Who's Who in Heaven: Real Saints for Families in Plain English
By Rev. Thomas G. Morrow, S.T.D.
The Life of St. Dominic Savio (Chapter 10)
ST DOMINIC SAVIO (1842-1857)
Dominic Savio lived in this world fewer than 15 years, but that was enough for him to become a saint. He was born April 2, 1842 to Charles and Riva Savio, poor but good parents, in Castelnuevo d'Asti in Northern Italy. The Savios gave birth to ten children. Dominic was the oldest of those who lived beyond a very young age. Both parents became aware early on that their son was someone special: Dominic caused them no grief, was obedient, prompt in responding and even anticipated his parents’ wishes.
His parents were strict when it came to the discipline of their children, insisting that they be neat, respectful, polite, and obedient. Yet they softened this strictness with a warm, tender love, so it is no wonder that the children grew up to be even-tempered, and polite.
When his father returned from work, Dominic would run to greet him, take his hand and say, “How tired you look, Daddy! You work so hard for me and I'm only a bother. I will ask the good Lord to give you health and make me good.” His father later remarked, “This was the sweetest comfort for my tiredness... He owned me, heart and soul!”
Dominic's devotion was far advanced for his years: At four he needed no reminders to say his prayers. In fact he once reminded his father when he forgot to say grace before a meal. If Dominic and his mother got to church before it opened, he would go up and kneel before the door, bow his head and pray with hands folded until the door opened.
Even at the age of five he would attend Mass every day and would serve the Mass. He did well at serving, despite the fact that he was so small that he could barely reach the book on the altar.
He was allowed to receive his first Communion at the age of seven rather than the usual eleven. He was given this early privilege because of his knowledge of the faith, his prayerful preparation and his strong desire. The night before the big event he went to his mother and told her, “I'm sorry for all the trouble I've given you. I promise to do better and study hard and be obedient...” He had tears in his eyes.
His mother, who had received nothing but comfort from him, herself in tears, replied, “Don't worry Dominic. All is forgiven. Ask God to keep you good always, and pray for daddy and me.”
His first communion was a great day indeed. Dominic was the first to arrive for the five-hour sequence of events and the last to leave. He wrote down some resolutions that day of his first holy communion: “1) I will go to confession often and receive Holy Communion as often as my confessor allows. 2) I will keep feast days holy. 3) My friends will be Jesus and Mary. 4) Death but not sin.”
In writing about Dominic’s first Holy Communion, St. John Bosco pointed out how important this event is in a child’s life. A good first Communion can have a positive effect on a person for their entire lifetime. He added that many badly behaved boys are so because of a badly prepared first Holy Communion.
Once Dominic finished his elementary school studies, the question of further studies became a problem. The public school was in Castelnuevo, two miles away. This would not hold Dominic back. He insisted on walking the four-mile round trip twice a day so he could continue his studies.
An elderly person asked the young boy one day as he walked along, “Aren’t you afraid to walk along these roads alone?”
“I’m not alone. My guardian angel is always with me,” was his reply.
“But it must be tiring to walk this distance four times a day, in such burning heat.”
“Nothing is tiring if you have a Master who pays well,” was Dominic’s answer.
“And who is this master of yours?”
“God. He repays even a cup of water given for His sake.”
The man was duly impressed.
Another time Dominic’s classmates invited him to go swimming with them in a river that was off limits for swimming. Not realizing this, Dominic went along. When he saw their reckless behavior and heard their foul language, he regretted his decision.
When they invited him again a few days later, he said, “No, I can’t swim. I’m afraid I’ll drown.” They invited him to just come along and watch. He wavered, but then said, “I’ll ask my mom for permission first.”
“Don’t be stupid,” they responded. “She’ll never let you come!”
“Then I guess I won’t be coming,” he said, relieved to find a good excuse.
It was in the school at Castelnuevo that Dominic learned the importance of choosing good friends. He quickly made friends with those who studied hard and were polite. Those who were foulmouthed or rude, or who had no use for studying, he avoided like poison. This, said St. John Bosco, is a great way for a boy to succeed in his studies or his spiritual life.
Once some classmates of Dominic did something very wrong, the punishment for which was to be expelled from school. They decided to blame it all on Dominic. The teacher doubted Dominic could do such a thing, but the students were convincing. The teacher stormed into the room and scolded Dominic, adding, “Don't you know you could be expelled?” Dominic stared at the floor and said nothing.
