Young Saint

by Paul Humphreys


A little shy of ten miles from Kidlington, heading in the direction of Oxford,

a life-sized figure sculpted in Italian marble stood high on a plinth of stone at the centre of a playground: a secondary school for boys, a converted monastery of the Franciscans.

A covered ambulacrum encircled the playground's quadrangle, around which the boys walked and talked in soft voice on their way to their next lesson, which always began and ended with a prayer.

Today, neither the school nor the statue remains in Oxford; relocated, its mission replicated elsewhere.

What remains is the enduring story of the young person commemorated in that statue.

Dominic Savio.

Dominic Savio died in 1857, three weeks before his fifteenth birthday.

He died of pleurisy, a respiratory disease then commonplace in northern Italy where Dominic had lived and attended school. Almost one hundred years after his death, Dominic became the only person in his age group to be canonised a saint in the Catholic Church. Uncommonly among the saints, he did not die a martyr but peacefully at home; his parents at his bedside as was his priest from whom Dominic received the last rites, "May the Lord protect you, and lead you to eternal life."

Dominic Savio had possessed a profound sense of the eternal, but he had no superpowers, nor did he pray for any. On his deathbed, he said he was simply returning home.

Of himself, Dominic stated he was not a person of big things.

He could do only little things, like gather firewood for his parents in midwinter, try his best at homework, say his prayers, share his food with his classmates who were hungrier than him.

Dominic was not the sort of boy who stood out at school. You wouldn't notice him. Not top in Latin, the subject he loved, not best at football. He was just another boy about the place, like many others who attended the first Salesian school founded in Turin by his contemporary and teacher, John Bosco.

John Bosco was the person of big things.

Today, there are more than 3,000 Salesian schools in 127 countries around the world, from primary and secondary to university.

The name Salesian derives from St. Francis de Sales whose writings about the devout life had influenced John Bosco in his studies for the priesthood. The first school founded by John in Italy was little more than a shed. 'The Pinardi Shed' so named after the property's wealthy landowner. Mr Pinardi had ambitions but little luck in becoming an opera singer. John Bosco invited Mr Pinardi to lead his boys in sung Mass in exchange for the use of Mr Pinardi's large barn which John Bosco later would convert into a school for 'the wild boys of Turin' as Mr Pinardi had frequently called them. John Bosco knew how to get things done. The Pinardi Shed became the inaugural Salesian College; Dominic Savio one of its first Salesian pupils.

Today at the Vatican, a statue of Dominic Savio is set above all others built inside the largest cathedral, St Peter's Basilica in Rome. Dominic overlooks the altar from the highest height. Standing alongside him, a memorial of his teacher John Bosco.

Together, the exemplary pupil stands with the exemplary teacher. The pair speaks of education. And, of course, of faith.

Dominic leaves us with a mystery.

His 'Vision of England' written a few weeks before his death prevails, wrapped in an enigma — because Dominic did not know of England. He was not taught about England; he did not speak English and, for all we know, he may never have heard English spoken, nor did he ever leave his hometown, save to walk each day from home to school. And his new school was confined locally to his region.

In translation, this is what Dominic wrote:

I saw a vast plain covered with people and over them hung a dense cloud.
The people were walking about in great numbers, like men who did not know where they were going.
I heard a voice nearby say, 'This is England.' I was about to question whoever said this, when a figure
in white vestments and holding aloft a flaming torch advanced towards this great multitude.
As he approached, the clouds rolled back before the torch
until at last the people stood in a clear light as if it were noon.

Scholars argue, but some hold no more suitable words could any pupil utter in their lifetime to their teacher but a simple "Thank you".

They say that Dominic's vision heralded to John that his new Salesian Order would not be confined to Italy but would spread around the world; its next step to England. Indeed, as it turned out, to smog-covered industrial Oxford of the 1960s from where Saint Dominic Savio heard those words spoken by boys at play around him in the quad.

The Salesian expansion has caught some well-known names.

Pope Francis is a past pupil of the Salesian College in Buenos Aires.

When as pontiff he says Mass from the magnificent sanctuary of St. Peter's and looks upward, he catches a glimpse of Dominic. Francis brings to mind the days he started his own priestly journey as a teenager in Argentina.

Pope Francis knows that his own classmates still say of him, as all Salesians say of Dominic, "he was just another boy in class with us at school".

SEE ALSO by Paul Humphreys:
Fandilay
Coca Cola
Young Saint
Why Dexter Wrote Morse

Paul Humphreys is a resident of Kidlington village, Oxfordshire.


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