On a beautiful spring day, April 2, 1842, in the village of Riva, two miles from the town of Chieri, in the province of Piedmont, northern Italy, Dominic Savio was born. He was the second of eleven children born to Charles and Brigid Savio, who were poor, hard-working, pious people. Charles was a blacksmith. Dominic was a remarkable boy. What we know of him comes from a biography written by St. John Bosco and the testimony of family and friends. He attended the Oratory of St. Francis De Sales a school, youth center and hospice founded by Don Bosco.
Dominic was very bright and enjoyed school as well as play. He was well liked and respected by his friends. Dominic had remarkable control over his emotions, and while he could get angry like any of his companions, he was able to control himself in most situations. He was friendly and showed early his leadership qualities and a strong sense of duty. He was a prayerful person and had an ever-maturing spirituality.
The Savios attended church in the town of Murialdo and the pastor, Father John Lucca, knew them well. He saw Dominic in Church often. Once he learned to serve Mass he was there every day. While children of the time customarily received their first Communion in their early teens, Fr. Lucca recognized the boy’s remarkable piety and let him make his First Communion at the age of seven.
As the day of his first Communion drew near, Dominic wrote down four resolutions, remarkably mature thoughts of a seven year old:
- I will go to Confession and Communion as often as my confessor will allow.
- I will sanctify Sundays and holy days in a special way.
- Jesus and Mary will be my friends.
- Death, but not sin.
As we shall see Dominic lived by these resolutions.
Imagine a boy of ten trudging a total of twelve miles to and from school every day for a whole school year. That's what Dominic Savio did, because the school he attended was three miles away from home, and he had to go and come twice a day. On one very hot day an elderly man met him and asked, "Aren't you afraid to walk so far alone on this country road?"
"I'm not alone," replied Dominic. "I have my guardian angel with me. "
"But surely you find the journey long and tiresome in this very hot weather!"
"I work for a Master who pays well."
"And who is your master?"
"God is my master."
While full of energy and ready to join in any game with his friends, Dominic’s health was weak. The long walk every day took its toll. The next year his parents decided to move from Murialdo to another village called Mondonio to be closer to school.
It was at this school that an incident occurred which shows the depth of Dominic’s kindness and thoughtfulness. Once a classmate committed a serious offense. This boy had a reputation for misbehavior. The culprit falsely accused Dominic of the offence. The teacher scolded the class, and threatened Dominic was expulsion, but because Dominic had never misbehaved before, he gave Dominic severe scolding before the whole class. Dominic made no reply but stood in silence head bowed. A few days later the boy who was actually guilty was discovered. Regretting his previous harsh words, the teacher asked Dominic why he had not defended himself.
His answer came slowly but simply: "I knew that the other boy was in trouble for other things. I remembered how Our Lord had been unjustly accused, and I hoped that if I kept silence he would be given another chance."
This incident took place when Dominic was only eleven years old. It shows the depth and simplicity of this young soul.
Meeting A Guide
For several years Don Bosco would take some of the young people of the Oratory on an outing during the customary October break. This noisy procession of students would walk from the Oratory in Turin some 18 miles to Becchi where Don Bosco grew up and where his brother, Joseph, still worked the family farm. Don Bosco would arrange for food and lodging with the pastors of the parishes on the way. In return the young people would put on an entertainment for the people of the towns they visited.
Early on the morning of the first Monday of October' in 1854, Dominic and his father went looking for Don Bosco, who was going to be in the town of Murialdo on the outing. Dominic greeted Don Bosco with a bright smile, "Good morning, Father."
"Good morning, and what is your name?" asked Don Bosco. "Where are you from?"
"I'm Dominic Savio. I come from Mondonio. This is my father, Mr. Charles Savio. Father Cagliero, my teacher, told me that I should talk to you. Did he tell you about me?"
"Yes he did, Dominic." Don Bosco asked him about his schoolwork and his life at home.
Without hesitation Dominic asked, "Father, will you take me to Turin with you to the Oratory to study?"
"Well, you look like good material to me!" Don Bosco exclaimed.
"Good material, Father? Good for what?"
"To make a beautiful garment for the Lord, son."
"Then take me with you, Father. You can be the tailor, and I'll be the cloth. Make me into a beautiful garment for Our Lord."
Knowing a little about the boy from information given by his Pastor, Fr. Lucca, and his, teacher, Don Cagliero, Don Bosco explained, "I'm concerned about your health. Do you think that you will be all right? Life at the Oratory is not the same as at home?"
"Don't worry about that, Father. I’ll be O.K." Dominic was very excited about going to Don Bosco’s famous school.
"What do you want to do when you finish your studies?" Don Bosco asked.
"If God gives me the call, I very much want to be a priest."
