The Boy Who Would Be Saint
St. John Bosco wrote St. Dominic Savio’s first hagiography and was instrumental in advancing the cause for his protégé’s canonization. The Church made St. Dominic Savio patron of choirboys, the falsely accused — and juvenile delinquents.
The latter patronage traces back to an incident in which Dominic stopped two boys from throwing rocks at each other with malicious intent. How? By putting himself between them, clenching a crucifix and saying: “Before you fight, look at this, both of you. Say, ‘Jesus Christ was sinless and he died forgiving his executioners; I am going to outrage him by being deliberately revengeful.’ Then you can start your fight, and throw your first stone at me.”
People criticized John Bosco for pushing for Dominic Savio’s sainthood, as he never made it past 15 years old, having contracted tuberculosis. He was thought to have died too young and untested to have achieved such a high state of sanctity. The ever-reasonable Bosco argued that people don’t make saints of themselves; they allow God to do as he will with them. He added that children needed a saint they could relate to.
Ultimately the Church was persuaded by the evidence — and Bosco’s presentation of it probably hadn’t hurt. Pope Pius X initiated his cause and, in 1954, Pope Pius XII made St. Dominic Savio the youngest non-martyr ever to be canonized a saint.
Dominic’s short life was marked by penance, love, respect and holy visions. He was so full of mortifying zeal that Bosco frequently had to step in with tempering guidance. “Heat, cold, sickness and the tiresome ways of other people,” Bosco pointed out, “offer sufficient opportunities for mortification for boys in school life as it is.”
Dominic knew that sanctity is a two-way street. Without question, it must be initiated by God’s grace. But our participation — our fiat — is crucial to the process. God could make us all saints instantly but in so doing would destroy free will. We would be automatons and our love for God and each other would be an empty imitation of the real thing.
Savio understood this as few others have. We can learn greatly from the wisdom of this saint who died young enough to be a son or grandson to many of us — and whose feast the Church celebrates on May 6.
Childlike But Not Childish
Savio entered the world on April 2, 1842, in the northern-Italian village of Riva. He was one of 10 children born to a hard-working blacksmith and his seamstress wife.
In 1854, when he was 12, Savio entered the Oratory of Saint Francis de Sales in Turin, Italy. Under the guidance of St. John Bosco, he quickly organized the Company of the Immaculate Conception to inspire acts of charity and mercy and to deepen Christian devotion among his peers.
Savio was a sickly child, yet he was always happy and friendly. Throughout his young life, God bestowed great blessings on the boy — prophecy, peacemaking, the discerning of spirits and an intense compassion for all around him.
He referred to his moments of ecstatic prayer as his “distractions.” Savio once reported a vision of a vast field in which crowds of people stumbled about in the fog. Suddenly, in their midst, there appeared a man identified as a pope carrying a torch that illuminated the field. A voice filled the air, saying, “This torch is the Catholic faith, which will bring light to the English people.”
St. John Bosco reported the boy’s vision to Pope Pius IX. To Bosco’s surprise and delight, the Pope told him of his intention to give attention to England. A few years later, in 1850, Pius restored the Church’s hierarchy to England.
Bosco created the oratory compound in Turin that later become the motherhouse for the Salesian order throughout the world. The compound includes the glorious Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, in which St. Dominic Savio’s remains are interred. (For more on the basilica and St. John Bosco, see “St. John Bosco Works His Magic Still,” Jan. 28.)
I came to this holy site in the center of the city to find a very active elementary and secondary all-boys’ schools. Amidst the dormitories, computer labs and the first chapel built by St. John Bosco, boys were playing sports, scrambling to do their homework, running to class and offering high-fives to Salesian priests and brothers as they passed.
Everywhere around the oratory’s compound I found signs of sanctity, the footsteps of the saints who worked and worshipped here more than a century ago.
Visions of Holiness
A visitor’s center set up to educate pilgrims was well worth my while. But my main interest was the original chapel John Bosco built, for it was here that young Dominic Savio prayed with such abandon.
The Chapel of the Resurrection, also known as the Pinardi chapel, has been called the “Bethlehem of the Salesian Family” because of its humble appearance and its original roots as a washroom. It remains the center, both geometrically and spiritually, of the Salesian motherhouse.
The Pinardi chapel is a small and intimate place of prayer reminiscent of chapels in every Salesian school in the world. It is replete with Christian symbols John Bosco used to catechize the un-churched boys he taught. I knelt at the altar at which Dominic Savio prayed and, possibly, received ecstatic visions.
The surroundings were deeply reverent, beautifully traditional and fittingly austere. The creaky old pews and antique ambience served as reminders that Christ is not bound by time: He was with me just as surely as he was with Savio all those years ago.
I stepped out of the chapel and into a beautiful Italian day. The sights and sounds of kids chasing soccer balls filled the air. Surely the same sounds wafted from the same spots when Savio lived here.
“Religion must be about us as the air we breathe,” St. John Bosco said to his charges. St. Dominic Savio took that instruction deep to heart, living it until he drew his last breath — and passing it along to us, his admirers and devotees, even to today.
Angelo Stagnaro writes from
New York City.
Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians and Motherhouse of the Salesians of Don Bosco
Via Maria Ausiliatrice 32
10152 Torino-Valdocco, Italy
Planning Your Visit
Northern Italy is generally warm and humid with high rainfall except during the summer, when it can be unmercifully hot. Sunday Mass is celebrated at the basilica at 7:30, 9, 11 and noon. Confession is heard in several languages, including English.
- May 06-12, 2007