The Word Among Us

November 2010 Issue

St. John Bosco’s Way of the Beatitudes

His witness shows us how to live them out.

By: Bert Ghezzi

St. John Bosco’s Way of the Beatitudes: His witness shows us how to live them out. by Bert Ghezzi

When Jesus came on the scene in Galilee, he announced the coming of God’s kingdom and called people to repent and believe the good news.

He declared that his Father was working through him to set things right in the world. He healed the sick, cast out demons, fed the hungry, and forgave sinners. To ensure the advance of the kingdom, he called men and women as disciples who would continue his work.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught them a new way of living. And he began his sermon with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) as a picture of what a disciple’s life should be like. As Jesus’ disciples today, we too are called to pattern our lives on these very same Beatitudes.

One practical way we can take up the Beatitudes is by following the example of someone who lived them deeply. Any saint could do it for us, but I find that St. John Bosco (1815–1888) is a particularly good role model. This great saint brought the good news of God’s kingdom to the bustling city of Turin, Italy. Let’s look at his life, one Beatitude at a time, to see what we can learn.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. If we want to get to the heart of this Beatitude, we should rephrase it a bit: ”Blessed are the single-hearted.” Here Jesus is teaching the importance of putting him and his work first in our lives. John Bosco made this choice at age nine, when he had a vision about rescuing rambunctious boys. Bosco resolved to become a priest and devote himself to caring for the young. He put this decision into practice right away by befriending other boys and teaching them about the Lord and Christian living. Later as a priest, he took in thousands of homeless boys, giving them a place to live, an education, and such effective evangelization that some went on to become saints themselves.

Whatever our ages or circumstances, we can be confident that Jesus has a plan for us, no less than he did for John Bosco. He never stops calling us, and if we ask him, he will show us how and where we can use our gifts to serve him and his people. And as he did for John, Jesus will give us all we need in order to hear, decide, and respond to his call.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. John Bosco shows us how these two Beatitudes can work together: Disciples mourn over the desperate circumstances of the poor, and they show mercy to those in need.

Grief over the sorry condition of Turin’s homeless youths motivated John Bosco to begin informal Sunday gatherings where boys could enjoy games, hikes, picnics, prayer, and teaching. He launched the project—his “Oratory,” he called it—in 1841, and within five years, it was drawing four hundred homeless teenagers a week. They were attracted by Bosco’s innate friendliness and sense of fun. (It seems that he “mourned” over others’ sufferings without ever being grim.) The love he showed touched the boys deeply and reoriented their entire lives.

We don’t have to look very far to discover people who need God’s mercy. They are all around us, in our families and neighborhoods, parishes, and workplaces. Some are lonely or troubled. Some lack the basic necessities of life. Do you have the eyes to see? Does their suffering move you? Do you think and pray about how you might be a messenger of mercy for them?

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. We can’t achieve holiness by our own efforts. Only God can make us holy. However, we can’t become saints without hungering and thirsting for holiness and then working to deliver others from the evils that afflict them.

The Lord honored John Bosco’s hunger for righteousness. And in response, Bosco dedicated himself to rescuing his boys and meeting their needs. Knowing that only one thing would fill them, he brought them to Christ and the church. He did it gently and lovingly, without force. He never required the boys to go to Confession, for example; his magnetic kindness drew them to his confessional. And at Mass he didn’t check to see whether they received Communion. He related to them like the Father relates to us—with tenderness and grace.

God will do for us what he did for John Bosco: If we seek to do his will in our prayer, study, and service, he will make us saints. He will use our witness and words to set things right in our environments and to reach out to people with his own love and graciousness.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. One way of explaining this pivotal Beatitude is that Jesus is telling his disciples to rely on God for everything. This absolute confidence in God was a trademark of John Bosco’s life. With nothing but faith, he found ways to feed, house, educate, and evangelize thousands of boys. Once when he wanted to build a bigger church for them, an associate cautioned, “We’re broke!” But Bosco laughed and said: “Have we ever begun anything with money in our pockets?”

He trained his boys to live by faith, too. Perhaps this is why forty of them bravely volunteered to spend several months caring for victims of a cholera epidemic that swept through Turin in 1854. John encouraged them to trust the Lord for protection, and not a single one caught the disease.

It can be scary to aim at this kind of poverty of spirit, but we can at least make a start or take the next step, no matter how small. Is there something God is asking you to trust him with right now? Make that act of faith. It will bring growth and will strengthen you to continue Jesus’ work. And whenever you pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” take it as your Father’s assurance of his steadfast love and care.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Meekness does not mean passively giving way before obstacles or opposition or wrongs. A meek person faces difficulties with strength and passes through them, just as Jesus did on the way to the cross.

For John Bosco, meekness meant working humbly and patiently every day for four decades to overcome a constant stream of challenges. Establishing the Salesian Society, a community of priests to carry on his work, was especially difficult; the state resisted the foundation, and the church was reluctant to support it. It took thirty years, but Bosco’s meek, persistent labors finally paid off. Today thousands of Salesians serve the church throughout the world.

Meekness is important for us, too, for we also encounter obstacles and opposition to the work God calls us to do. How do we pass through our challenges courageously and successfully? Sometimes we achieve the goal by changing course or altering our approach. Sometimes it’s by standing our ground. Whatever the case, meekness is key.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. We don’t need to shake this Beatitude very hard to grasp its intent: Be reconciled with everyone.

One example of how John Bosco put this into practice was when his gatherings of rowdy boys began disturbing the peace. Many people were afraid that the boys would get out of control and cause harm. John addressed their concerns and trained the boys so well that in the end, the townsfolk realized there was nothing to fear. He even won the confidence of an anticlerical city official who asked him one day: “Why can’t the state draw the respect and love of its citizens, as you do from your students?” Bosco’s reply revealed the way to true peace: Because instead of relying on commands and punishments, “we appeal to the heart of the young, and our word is the word of Jesus Christ.”

What about us? Are we conducting all of our relationships with the goal of building peace? Is there anyone with whom we need to reconcile? Any antagonist we should be treating with more kindness and respect?

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus warned that his disciples would encounter persecution (Mark 10:30), and John Bosco was no exception. Government officials often blocked his projects, and the media mocked him. Even fellow priests persecuted him. Two of them once tried to have John abducted and driven to an insane asylum; he turned the tables by tricking them into the carriage and having the driver cart them off to the institution instead!

Some degree of opposition or persecution is inevitable in our Christian service, so let’s not be shocked when we encounter it. But let’s do God’s work with grace, so as not to provoke it! And let’s ask John Bosco to intercede for us so that we can respond as he did—with courage, perspective, and good humor.

St. John Bosco, pray for us and be with us as we walk the way of the Beatitudes!

Bert Ghezzi is the author of many books, including Adventures in Daily Prayer (Brazos Press) and Everday Encounters with God (The Word Among Us Press), which he co-authored with Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR. See his Web site at bertghezzi.com.

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