In the far north of Italy, at the foot of the French and Italian Alps the gray- green waters of the Po River flow along the edge of the city of Turin, home of the Royal House of Savoy. On the river, just northeast of the city, a curious event took place in the early 1840s. Inhabitants living along the far shore saw three large rowboats come into view. As the vessels came closer people were startled to hear the sound of young male voices, and leaving their homes and shops began following the boats toward the landing at a nearby Marian shrine. Three men in the neighborhood owned trumpets and now picked up the refrain. The effect of the singing from the boats and the musical accompaniment from the shore was as magical as it was mysterious.
The combination of societal pressures and the efforts of a 30-year-old priest had brought the boys to this place. How and why this occurred is a remarkable story and one that has had lasting impact on Catholic youth ministry.
Turin at this time was a place of contrasts. The arcaded streets, great churches, and magnificent palaces had made the metropolis the architectural jewel of the Po Valley. But the rapidly growing city of 120,000 was ill equipped to handle the influx of rural immigrants seeking to escape the grinding poverty of the surrounding countryside.
The problems of the city fell particularly hard on young men, many rural, illiterate youth, who found themselves estranged from a baroque Church preoccupied with issues far removed from everyday life. Several years earlier, Jesuit Pierre Le Blanc wrote of the clergy of the Turin region: “The priests are good and well-instructed, but long ago adopted an extraordinary rigorism in administering the sacraments.” Le Blanc recounted a conversation with a parish priest. At Easter time, he would not give Communion to anyone who, though instructed in the faith, was not instructed according to his sermons. …For an occasional mortal sin of human weakness, he would delay absolution for months, even for years. He gave penances for venial sins that lasted for days and even months.”
It was in such circumstances that a newly ordained priest, John Melchior Bosco, encountered a teen-ager who had found his way into the sacristy. The boy, when asked him if he could serve Mass, said no. The priest countered: “Can you whistle?” The boy laughed, and the two became good friends. Up to this time, the young man had never been taught his catechism, and considered himself too old to receive First Communion. For the priest, who was working as a chaplain in a women’s refuge, the encounter was life changing.
Over time, Don [“Father”] Bosco began to gather up his boys from the central market square where young men hustled to get work as day laborers, hawkers, peddlers, or messengers. In a short time the group numbered several hundred. That the grubby, unwashed lot, was attending Mass and learning the rudiments of the faith, won the priest many friends. But the noisy games and singing, frequently caused neighbors and landowners to complain and the group was constantly forced to relocate, leading to outings in the country much favored by the boys.
During these same years, the priest’s musical talents were put to good use. Walking through the city square one day, he heard a group of young musicians singing to a guitar, and taking out a notebook recorded the melody. He did the same on another occasion when he came across a group of workman, singing a work song in unison. With the help of a poet friend, Don Bosco then combined melody with words, and aided by his strong singing voice and ability to poke out notes on a harmonium taught the songs to his young followers.
This new kind of music combined with catechism classes taught in a simple, entertaining way attracted growing numbers of boys and young men. And while games were played, groups clustered about the priest to have their confessions heard. Many were encouraged to receive weekly Communion. It was the occasion of one of these outings to a country shrine that the boys and their priest had crossed the Po River on the boats and made a lasting impression on the local populace with their singing.
By 1846 the resourceful priest acquired some property on the outskirts of the city, where in the following decades he pieced together playgrounds, classrooms, and dormitories, and a majestic church in honor of Mary. For many years, however, the countryside walks continued in the summer months, often accompanied by a band of young musicians, Don Bosco and his boys roamed the hill towns and villages of the region, where their music caused them to be enthusiastically welcomed by the inhabitants. “The childish voices,” one observer recorded, “evoked the song of angels… It was not unusual to see men and women…shed tears.”
By the time of his death, Don Bosco had founded religious orders for men and women, and had established youth centers throughout Europe and Latin America. Today the two branches of the Salesians of St. John Bosco are the largest group of religious men and women in the Catholic Church.
Speaking of his many youth centers, Don Bosco was often heard to repeat, “a house without music is like a body without a soul.” What is remarkable is that 130 years after his death, this musical legacy continues to speak to the young. A Google Search of “Don Bosco music” turns up dozens of web pages from all parts of the world focused on Catholic youth music.