Growing up, I did not know that Don Bosco was a saint; I thought he was a family friend. I would hear things like “Don Bosco got Daddy a job” or “Don Bosco helped us pay that bill.” Friends’ parents shared similar names: Ron, John and my father, Don, gathered together regularly for coffee. When I heard “Don Bosco” I just added him to the mix.
Saint John Bosco (known popularly as Don Bosco) first came to our attention before my parents were particularly religious. They were having financial troubles, and his intercession was sought as a “patron saint of unpaid bills.” I was just a child at the time and so the precise details were hazy, but there was a medical bill that my parents were unable to pay. As it went to collection with no resources in sight, my grandmother proposed a novena to Saint John Bosco. Figuring “What can it hurt?” my parents prayed to Don Bosco for nine days. But on the last day of the novena, an envelope arrived from a mail order contest for the exact amount of the bill!
Answers like this appeared throughout my childhood, and then into adulthood. Time after time, Saint John Bosco came through, often at the very last minute. This followed the pattern of his own lifetime, of last-minute miracles. He started an Oratory for troubled boys in Turin, but there was not often an excess of funds. More than once, he sat the boys down for dinner with nothing to feed them with. Then, suddenly, there would be a knock on the door with a last-minute donation of food.
Other times Don Bosco seems to have been granted miracles of multiplication. One such story is recounted by Francis Dalmazzo, who had decided after just a few days to leave the Oratory, and had even sent for his mother to come and get him. But that morning, he witnessed a few rolls become enough to feed the four hundred boys. As each boy received his roll, there was another in its place for the next boy, until all had eaten—and in the basket Francis saw the original few rolls still there. He told his mother that he had decided to stay after all. 1
Last-minute miracles took many forms. There were death-bed conversions, including that of the man who had spent his life in opposition to Don Bosco’s work. There was the time when St. John Bosco seemed too late—a boy in the Oratory had died without making a good Confession. Don Bosco raised him from the dead, and the boy received the sacraments. There was the time he wanted to build a basilica to Mary Help of Christians—to whom he had entrusted all his needs and work. He gave the astonished architect a down payment of eight cents, promising that “Mary would build her own basilica.”2 We visited that Basilica on a Frassati pilgrimage in 2010.
It is easy to admire a saint for such radical trust in God. Real-time waiting and last-minute rescues, however, do not make for an anxiety-free life. I often wished that as an intercessor, Don Bosco would not wait until that last minute. And sometimes it seemed that his idea of last-minute went well beyond mine. Other times he didn’t seem to answer my prayers at all.
I am not going to lie—there have been times when I was tempted to move Saint John Bosco to my other list. Saint.Joseph for one, is a lot more prompt… And then I wonder just why John Bosco is in my life to begin with. What does this saint have to teach me, in particular about last-minute answers? About trusting in Providence? About waiting?
In the Gospels Jesus tells the strange story of a persistent widow, who hounds a judge until he gives her justice. Jesus tells us to imitate her tenacity when asking favors of God. He also tells the story of a man who wakes up his friend in the middle of the night to ask for bread for a visitor. The friend responds, not out of friendship, but because he wants the knocking to stop.
These are not appealing images. Most of us go out of our way NOT to be a nuisance, not to impose on others. Yet Jesus tells us to keep asking past the point of feeling comfortable about continuing.
The vision of God that this parable proposes does not seem at first to be any more appealing. Why would He insist that we ask, repeatedly, when as Jesus tells us, He already knows what we need? Does He really demand that our petitions reach critical mass before deigning to reply? Is it only when we’ve worn ourselves (and Him) out like the judge that He is reluctantly persuaded to give us what we ask?
We know theologically that God is good. We know from Scripture that “it is your Father’s desire to give you the kingdom.” But from the first sin in the Garden, our lived faith in His goodness is shaky. But Jesus wants us to call on and trust the Father.
Don Bosco was a father to the boys in Turin, and later to the Salesian order. He first attracted the boys by performing magic tricks to get their attention, but ultimately they stayed because they experienced his personal love and care for each of them. They learned first to trust in him, and in his fatherly love for them. His fatherly care and provision of their earthly needs pointed always and ultimately to the heavenly Father.
Image credit: Unspecified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons