The teenage saint

Picture of Brendan McConvery CSsR

Brendan McConvery CSsR

Brendan McConvery is an Irish Redemptorist priest and editor of Reality magazine

Dominic Savio was born on April 2, 1842 in the small village of Riva, near the town of Chieri in northern Italy. The Savios were poor but hard-working. His father, Carlo, was a blacksmith and his mother, Brigitta, a seamstress.

One of a family of nine, Dominic began to serve at Mass when he was about five. Until Pope Pius X changed it in 1910, the usual age for First Communion was 12. Dominic pestered his local priest to allow him to be able to receive communion at an earlier age. The priest examined his religious knowledge and found no reason to withhold communion from him.

Dominic said the day of his First Communion at age seven was the happiest of his life. In a little notebook, he wrote four resolutions that day: to go to confession often and Holy Communion frequently, to keep Sundays holy, to be friends with Jesus and Mary, and to prefer death rather than sin.

Dominic was a bright boy at the village school. On one occasion when two of his classmates interfered with the heater, Dominic was blamed but said nothing and accepted his punishment. When his teacher later learned he wasn’t to blame, he asked him why he hadn’t excused himself. Dominic explained that he was trying to imitate Jesus, who remained silent when he was wrongly accused.

When Dominic was about 12, his teacher introduced him to Father (Don) John Bosco, who had grown up in the neighbourhood. The teacher knew Dominic hoped to become a priest, but there was no secondary school in the village. Don Bosco, who would later be canonised, was running a school for poor and orphan boys in Turin. To test Dominic’s intelligence, Don Bosco gave him something to read and told him he would question him about it the following day.

To his surprise, Dominic had mastered the text and replied correctly to every question he was asked.

He proved to be a diligent student at Don Bosco’s oratory. He read the lives of the saints and wanted to imitate them. When Don Bosco discovered Dominic was not wearing warm clothes in wintertime as a penance and deliberately making his bed uncomfortable lying on small stones and pieces of wood, he forbade him to do such things. Holiness for a boy, he explained, was to be found in daily life, paying attention to his studies and trying to be cheerful, especially when he didn’t feel cheerful.

Don Bosco’s mother acted as ‘mother’ of the boys at the school. She quickly noticed Dominic and remarked to her son, “You have many good boys, but none can match the good heart and soul of Dominic Savio. I see him so often at prayer, staying in church after the others; every day he slips out of the playground to visit the Blessed Sacrament. When he is in church, he is like an angel living in paradise.”

When Dominic was about 13, his health began to cause concern. Don Bosco sent him home for a while, but he returned after a few days. Don Bosco sent him home again, with orders to stay away until he was better.

Dominic had an intuition that death was closer than anyone believed. Medical treatments at the time were basic but painful, including extracting large quantities of blood (bloodletting was a common medical practice at that time). The doctor cut deep into his arm four times in one day and believed his patient was on the mend. But Dominic asked his father to send for the priest to give him the last rites.

On the evening of March 7, 1857, at age 14, he woke from a sleep and said to his father, “Goodbye, Dad, goodbye. What was it the parish priest suggested to me? I don’t seem to remember. Oh, what wonderful things I see.”

Carlo thought his son had just fallen asleep, but it was the end. While the official cause of death is unknown, Dominic possibly died from pleurisy. Don Bosco wrote about his life, and the teenager’s story spread. When it was suggested he might be canonised as a saint, many Vatican officials objected that he was too young as the only young saints venerated in the church were martyrs.

St Pius X, who had admitted children to Holy Communion at the age of seven, overruled them. Dominic was beatified in 1950 and canonised four years later. His feast day is May 6.

The book, What You Should Know About The Saints is available from the Majellan Bookshop for $12.95,  postage included.


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