"Bravo, Dominic! Now let's see how quick you are at learning. Take this book and see if you can learn this page by heart. Come back tomorrow when you have it memorized. Go now and join the other boys in that game. I want to talk to your father."
Don Bosco sent Dominic off to join the other boys who were playing, and then he turned to have a word with his father. Mr. Savio assured Don Bosco that his son was a very good boy and a bright student.
To Don Bosco's surprise, Dominic returned a few minutes later. Smiling, he said, "I can recite it now if you want me to, Father! " Don Bosco listened as the boy recited the assigned page word for word without hesitation or any mistakes. Dominic was motivated to accomplish the task as soon as he could so that he could join the other youngsters who were playing near by.
With a little doubt in his voice Don Bosco asked, "That is very impressive, Dominic, but do you know the meaning of what you have just recited?"
Eagerly Dominic explained clearly the meaning of the passage to the delight of both Don Bosco and his father.
"Very good," said Don Bosco. "Your father and I have spoken and he agrees that you may come to Turin. From now on you are one of the Oratory boys. Let’s pray for each other."
Overjoyed and grateful beyond words, Dominic took Don Bosco's hand and said, "Don Bosco, I will do my best."
Dominic arrived in Turin at Don Bosco‘s Oratory of St. Francis De Sales in early October 1854. He was twelve-and-a-half years old.
Dominic paid Don Bosco a visit in his office a few days after his arrival. Dominic noticed a sign in a frame hanging over the door.
"What's the meaning of those words, Father?"
Don Bosco explained, "That is a motto, Da mihi animas caetera tolle. It is Latin. Do you understand Latin?"
"It is a saying of St. Francis De Sales, our patron. I have taken it as my motto. It is translated: Give me souls: take away the rest."
Dominic did not fully understand meaning of the words, but a seed was planted in his heart.
Don Bosco Explained, "I am very concerned that I work hard to help people and myself save our souls by following Jesus, nothing else really matters."
Meeting Another Guide
A second event captured Dominic’s imagination. On December 8, 1854 Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Don Bosco and his Salesians took great care to prepare the young people of the Oratory for that special day. The whole community gathered in the Chapel. In a special prayer service the Salesians and the young people offered themselves to Mary, the Immaculate Mother of Jesus. Dominic remembered his first Communion resolutions and renewed them. Death but not sin… he remembered.
"From that day onward," wrote Don Bosco, "Dominic made such evident progress in virtue, that I began to write down everything I noticed about him."
Called to Holiness
A few months later on the second Sunday of Lent, 1855, Don Bosco was preaching to the boys of the Oratory. He exclaimed, "Every one is called to be a saint, and do you know, it is easy to be a saint. Just do this: diligently do the ordinary things of the day in an extra ordinary way." Dominic was profoundly impressed. He began to think most seriously about what it meant to be a saint.
He became quiet and looked worried. Don Bosco stopped him one day and asked him if something was bothering him, "Dominic, do you feel all right?"
"I am fine, Don Bosco! I have been thinking about your sermon last Sunday. From now on, I am going to be very serious about becoming a saint."
"Dominic," explained Don Bosco, "say your prayers devoutly. Perform all your duties exactly, and above all be cheerful. The Lord loves a cheerful giver."
At first Dominic did not really understand what Don Bosco meant. In his eagerness to become holy, Dominic began to do what he understood to be penance. He had heard about saints of the Middle Ages who would go on severe fasts and punish themselves with painful physical penances. Dominic actually put pieces of wood or small stones in his bed so that he could "suffer for Christ." When the dormitory monitor told Don Bosco about this he called Dominic aside.
"The way to be a saint, Dominic, is to be always cheerful, do your duties to the best of your ability, and give your classmates good example. Keep in mind that the Lord, Jesus is always with you and wants your happiness."
The educational method Don Bosco and his Salesians was guiding Dominic and the other youngsters of the Oratory, helping them to develop and grow into maturity. Don Bosco’s approach to ministry was to foster in the young people the skills and talents that would help them to develop into good Christians and upright citizens. In a short booklet entitled, The Preventive System, he described his approach to youth ministry as based on reason, religion and loving-kindness. Volumes have been written about Don Bosco’s method by his Salesians.
A Young Apostle
Don Bosco developed youth to youth ministry a hundred years before the term came to be used in education. Don Bosco began his ministry with very little help and no expertise except his own experience as a child and his keen insights into the nature of young people. He had to train a taskforce of people who would become experts in caring for these at-risk children. He gathered a hand full of generous adults willing to follow his lead and a large number of youth whom he could train to minister to their peers. Dominic became one of these young apostles.