“You’re lucky it’s your first offense. Make sure it’s your last,” yelled the teacher. For punishment Dominic had to kneel in the middle of the classroom for a period of time.
The next day the boys who had done it admitted their crime. The teacher took Dominic aside and asked him why he had taken the blame. Dominic replied “Because that boy had been in trouble before and would have been expelled... Besides, I remembered that Our Lord had been falsely accused once.”
In 1854 Dominic met Fr. John Bosco, who had a well known school for boys in Turin. Everyone saw Fr. Bosco as a saintly man who was doing a wonderful job of educating boys and helping them to be good Catholics. The priest at Castelnuevo had told Fr. Bosco about what a smart, devout boy Dominic was.
After Dominic and Fr. Bosco had spoken for a short time, Dominic asked, “Will I do, Father? Will you take me to Turin with you?” (The students lived at the school in Turin.)
“What do you want to do when you finish your studies?” asked the priest.
“If God gives me the grace, I want to be a priest.”
“Great! Now let’s see how fast you are with your studies.” The priest gave him a book and showed him a page, saying, “I want you to learn this page by heart. Come tomorrow and recite it to me.” He sent the boy off to play while he spoke to his father.
In ten minutes Dominic returned, saying, “I already know it, Father.” He not only knew the page by heart, but he understood it completely. The priest told him he would be accepted.
Once the boy arrived at Turin he began to lead an ordinary life. He always dressed neatly, and was so polite that the boys from noble families liked being with him. The teachers would put the talkative, lazy boys next to him in class, knowing that he would have a good influence on them. As he had done before, he made friends with the hard-working and devout boys rather than the ones who had little use for study and prayer.
On December 8, 1854, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, at the suggestion of John Bosco, Dominic knelt at Our Lady's altar, and after renewing his first Communion day promises, prayed over and over, “Mary, I give you my heart. Always keep it as yours. Jesus, Mary, always be my friends. I beg you, let me die rather than commit a single sin.” Once he did this, wrote Don Bosco, Dominic began to lead a life of such holiness and virtue that “I began jotting down some of the things he did, lest I forget them.”
Once after this, two of Dominic's classmates got into an argument. They began by insulting each other's family and ended with foul language and threats which they promised to carry out in a stone fight. Dominic heard of the fight and tried to talk them out of it. Then he wrote them notes threatening to tell their teachers and parents. All of this had no effect. They were set to fight.
Finally Dominic was inspired with an idea. He stopped each one after school separately and asked them to promise to do one thing for him before the fight. They were a bit suspicious, but both agreed.
When they got to the chosen spot each picked up five stones. Dominic then stood between them and said “Now here is my condition.” He pulled out a small crucifix which he wore around his neck and held it up. “I want you look at this crucifix and to say ‘Jesus was innocent and died forgiving his killers. I am a sinner and I am going to offend him by willful revenge!’ And then you must throw the first stone at me!” He walked up to the angrier of the two and knelt down saying, “Now you throw the first stone! Hit me hard on the head!”
“No!” protested the boy, “Never! I have no grudge against you! I'll defend you if anyone touches you!”
Dominic ran to the other boy and repeated the order. He too refused to harm Dominic.
So Dominic stood up and with great emotion said, “You are both ready to face serious danger to save me, only a simple creature, but you haven't the strength to forgive a silly insult made in school to save your own souls which cost your Savior his blood, and you are going to shed that blood!” Then he was silent, holding up the crucifix.
Both boys were moved to give in. “At that moment,” one later admitted, “I broke down. A chill ran through me, and I felt ashamed that I had forced a good friend like Dominic to go so far to keep us from a horrible fight... I forgave the boy who had insulted me and asked Dominic to tell me of a kind, understanding priest who would hear my confession. Having been reconciled to the Lord, I again became His friend, although I had greatly offended Him by my hatred and desire for revenge.”
Dominic never said a word of this to anyone. It would never have been known if the two boys had not revealed it.
Another time the boys tried to get Dominic to skip school. He refused, but they kept teasing him, so he began to go with them. After they had gone a short distance, he stopped and said, “I’m going back. This is wrong. I’m sorry I gave in. If you ever try to get me to do this again, we won’t be friends anymore.”
His words got to them. They went back to school with him and never again asked him to skip school.
When Dominic had been at John Bosco’s school for about six months, the holy priest gave a sermon on becoming a saint. Fr. Bosco stressed three points which deeply affected Dominic: it is God's will that we all become saints; it is not hard to become a saint; there is great reward in heaven for those who become saints. This talk stirred Dominic's heart to a deep love for God, so much so that he appeared different.
Afraid that the boy might be getting sick (as he often did), John Bosco called him in and asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” replied the boy. “I feel so good!... I never knew I could sanctify myself so easily, but now that I know that I can be happy and holy too, I really want it! Absolutely, I must become a saint! Tell me what to do, so as to begin.”
The priest told him to try for a steady, peaceful cheerfulness. He encouraged him to keep up his duties of study and prayer and to join with his friends for games at recreation.
Some time later John Bosco told all the boys that for a special feast day he would allow each one to request anything within reason and he would get it. Not surprisingly, some of the requests were a bit silly. But, not Dominic’s. He wrote his request on a piece of paper: “Please save my soul and make me a saint.”
Dominic wanted to do painful penances and pray long hours. However, John Bosco would not allow him to do these things, since they would harm his health and were not suited to his age and his way of life at the school.
Dominic was quite offended whenever he heard someone take the Lord’s name in vain. One day while walking with a friend across a city square he took off his hat and said something under his breath. “What are you doing?” asked his friend, “What did you say?”
“Didn’t you hear that workman use God’s name in vain?” answered Dominic. “If I thought it would help I would go and ask him not to do that, but that would probably just make things worse. So, I just said, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ!’ to make up for some of the insult given the Lord’s name.”
John Bosco would teach catechism tirelessly at his school because he knew its great importance. When his boys became too many for one class, he invited young priests and laymen to help. Many well-known noblemen of Turin were teachers. Dominic would substitute when someone couldn't make it. The boys liked it when Dominic taught because he was so patient, kind and interesting.
These are signs of someone who is truly living the faith. They develop not only patience and kindness toward others, but also, the faith becomes very interesting to them, and they are able to share that interest with others. When a boy (or girl) is trying hard to live the faith by prayer and by studying and imitating the saints, he or she is never bored by religion, but rather is quite excited about it.
Once on his way from school, Dominic heard an elderly man curse horribly. The boy was shocked. After saying, “Praised be Jesus Christ!” he ran up to the man and asked gently, “Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me how to get to [John Bosco’s School]?”
Calmed a bit by the boy’s polite request, the man replied, “Sorry, son, I don’t know where that is.”
“Well, if you can’t tell me that, could you please do me another favor?” the boy asked.
“Certainly. What would you like?”
“Next time you get angry, say something besides God’s name?” Dominic asked.
The man was impressed with the boy’s courage. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll remember that. You’re absolutely right. This is a bad habit I have to get rid of.”
Another time a nine-year-old was fighting another boy near the church. In his anger he said the holy name of Jesus. Dominic quietly stepped between the two and broke up the fight. He told the boy, “Come with me. Don’t be afraid.” The boy was impressed by Dominic’s kindness, so he went.
Dominic brought the boy into the church and went right up to the main altar. “Kneel down here,” said Dominic, “and ask pardon of the Lord for having insulted His name.” They prayed the act of contrition together. Then Dominic told him, “Now say with me, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ! May his holy name be forever praised!’” The boy learned his lesson well.
Dominic loved to read the lives of the saints who worked so hard to save souls. He prayed every day for missionaries who went to far off countries to teach about God. He was saddened by the lack of interest parents had in teaching their children religion. “When I go to the seminary I will gather together all the children and teach them the catechism. I will tell them interesting stories and help them to be good.”
Dominic was always full of fun at recreation. When the boys began to complain about school or talk about indecent things, he would tell a joke that would get them all to laugh and forget about the earlier topics. Because he was so lively and fun-filled, all the boys liked to be with him, even the ones who were not religious.
One day at recreation a stranger approached the students and began telling jokes. He soon drew a large crowd. Then, with his audience gathered, he began to tear down the Catholic Church and the priests. Some boys left, while others stayed on. Just then Dominic walked by and when he discovered what the man was saying, he turned to the crowd and shouted, “Let’s get away from this man! He wants to wreck our souls!” The boys left with Dominic and the man never returned.
