We know that the Blessed Virgin gave Don Bosco different proofs of her favours by inspiring long-lasting undertakings in the mind Don Bosco. Father Paul Albera who was a witness to this shares with us his experience. One day after spending long hours in the confessional Don Bosco was talking with Fr. Paul Albera and he said, “There were lot of confessions today. But truthfully, I hardly know what I said or did because all the time I had something in my mind which totally absorbed me. I kept thinking: Our Church is too small. We have to pack in our boys like sardines. We must build a larger, more imposing one under the title of Mary Help of Christians. I don’t have a penny, nor do I know where to find the money, but that is not important. If God so wills, it will be done. I will try. If I fail I am willing to take the blame. I won’t mind if people say: this man began to build and he was not able to finish.”
Don Bosco shared this same idea also with John Cagliero. In 1862 Don Bosco told him that he was thinking of building a magnificent Church worthy of the Blessed Virgin. “Up to now” he said, “we have celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception with pomp and solemnity. Indeed, it was on this day that our work of the festive oratory began. But the Madonna wishes us to honour Her under the title of Mary, Help of Christians. The times are so bad that we badly need Her help to preserve and safeguard our faith. But there is another reason. Can you guess it?” “I believe,” said John Cagliero, “that this Church will be the mother Church of our future congregation, the source of all our undertakings for youth.” “Right,” Don Bosco exclaimed, “The Blessed Virgin is our Foundress. She will also be our Support.”
The choice of the name and location of the Basilica
Word had already gone around that Don Bosco intended to build a new Church in Our Lady’s honour and one day he himself asked the boys around him to suggest a name for the Church. Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and Our Lady of the Rosary were the first choices. He listened and then revealed his own choice: Help of Christians. Other statements of his convinced the boys that this title was intended o revive faith among the people and that the Church would triumph in the struggle then raging.
The Church was constructed with much difficulty as there were difficulties in purchasing the land and due to the financial concerns with regard to the construction. About the new Church that Don Bosco was planning to construct someone remarked, “You must be quite brave. You have no money. And yet you plan to build a Church in this materialistic day and age. This is tempting Divine Providence. Aren’t you afraid that you may have to stop half way through?” But the response of Don Bosco was different. His manner of judging the situation was totally different. He said, “When we plan something we should first see whether it will give glory to God. If that is the case, we should go ahead fearlessly because we shall succeed. This reveals to us the unlimited trust that Don Bosco had in God and how he expressed it.
As soon as Don Bosco received the building permit he entrusted the construction to Charles Buzzetti and the work began in May. The cost of land and of materials needed to fence the site on three sides leaving only an exit amounted to four thousand lire. Don Bosco called Fr. Angelo Savio the Economer and told him to go ahead with the excavations. “But Don Bosco,” Father Savio objected, “this is no chapel. It is a huge costly Church. This morning we did not have enough money to buy even postage stamps.” But Don Bosco said, “Never mind, get started. Did we ever begin anything with money in hand? Let us leave something to Divine Providence.” And the faith of Don Bosco did work as they experienced miracles.
The painting of our Blessed Mother in the Sanctuary
While the work of building the Church of Mary Help of Christians was under way one of Don Bosco’s main preoccupations was the painting to be placed above the main altar. When he put forward the idea to the artist Thomas Lorenzone he astounded those present with the grandeur of his conception: high in the heavens Our Lady amidst the choirs of angels; around Her, the twelve apostles; then in descending order, martyrs, prophets, virgins and confessors; on earth below banners proclaiming Mary’s great victories and finally people of all races raising their hands to Her in supplication. He talked as if he had actually seen what he had been so minutely describing. Lorenzone listened in amazement. “And where are you going to put this painting?” He asked. “In the new Church, of course” “Are you sure it will fit?” “Why not?” “Where will you find a studio large enough for such a canvas?” “That is your problem”, said Don Bosco. “There is no place huge enough for this job. I would have to make Piazza Castello my studio, unless you want a miniature painting to be seen through a magnifying glass.”
Everybody laughed. Ruler in hand Lorenzone proved his point. Regretfully Don Bosco had to agree that in the painting only the apostles, evangelists and few angels would represent the heavenly court, doing honour to Mary, and the Oratory alone would stand in the foreground below Virgin Mary.
