The Biographical Memoirs of Saint John Bosco reports 153 dreams that the Saint wrote down, narrated, or merely mentioned Don Bosco’s biographers, like his immediate listeners, generally take for granted that most of these dreams, if not all of them, were more than ordinary. Although there are many collections of the dreams, culled from the Biographical Memoirs, to my knowledge no one has made a systematic study of their nature, kinds, and meaning. The distinguished Salesian historian Pietro Stella notes that the extraordinary phenomena—miracles, dreams, predictions—which pervade Don Bosco’s life must be viewed in the larger context of his own religious formation, his religious outlook, and the way in which he interacted with his social and cultural environment.
John was about nine when he experienced his first extraordinary dream. This first dream, the most important one, set the course for his whole life. He tells us of it in his autobiographical Memoirs of the Oratory.
John saw himself playing with a crowd of neighborhood boys; many of them were fighting and swearing. He told them to stop, then leapt in with both fists when they did not. Suddenly a stranger, a noble and radiant gentleman, appeared. He told John that he needed to use kindness, not blows, to win over these children. John did not understand. The man said he would give him a teacher, and a majestic Lady showed up. She instructed John to watch, and the boys turned into wild animals—bears, goats, dogs, cats, etc. “This,” she told him, “is your field of work. Make yourself humble, strong, and energetic, so that you’ll be able to do for my children what you’ll see now.” And the beasts turned into gentle lambs. In his confusion, John began to cry. The Lady assured him that in due time he would understand. And he woke up.
Evidently John realized this was no ordinary dream, even if he did not understand it. Yet he was quite skeptical about it: “I wasted no time in telling [my family] all about my dream…. Each one gave his own interpretation…. But my grandmother, though she could not read or write, knew enough theology and made the final judgement, saying ‘Pay no attention to dreams.’ I agreed with my grandmother.”
But he could not forget the dream. With variations it apparently recurred in subsequent years and was followed by others that seemed to point out his calling from God or the future of his work. He remained skeptical until his mentor, Father Cafasso, advised him, around 1846: “Go ahead. You may quite safely give special significance to these dreams. I am convinced they are for God’s greater glory and the welfare of souls.” Even then he remained ill at ease, especially with those dreams that seemed to predict deaths. Years later he confided to Father John Baptist Lemoyne, who would become his most important biographer:
At first I was hesitant about giving these dreams the importance that they deserved. I often regarded them as mere flights of fancy. As I was narrating these dreams and predicting deaths and other future events, several times I wondered if I had rightly understood things, and I became fearful that what I said might actually be untrue. Occasionally, after narrating a dream, I could no longer remember what I had said. Therefore, in confessing to Father Cafasso, I sometimes accused myself of having spoken perhaps rashly. The saintly priest would listen to me, think the matter over, and then say: “Since your predictions come true, you need not worry. You may continue to make them.” It was only a few years later, though, that I firmly came to believe that those dreams were from God. That was when the young boy Casalegno died and—exactly as I had seen in my dream—his coffin was placed on two chairs on the portico, notwithstanding Father Cagliero’s efforts to have it moved to the usual place.
In allegorical form Don Bosco’s dreams
enabled him to perceive hidden facts or future events: sometimes in general terms, sometimes in very specific terms; sometimes with a feeling of certainty about the meaning of symbols, sometimes uncertain about his own interpretive capabilities. Don Bosco then waited to see how things would turn out in reality. He, like others, waited for verification of something that had seemed to him to be a prophecy but that he chose out of prudence to present merely as a parable.
Don Bosco was reluctant to talk about the charism he exercised: “To those who asked him how he could reveal hidden things Don Bosco was wont to give a jocular reply. He said that he used a magical formula: otis botis pia tutis. In short, he evaded the question and thus invited the curious to halt at the threshold of mystery.” (courtesy of bosconet.aust.com)