American magicians presented a petition to Pope St. John Paul II asking him to declare St. John Bosco their patron saint. His Holiness was presented with a magic wand made in India as part of the ceremony. The wand was a present from a young Indian orphan who was being cared for in one of Mother Teresa's orphanages. The wand had belonged to the boy's father, who had been a magician.
The performers all dressed in their stage costumes, which greatly added to the festival-like atmosphere of the papal audience.
The principal organizer of the event was Salesian Father Silvano Mantelli, himself an accomplished magician and the director of Magicians Without Frontiers. Fr. Mantelli is very active in the Italian magic community. Each year on Don Bosco's feas tday, he celebrates the "Mass of the Conjurers" in Castelnuovo Don Bosco, in the homeland of his community's founder. He also is the director of the Magicians Without Frontiers Foundation, which offers magic performances for children in Third World nations. Fr. Mantelli is very clear as to the distinction between stage magic and those supposed powers that "psychics" claim. He sees them as charlatans and opportunists who take advantage of the ignorance and credulity of people and that the real purpose of religion, and even stage magic used to promote religious values, is to defeat superstition.
We see with the advent of Don Bosco's efforts at teaching spiritual values via the mechanism of stage and close-up magic, the birth of Gospel Magic; that is, the altering or tailoring of a magic performance so that it can be used to instruct children or adults on some aspect of Christian theology.
Magic is an excellent means by which to get across a point, even a religious one. Certainly I know Jewish magicians, inevitably rabbis, who use magic as a vehicle of spiritual instruction as some Christians do but I've found that it is not as popularly sought out in the religious Jewish community. Admittedly, I have not encountered nor even heard of other faiths whose magicians have dedicated themselves to using magic as a vehicle for spiritual instruction but, clearly, the possibility still exists.
Gospel Magicians have several organizations that offer a community for like professionals including the Fellowship of Christian Magicians and the Catholic Magicians' Guild. The former organization offers an excellent journal entitled, "The Christian Conjurer Magazine." Though the Fellowship of Christian Magicians is mainly composed of Americans and Canadians, it operates in thirty countries on six continents.
Typical magic tricks used by Gospel Magicians look very much like any other magic trick one has come across but the patter, or story weaved by the magician, is directed to demonstrate such theological principles as God's love and forgiveness, Christ's parables, the Virgin Birth, Immaculate Conception, the sacraments, or even free will can be the subject of a Gospel Magic performance. Anything short of direct and firsthand religious experience of God can be portrayed through the medium of magic just it can be through the use of movies, sculpture or song. Common venues for Gospel Magic in the Catholic Church would include RCIA classes, Church fairs and picnics and Confirmation classes for teenagers, but the medium is flexible enough to be used as part of any form of cathetical instruction. As magic is a richly sensory experience, one can see the "spiritual applications" that magic can offer.
And after all, it's one more skill available to us to offer back in service to God's people on earth. Some of us use their skills to sing in our choirs. Some are excellent at accounting and development skills. Some are skilled at administrating parishes and decorating our churches with their artwork. Some offer their help in ushering, painting and cleaning. Some of us teach in our schools. And some bake the bread used for our celebrations. There are, after all, diversities of graces, but the same Spirit. Just as there are a diversity of ministries but the same Lord. And a diversity of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
The embarrassment of riches in terms of skills and abilities with which God has bestowed upon us for the sake of building up Christ's Body is both stunning and comforting. All of us have skills, all given to us by the Spirit; it's up to us on how to use them. Some Catholic magicians here in America celebrate Don Bosco's feast day in their own creative ways. Generally, they put on free magic performances for children. Some will make the rounds in children's hospitals. Though the day might easily go past us, as it has so many times previously, it's encouraging and gratifying as I sit and reflect on the "magical effect" that performances can have on people and especially children. The real magic occurs when, during performances, we can transport an audience to an alternative world and reality, even if for only a few seconds. Being able to show them something fantastic, something "unbelievable," is what Gospel Magicians strive for. When one considers the last magic show they witnessed, it's not so hard to see why Don Bosco chose to help kids with the use of magic.
Don Bosco was a man deeply imbued with God's love and inspired by the mysteries with which He surrounds us. When he considered the minds of the children around him, certainly Don Bosco must have seen how they were so much more accepting of God's mysteries than adults at times. He must have often wished to be converted and become as the children in his care so that he too might enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3) It's not so strange to think that Don Bosco responded to God's mysteries with mysteries of his own.