Lorenzone rented a loft in Palazzo Madama and began working. He had time limit of about three years. When he was nearly through noticing that the lion beside St. Mark was so striking as to divert attention from the main subject, he toned it down. Our Lady’s features came out splendidly.
During the course of the painting work a Salesian went to Lorenzone’s studio to see the painting. It was his first visit. The artist standing on a scaffold was putting some last touches on Our Lady’s face. He did not turn around as he came in but went on with his work. Seeing him Lorenzone took his arm and led him to a spot where one could observe the light’s effect on the painting.
“Isn’t She beautiful?” He exclaimed. “I can’t say I did it. Another hand has been guiding mine. You are from the oratory, aren’t you? Tell Don Bosco that he will be pleased with this painting.” Elated beyond words he went back to work. We can add that when the painting was set into place in the new Church, Lorenzone fell to his knees in tears (BM VIII: 2-3).
As Don Bosco was in the process of constructing this chapel there were reactions of various kinds from different quarters. Because of the financial burden many in Turin who were interested in Don Bosco said that he was imprudent in constantly launching new projects. “As long as you are alive your name will sustain your works. But when you are gone they will fall or come to a stand-still.” Some others who marvelled to see him succeed in seemingly impossible things remarked, “Oh, No! And yet if Don Bosco says so, it must be so.” Cardinal Dominic Agostini the patriarch of Venice admired Don Bosco and thought of him doing what was right. He considered Don Bosco’s work as God’s work. He remarked, “God works His wonders only through His saints.”
Many of the friends and benefactors responded to Don Bosco’s appeal for finances to construct the Church because of Don Bosco’s Marian devotion and also because of their trust in Don Bosco’s prayers. Canon Hyacinth Ballesio says, “Don Bosco had the reputation of being able to obtain favours from Mary for those who sought his prayers. It was a well-founded trust. As far as I can remember during my eight years at the oratory and on other occasions when I had contact with him, I came to realize that he had complete confidence in the Madonna and that with Her help he could obtain what humanly seemed impossible. Our Lady was always his treasurer, his defence, and his help both as regards those who had recourse to Her through him and as regards his works.”
The above-mentioned episodes centered around the construction of the Basilica of Our Lady would throw light on some of the important aspects of the personality of Don Bosco both in his devotion to our Blessed Mother and how it touched his life.
The glory of God was his only motive in doing things
The desire to expand was motivated by the need of the apostolate rather than show of pomp and extravagance. What we need in life to face life’s challenges is having the right attitude.
Devotion to our Bl. Mother was upper most in his mind and what prompted him to act was also his devotion put into practice. Don Bosco saw the Blessed Virgin as the Mother who takes us to Her Son.
He was able to gather together the people who were ready to cooperate with him to actualize something that would be of benefit to thousands of people; also to the future generation. In ordinary life nobody is indispensable but nobody is useless.
While doing this gigantic work the ordinary routine life of the oratory was not neglected.
Always use your talent to the best of your ability and contribute to the common good which will present itself to us every day.
The very first article of our constitutions is a declaration of Mary’s role in the founding experience of our congregation and of our personal relationship with the Mother of Jesus. As Salesians, we are people willed by God and nourished by the presence of Mary. “Through the motherly intervention of Mary, the Holy Spirit raised up St. John Bosco to contribute to the salvation of youth, that part of the human society which is so exposed to danger.” These very same sentiments are expressed again in article 8. “We believe that Mary is present among us and continues her mission as Mother of the Church and Help of Christians.” As is evident through the history of our Christian and Salesian spirituality so is the experience in our daily life as well. Mary is a felt presence in our life. This awareness of Mary’s active and living presence in Don Bosco’s life found expression in the words of Mamma Margaret in her words to her son as he was about to enter the seminary. With deep faith and motherly concern, she reminded her son regarding the place of Mary in his life. “When you were born I consecrated you to the Blessed Virgin. When you began your studies, I recommended you to be devoted to her who is our Mother and now I beg you to belong to her entirely, love your friends who are devoted to Mary and if you ever become a priest recommend and promote devotion to Mary.”
Let this awareness lead us back to a renewed commitment as we all recall back the day of our first profession. May she who lived her faith in commitment and service (Lk. 1:39-45) help us to respond to our calling by growing increasingly aware of our identity as consecrated persons and consequently aware of also our responsibilities.