Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Canonization of St John Bosco

Today is the feast of St John Bosco, who is well known as the founder of the Salesian Order, and as one of the great pioneers in modern Catholic education. Something about him which perhaps many English-speakers are less aware of is that he lived in a period in which the government of the state he came from, the kingdom of Savoy in north-western Italy, was extremely hostile to the Church. As it conquered one part of the Italian peninsula after another over the mid-19th century, (the political movement known as the “Risorgimento”), it would rob the Church in each region blind, suppressing religious orders, and forcing the closure of countless Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages and cultural institutions, to say nothing of the churches themselves. Finally, in 1870, it conquered and despoiled the Papal state, at which the Popes became, in the phrase of the day, “prisoners in the Vatican”, refusing to cooperate with the robber-state’s illegal occupation of their country by setting foot within it. The Matins lessons for Don Bosco refer to this state of affairs when they say that he “more than once he helped the Roman Pontiff to temper the evils which derived from laws passed against the Church at that time.”

In 1922, the same year that Pius XI was elected, the Italian Fascists led by Benito Mussolini came to power, and although they would do many terrible things over the next 23 years, it cannot be denied that they also did some good things. One of these was to recognize that the state of cold war which existed between the Church and the Italian state was harmful to both, and needed to end. Not long after coming to power, Mussolini agreed to open negotiations to settle the Church’s legal status, and compensate it for the vast theft which Italy had perpetrated against it. The resulting treaties were signed by representatives of the Church and the Italian kingdom on February 11, 1929; they are known as the Lateran Treaties, since the signing ceremony was held in the papal palace next to the Lateran Basilica.

Don Bosco was the very first person to be beatified after the Lateran treaties went into effect, on June 2 of that same year. (This day is, ironically, now the July 4th of the modern Republic of Italy, the anniversary of the constitutional referendum of 1946 that turfed out the Savoiard monarchy, after the king’s appalling performance during World War 2.) Of course, the Lateran treaties did not magically erase all the tension between the Church and state, but this beatification was very much a celebration not only of a great Saint, but of the restoration of some measure of peace to a society long torn by serious internal strife.
Don Bosco was canonized 5 years later, on April 1, Easter Sunday of 1934. Here are two pieces of footage (without commentary) from the time of the canonization, from the archives of the Italian newsreel company Luce. The first shows events surrounding the canonization at St Peter’s in Rome, and the second, a procession in the city of Turin, where he is buried.

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