By Cardinal Justin Rigali

The relics of St. John Bosco, a great apostle to young people, are being brought to various places throughout the world as part of the upcoming 200th anniversary of his birth. This gives us the opportunity to write about the ministry of the Church to youth.

We always begin with the example and command of Jesus
Any aspect of the Church’s ministry must always begin with the command and example of Jesus contained in the Gospel. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, we read: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

This is one of the passages that the Church has always used to remind us of the need to have infants baptized, because Jesus would have not spoken so intimately of children and the kingdom of heaven without willing that they receive the grace of baptism to unite them to His death and resurrection. From this also flows the responsibility of parents to educate their children in the faith, so that they may know what it means to belong to the kingdom. In the absence of parents, or as an extension of the role of parents, there are many others who care for and nurture children in various ways.

In the early days of the Church, during a period of great persecution, we find one of the earliest examples of the Church carrying out her ministry to children and young people in the story that is told of the deacon, St. Lawrence. He had charge of the “treasure of the Church,” and the Emperor, thinking that this meant money, demanded he be given that treasure. On the appointed day, Lawrence gathered the poor people and the orphaned children who were being supported by the Church and presented them to the Emperor with the words: “Here are the treasures of the Church.”

Down through the centuries, God raised up great men and women who were filled with zeal to educate and form young children, especially those who were abandoned, poor and orphaned. St. John Bosco was one of these.

The mission of “Don Bosco”
One of our priests told me of an interesting event that took place while he was in the seminary. A young man from Haiti had been hired for the seminary’s maintenance staff and, shortly after being hired, was injured. The man spoke very little English and the rector, knowing that this priest, then a seminarian, spoke French, asked him to accompany the man to the hospital. In the course of the hours they spent together, the seminarian remarked on the young man’s excellent French, to which the gentleman replied with great joy and pride: “That is because I attended the schools of the Salesians of Don Bosco for 12 years.”

Indeed, approximately 300,000 young men throughout the world have been educated, taught useful trades and, in many cases, been given a home, by the followers of St. John Bosco in the religious community of the Salesians (named for St. Francis de Sales), which he founded.

John Bosco was born in 1815 in northern Italy. When he was 2 years old, his father died, and his mother supported the home in the midst of poverty and great struggle. When he was only 9 years old, young John had one of those “dreams,” or revelations which seemed to come to him at pivotal moments in his life. He saw a group of wild and fighting boys. He tried to argue with them but to no avail. Then a mysterious lady appeared and said: “Softly, softly…if you wish to win them! Take your shepherd’s staff and lead them to pasture.” In his dream, the boys were then transformed into gentle lambs. John saw this as his life’s vocation, and he never wavered from it. He placed his work under the patronage of Our Lady, Help of Christians and St. Francis de Sales.

Despite his poverty, young John desired to be a priest. With various people purchasing his cassock, shoes and books, he began his studies for the priesthood. His superiors even allowed him to do some of his work with the young on Sundays, while he was still in the seminary. His ability to juggle and perform various tricks as a magician engaged the young people and, in return, he led them in their prayers and taught them their catechism. The joy with which John Bosco transmitted the faith to the young led to his establishment of what he called the “festive oratories” which were places of prayer, but also of amusement and wholesome fun.

Along with St. Maria Mazzarello, John Bosco founded a community of women to whom was given the name of the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians. They were called to accomplish with young girls what Don Bosco was accomplishing among the young men. Both of these communities of men and women eventually spread throughout the world, forming youth according to the message, and joy, of the gospel.

Many forms of work with youth
The work of St. John Bosco may be a dramatic example of wholehearted devotion to the formation of the young, but it is certainly not the only one throughout the history of the Church. This work has taken different forms depending upon the needs of the times. In some cases, it addressed the needs of orphans, at other times the education of the poor.

We think of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who were founded by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier to care for troubled girls, and who provided a home and an education for many of them. We do not forget the remarkable work done among the young by the teaching Sisters, who have been such a beneficial presence, especially here in the United States.

In other parts of the world movements such as Catholic Action and Catholic Scouting sought to form the young according to the Gospel, with great effect. So much so, that it was these Catholic Youth Movements in Germany that Hitler sought to destroy with a vengeance.

In our own country, many of us are familiar with the Catholic Youth Organization. We may not realize that this movement was the creation of Bishop Bernard Sheil, who was the Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago for many years. Caring for the local prison while a young assistant at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, Father Sheil determined to do something to help keep boys from getting into trouble. The combination sports, recreation and spiritual programs that so many of us know as the CYO were developed in many ways by Bishop Sheil and spread throughout the country. We are all grateful here in our own Archdiocese for the Office for Youth and Young Adults, Activities, which engages in work with our young people in the spirit of the Gospel and the spirit of Bishop Sheil.

World Youth Days
A marvelous means of transmitting the joy of the Gospel to youth has been given to us in our own time by Pope John Paul II in the World Youth Days, which he began. The first of these was held in 1985, and an international World Youth Day has been held every few years since then. The 26th World Youth Day will be held in 2011 in Madrid, Spain. The late Holy Father was inspired to begin this present-day evangelization of youth by his own experiences as a young priest and his extensive work with the young.

The World Youth Days are the occasion for many cultures to come together in a spirit of unity, as the learn the treasures of each other’s culture. However, the principal focus of these events is the gospel message of Jesus Christ and our life in Christ through the sacraments. Hundreds of thousands of young people from throughout the world have attended these events and the conferences, Masses, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and celebration of the sacrament of penance that go with them.

Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has recently released his Message for the upcoming World Youth Day to be held in Madrid. He summarized that Message in a recent Address. Here are his challenging words: “It is in the expressions ‘in Jesus Christ’ and ‘in the faith’ that one finds the heart of my Message. The full maturity of the person, his interior stability, has its basis in relation to God, a relation that passes through the encounter with Jesus Christ. A relationship of deep trust, of authentic friendship with Jesus, is able to give to a young person what he needs to deal well with life: serenity and interior light, a capacity to think positively, generosity of soul toward others, availability to give oneself for the good, justice and truth. A last very important aspect: to be a believer the young person is supported by the faith of the Church; if no man is an island, much less is a Christian, who in the Church discovers the beauty of faith shared and witnessed together with others in fraternity and the service of charity” (Address, 5 September 2010).

May we all reflect the love of Jesus Christ for the young; the examples of the great men and women who were apostles of youth throughout the Church’s history; and the zeal and love for youth shown by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

16 September 2010