As another school year begins it is a worthy endeavor to contemplate the teaching and ‘parenting’ skills of John Bosco, a priest who understood that faith and learning go hand in hand 24/7. His example is one that serves for all families, but even more for those that have chosen to homeschool. He was innovative, as anxious to learn as he was to teach, and fully aware that hard work needed to be mixed with quality play.
Francis Bosco was a widower with a son and a dependent mother, who he cared for on his small, poor farm. He married a woman by the name of Margaret Occhiena, who embraced the family and made their humble surroundings into a real home with love and warmth. They became parents to two sons, Joseph, and two years later, John. Then, when the younger boy himself was two, Francis died of pneumonia. Margaret, with little education herself, was dedicated to teaching her children about God. Despite the fact they had very little, she was always able to see the good in what they did have, and Christ in all things.
John watched from his position in the field where he tended the sheep as each year children headed off to school, and he tried to learn what he could. By the time he was nine, his mother recognized that the boy needed something more, but his half-brother, Anthony, was head of the household, and he refused, using the fact that he himself worked hard and never had any schooling, and that would be good enough for John, too. The boy wanted to study to become a priest, and his mother eventually worked out a deal with a schoolmaster/priest to teach him from November through spring, and then John would return to work on the farm. Some biographies say the school was three miles and others, four, but in either case the youngster made the commitment and walked to and from there everyday. He always had problems keeping peace in the family and endured the ridicule of other children who chided him for trying to become a priest.
Starting around the same time as his school years and continuing through his life, John Bosco was blessed with visions of Jesus and his Blessed Mother. The Lord is said to have instructed him that a peaceful nature was the way he would reach many young people. He called the young boy to patience, obedience, and understanding. After he became a priest that was his role as he nurtured and cared for orphan and homeless boys whom he housed in a separate building at St. Philomena’s Hospice where he was the chaplain to girls. When given a choice between the hospice girls and the wild boys, he resigned his post and opened a refuge for boys known as the Oratory. His mother, who had all along been nearby to encourage and teach her son, remained very active in his life and ministry, and joined him in that endeavor.
On the journey John Bosco realized that young boys have no attention span and he began to devise ways to capture their focus. He learned magic tricks, jokes, and acrobatic stunts. Once the group was good and mesmerized, he began to teach. As the news spread, he became an important figure in the life of wayward boys. He built a church, facilitated workshops, taught and preached, and soon had such a large following it took at least ten priests to care for the pastoral needs of the boys. John Bosco was a popular paid speaker and homilist. He wrote best selling books and was graced with many charitable donations to continue his ministry. His work became so big that he needed more help dedicated to serving the Lord through the boys and eventually girls, that he formed a religious order to accept the challenge, the Society of St. Francis de Sales. By the time of his death in 1888, there were more than sixty Salesian foundations in Europe and America, and nearly eight hundred priests, and the order remains quite active today.
The idea given to John by the Lord was a vision of youth ministry that he saw as an inner window comprised of four panes. Each pane was uniquely different, but it took all four to view the entire picture. He expressed the panes as places where youth could thrive in a well balanced structure, and no one would be forced to pursue one pane at the expense of another.
The first window pane, he called ‘home,’ a place of belonging, where a youth could sit down at a meal with others and share his/her story, and hear those of other children. John called the second pane ‘school,’ where youth studied in a way that permitted them to grow rather than be stifled. He saw education as a way for student and teacher to question and learn together. The third window pane was ‘church.’ There, youth would be empowered to become active participants in the sacramental and worship lives of the whole faith community. The fourth was named ‘playground,’ where children were encouraged to be children, to run and play and enjoy the company of others.
Why does this matter today? Largely because it doesn’t happen enough. As early in the Bible as Deuteronomy 6:4-9, parents are called to tend to the education and right thinking of their children. This ancient lesson is the first time the great commandment was encouraged as part of life’s structure. The Book of Proverbs begins by telling the reader it’s purpose is that humankind may appreciate wisdom and discipline and may understand words of intelligence, and that they may receive training in wise conduct, what is honest, just and right (Proverbs 1:2-3). From that point, Proverbs continues to emphasize wisdom taught by parents and elders.
Too often today parents are not involved in their children’s education. One principal complained about a Parent-Teacher Meeting that no parents attended. Is it any wonder that particular school is below the acceptable standard in the Albuquerque Public School system? Looking at it from four window panes, parents need to ask themselves, do they have a home where children are actually able to talk and live, to share their lives around a dinner table, and that doesn’t mean conversing by text with friends. Are the parents active in their children’s education? Not that everyone has the skills or the time and resources, but Catholic homeschooling is quite acceptable, encouraged, and was endorsed by Pope John Paul II among others. Do parents worship with their children or is it preferable to drop them off at church, if at all? Do they celebrate the sacraments together as family and community? And one last point, do they play and have fun together, enjoying all of the gifts from God, especially each other.
Churches of all denominations abound with programs for youth, and some are quite similar to the plan set up by John Bosco one hundred and fifty years ago. The elements of key importance are the same elements of Christian life: that we love God and trust him completely, that we care about one another, including the kids, and that we be involved in each others lives, including what we/they learn. Yes, the ethic of John Bosco matters, perhaps now more than ever. Have you hugged your gift today?