There was a group in the school who formed a kind of club to help the wilder boys in the faith. Dominic was a member of this group, and used to hold up candy or fruit in the schoolyard asking who wanted it. When a number of boys responded, he said, “I'll give it to the one who answers a catechism question correctly.” Then he would call on one of the troublemakers and if he came reasonably close, Dominic would award him the prize.
Sometimes he would begin playing with a boy and suddenly stop to say, “Will you come to confession with me on Saturday?” Since Saturday was a long way off and he wanted to continue the game, the boy usually agreed. On Saturday Dominic would take the boy to church, go to confession himself (which he did weekly anyway), sometimes telling the priest what to expect in the boy coming behind him, and then help his friend receive the sacrament well.
Once in a while a boy would squirm out of his commitment, but Dominic would kid him about it later. The boy would answer, “I wasn't in the mood.” Dominic would respond, “But the devil was in the mood for you, wasn't he? Go just the same. You will feel a happiness which will flood your soul.” Often the boy would respond to this and get to confession. Then he would come back to tell Dominic, “You were right! I feel so great! From now on I'm going to confession often!”
Dominic spoke with great love about the Eucharist: “It is the body, blood, soul and divinity which Jesus offered on the cross to His Eternal Father. What else do I need to be happy? Nothing in this world. Just to see Him whom I now see by faith and adore on the altar.” Indeed, Dominic was the happiest of boys. His face radiated a heavenly peace and joy.
The young boy loved to pray, and when he prayed he did so with such reverence, such devotion that he inspired others, including adults. He would often go into the church with a friend to pray for the souls in Purgatory. He had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He would often kneel at her altar and ask her to protect him from sins of impurity. Every Friday he would go to church to pray special prayers to Mary. He would make every effort to get a classmate to go with him for this.
Don Bosco’s mother told her son once, “You have many fine boys here, but none better than Dominic Savio.”
“Why do you say that?” asked the priest.
“Because when he is in church he acts like an angel in heaven.”
Dominic worked very hard to train his eyes not to look at anything impure. He said that at first it caused him headaches to do this but after some time he gained complete control over his eyes. Once a group of the boys gathered around to gape at some sexually impure pictures in a magazine. Dominic, upon seeing the attraction grabbed the magazine, and tore it up, saying, “How stupid can we be? God gave us eyes to look at his beauties and you use them to stare at this filth made by corrupt men to harm your souls... Our Lord says we can soil our soul with a single evil glance, and you go ahead and delight in these dirty things!”
“We were only laughing at the cartoons,” said one of the boys, pretending that they didn’t notice the impure pictures.
“Sure, go ahead and laugh,” replied Dominic. “Laugh yourselves right into hell. Will you still be laughing when you get there?”
More excuses followed, but Dominic stood his ground. In the end, all were silent. They wouldn’t speak against him.
Whenever Dominic knew he would receive holy Communion the next day, he would say special prayers the night before. In the morning he would say more prayers of preparation. Then, after receiving, he would spend a long time in thanksgiving, sometimes so long that he would miss breakfast or recreation.
The boy had such a love of the Blessed Sacrament that he would kneel in the street if he saw a priest carrying it to the sick. Once a priest came by on a rainy day carrying the host and all the streets were soaked with mud. Not finding a dry spot, Dominic knelt in the mud. The boy who was with him said, “You didn’t have to get your clothes dirty. The Lord doesn’t ask that much!”
Dominic answered, “I’d gladly throw myself into the mud to show God reverence. I’d throw myself into a furnace to get a bit of his infinite love!”
Another time as Dominic was kneeling while the priest carrying the host passed, he noticed a soldier who, to avoid getting his pants dirty, just stood at attention. Seeing this, the boy spread out his handkerchief on the street and motioned to the soldier to kneel. Embarrassed, the man knelt on the dirty street.
Dominic wanted to fast on bread and water on Saturdays, but Fr. Bosco would not allow it. The boy tried to fast in Lent but again, when the priest heard about it, he told him no. These things would have been bad for his health at such a young age.
One day he told John Bosco he was concerned. “Our Lord says unless I do penance I can’t get to Heaven, but you won’t let me do penance. My chances of getting there are poor!” said the boy.
“The penance Our Lord asks of you is to obey,” replied the priest. “That will be enough.”
“But won’t you please let me do some other penance?” pleaded Dominic.
“Yes,” answered Bosco, “I will let you do the penance of accepting injuries, putting up with heat, cold, tiredness, wind, rain and ill health.”