Learning to Minister
During the next two years Dominic grew in his awareness of God’s call to holiness. He was already very pious, but now he became a person of prayer. Dominic realized that part of becoming a saint was sharing his knowledge and awareness of God with his companions.
Dominic was well liked by his classmates at the Oratory. He did well in school and enjoyed the games the other youngsters played. In Italy at the middle of the nineteenth century children did not play sports as we do today. Instead they enjoyed any number of games, races and field games. Dominic was always in the middle of the activities. He was always aware of what the others were doing and he became the mentor of his companions. The other kids respected him and appreciated his leadership, but when things went wrong he was not afraid to step in a bring order to difficult situations.
On one occasion two boys had gotten into an argument and challenged each other to a rock duel. This was a common way young thugs and street gangs settled arguments. These duels usually ended with someone getting hurt and sometimes seriously. It seems that one boy had insulted the family of the other. The two boys became so enraged that the only way they could think of settling the affair was to fight with stones. They were to meet in the lot about ten minutes' walk from the Oratory.
Dominic Savio learned about the fight. He caught up with the boys and tried to talk them out of it. They would not hear of it. Dominic followed them to a field where the fight was to take place.
Dominic pleaded "You must stop this. It is not right!"
The one of the boys shouted, "You can’t stop us."
"Not until I split his head open..." the other added.
"I am not stopping the fight," shot back Dominic, "but I am asking you to accept one condition."
"And what’s that? They asked. By now they had arrived at the field set up the duel. Each boy stood facing the other with a distance of about twenty feet between him. Each had a pile of stones arranged at his feet. On the signal they would began to throw the stones at each other until one gave up or was seriously injured.
Dominic stepped between them. One of the two shouted, "Dominic, what are you doing?"
"Do you promise you will fight under the condition I will set up?"
"Yes, now get out of the way, agreed one of the boys."
The other shouted, "Let’s get this over with. What’s the condition?"
Taking out a small crucifix, which he used to wear around his neck, Dominic held it up. "Before you start the fight you must look at this crucifix, and throw the first stone at me."
He strode before the angrier boy, and kneeling down said, "You start! Throw the first stone at me!"
Taken by surprise, the boy began to tremble. "No!" he protested. "Never! I have no argument with you, Dominic."
Dominic ran over to the other boy. He too was astonished and assured Dominic he was his friend and meant him no harm.
Then Dominic stood up. Looking at them, he said with great emotion: "Neither of you is ready to hurt me because I am your friend, yet you want commit this sin over a stupid remark made at school. Christ, who was innocent, died for us rather then seek revenge from those who hated him." Dominic stood, silent, crucifix in hand. Both boys dropped their stones, ashamed before his courageous stand.
"At that moment," one of them later admitted, "all my determination broke down and a cold chill ran through me. I hated myself for having forced a good friend like Dominic to go to such lengths to keep us from sin. To show my regret, I forgave the boy who had insulted me and asked Dominic to tell me of some good priest who would hear my confession."
Apostle of Prayer
Dominic had a special love for the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He prayed asking for the grace of keeping his heart like Mary’s, free from every impure desire. "Mary," he would pray, "I always want to be your son. Let me die rather than commit a single sin against chastity."
Every Friday he found a few minutes during recreation to go to the chapel with some friends and recite the Seven Sorrows of Mary or the Litany of the Sorrowful Virgin. One Saturday, for example, he invited a companion to recite Our Lady's Vespers with him, but the lad tried to get out of it by pleading that his hands were cold. Dominic took off his own gloves and gave them to him. Another time he lent his coat to a boy to have him go to church with him for a few moments. (Apparently, in the winter the Church was colder inside than it was outside.)
Dominic drew up an interesting set of stories about Mary, the mother of Jesus, to tell his schoolmates. Now and then he would drop a good hint to get someone to go to confession and Communion in honor or the Blessed Mother. He was the first to set the example. He saw the Sacrament of Penance as a good place to get advise from the priest.
A pleasant episode bears out his tender love for Mary. The boys of his dormitory had decided to set up a little shrine to Our Lady at their own expense so as to keep the month of May. Dominic was very excited about it, but when he found out how much it would cost, he exclaimed, "What can I do? I haven't a cent!" Then he had an idea. He got a book he once received as a prize and, giving it to the boys, said, "Now I can do my share for Mary! Take this book and sell it!" The others were so impressed that they too got books and things and had a little raffle to pay for their project.
After they bought the decorations they began setting up the shrine, but by the eve of Mary's feast they had not yet finished. "I'll stay up to night to get things ready," volunteered Dominic. But his friends knew that he was still recovering from a recent illness and made him go to bed. "All right," he agreed, "but when you finish, wake me up. I want to be among the first to see our shrine to Mary!"