The tears of Don Bosco and the hour of truth

Among the thousands of travellers who crowd the Termini station in Rome every day, some stop by the nearby Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Via Marsala. The church was commissioned by Pius IX, who laid the foundation stone of the new building in 1870, but due to the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy, the work was soon interrupted. In 1880, Leo XIII, who shared his predecessor’s esteem and affection for Don John Bosco (1815–1888), entrusted him with the difficult task of finding the funds to finish building the church. Don Bosco did not shrink from the task, despite his age, poor health and the serious financial difficulties of his own congregation. Some imagine the saints to be immersed only in divine things, free from material problems. This is not the case. Facing seemingly insurmountable difficulties, the saints go ahead, with abandonment to divine providence which allows them to overcome every difficulty. Thanks to the tenacity of Saint John Bosco, the construction could be resumed and completed by architect Francesco Vespignani in 1887.

During his twentieth and last stay in the Eternal City, from 30 April to 18 May 1887, on the occasion of the dedication of the temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Don Bosco stayed in some small rooms at the back of the basilica, known today as the “little rooms of Don Bosco”, which are lovely to visit. The space, which forms one room today, was then divided into two small rooms, separated by a wall. The first room was used by Don Bosco as a study for receiving those who wished to meet him. The adjoining room was equipped as a bedroom, with the addition of a cupboard altar for the private celebration of Mass by the saint, who was by then very tired and in a precarious state of health. Don Bosco performed two wonderful acts here, which contributed to his reputation as a “saint” being confirmed during his lifetime — he freed a seminarian from deafness, which was jeopardising his vocation, and cured a lady whose arm had been paralysed for many years.

But there is another miracle we want to talk about, towards the end of Don Bosco’s life, on 14 May 1887, when he was in Rome for the consecration of the Church of the Sacred Heart. The Memoirs of Don Bosco recount the episode as follows: 

“That morning Don Bosco wanted to go down to the church to celebrate at the altar of Mary Help of Christians. No less than fifteen times during the divine sacrifice he stopped, overcome with emotion and shedding tears. Don Viglietti, who was assisting him, had to distract him from time to time so that he could go on. Who would not have wanted to know what had caused such emotion? When Don Viglietti saw him return to his usual calm, he asked him. He replied, ‘I had before my eyes the scene when I was ten years old and dreamt of the Congregation. I could actually see and hear my mother and brothers questioning the dream’ … Then Our Lady had told him, ‘In due time you will understand everything.’ Sixty-two years of hard work, sacrifices and struggles had passed since that day, when a sudden flash of lightning revealed to him, in the erection of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Rome, the crowning of the mission that had mysteriously overshadowed him at the beginning of his life. From the Becchi di Castelnuovo to the See of the Vicar of Jesus Christ how long and arduous had been the journey! He felt at that point that his personal work was coming to an end, he blessed divine providence with tears in his eyes and raised his confident gaze to the sojourn of eternity.”

At the left of the altar of tears, surmounted by a large painting depicting Mary Help of Christians, the victrix of Lepanto, there is a plaque which reads:

“St John Bosco, celebrating the Eucharist at this altar on 16 May 1887, was seen to stop and weep many times, contemplating with a miraculous glance the vast panorama of his life, enclosed in the words which Our Lady told him in his dream when he was nine years old: IN DUE TIME YOU WILL UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING.”

Throughout his life Don Bosco had always tried to do the will of God, even though he did not understand the path the Lord was tracing out for him. Now that path was miraculously clear to him and Don Bosco wept with joy and emotion. The famous “dream of the nine-year-old” revealed to him the full meaning of his long earthly mission. On 18 May, he left Rome for Valdocco, where he died at dawn on 3l January 1888, at the age of 74. Pius XI beatified him on 2 June 1929, and declared him a saint on Easter Sunday, 1 April 1934.

So many things in our lives, which come unexpectedly and seem inexplicable, distant or contrary to our desires, only reveal their meaning at the end of our lives. Everything will be clear to us at the hour of our death, if not before, as miraculously happened to Don Bosco. The hour of death is the hour of truth, in which we will understand what is impossible for us to understand now, but also what we could have understood or should have understood and did not want to understand when we rejected the truth, which is God Himself — mysterious to our gaze but always present in our lives. Our life is not guided by chance, but by a miraculous plot of events designed by God, which asks only for our surrender to divine providence.

The request that each one of us can make as we kneel at the feet of Mary Help of Christians is to always and only do the will of God, even if we do not understand it, so that one day, like Don Bosco, we may weep tears of joy at the supreme hour of the unveiling of the truth.