“But I have to suffer these things anyway.”
“Then offer it all to God, and it will bring you merit,” answered the holy priest. The boy went away satisfied.
One day Dominic warned a boy about a bad habit he had. The boy became angry and screamed at Dominic and punched and kicked him. Since Dominic was bigger he could have given it back double or triple. Instead, he stood there and took it, his face red with anger. Then he told the boy, “You have done me wrong, but I’ll let it go. Don’t try this with anyone else, though.”
Dominic used to stay in the dining room after the others had left and pick up the leftovers. Later he would eat them. One of the boys asked him if he didn’t think doing that to be disgusting? No, said Dominic, “After His grace, food is the best gift God gives us. Every last scrap deserves our thanks and should be used properly.”
One day Dominic was missing from breakfast, classes and lunch. John Bosco knew where to look: in church. He found him there motionless, behind the altar, looking at the tabernacle. John shook the boy and he looked up asking, “Oh, is Mass over already?”
“Look, Dominic,” said the priest, pointing to his watch, “it’s two o’clock.”
He apologized for missing class and the priest sent him on his way.
Once Dominic rushed into Fr. Bosco’s room, saying, “Hurry, father, come with me.” The boy was so insistent that the priest followed him.
After traveling through several streets, Dominic went into one of the houses and up to the third floor. He rang the bell and told the priest, “Here!” and left. A woman opened the door, saw the priest, and said, “Hurry, my husband is dying. He turned Protestant and now he wants to die a Catholic.” The priest heard his confession and shortly after he died.
A few days later John Bosco asked the boy how he had known about the man. Dominic just looked a bit upset and then tears came to his eyes. The priest asked no more questions.
At the end of May 1856 Dominic went to John Bosco and asked how he could spend May in a holy way. The priest told him, “Do all your work very carefully. Tell your companions about Mary. Behave well so you can receive communion every day.”
“I will, Father, very carefully,” replied the boy. “What favor should I ask for?”
“Ask Our Lady to obtain for you from God good health, and ask to become a saint.”
“To become a saint, yes, and to die a good death and have her assistance in my last moments and be taken by her to heaven!” answered Dominic.
John Bosco wrote that Dominic showed so much interest in the things of God that month that he looked like an angel in human form. He wrote, talked, sang, went to school, all for Mary. One boy asked him how he would be able to top all this the next year. How could he improve on this? Dominic replied, “Next year, if I’m alive, I’ll tell you what I’ll do.”
In late 1856 Dominic and his closest friends formed a group entitled “The Company of Mary Immaculate” in honor of the recently declared doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Their goal was to practice and spread devotion to Mary and to receive communion frequently.
Dominic drew up a set of rules for the group and on June 8, 1856 he and his friends read them as they knelt before Our Lady's altar. They committed their lives to try for perfection through devotion to Mary and the Blessed Sacrament. John Bosco became their spiritual director. Dominic would live less than a year after this.
By early 1857 Dominic's health began to go downhill and John Bosco called in several doctors to determine the reason. One doctor replied, “His frame is weak, but his mind is very developed and he is under a continual spiritual strain. These things just eat away at his strength.”
“Is there any cure?” asked John Bosco.
“The best cure would be to let him go to heaven. I feel he is so well prepared...”
Dominic continued to get worse. On March 1, 1857, he was too sick to stay at the Oratory; so John Bosco sent him home. It was a sad day for all, especially Dominic. He said goodbye to all his friends. As he was passing through the gate, he looked back at John Bosco and asked, “Will you give me a present to remember you?”
When the priest offered him a book, he said, “No, something better.”
“Money for your trip?”
“Yes, money for my trip to eternity. You told me once the pope had given you plenary indulgences. Please put my name on that list.”
“Gladly, my boy,” responded the priest. “I’ll put your name on the list right away.”
Young Dominic had been at the school three years. All were sure he would return. All but Dominic.
When the boy got home he seemed to get better. For the first four days he was strong enough that he did not have to stay in bed. Then, however, he lost his appetite and his cough got worse, so the doctor was called. The doctor found that Dominic’s illness was worse than expected. He prescribed complete rest for the boy. After four more days the doctor declared that the danger had passed. Dominic knew better. He asked for the priest to come and anoint him.
The priest came, and anointed the boy. He also gave him the Papal Blessing. As he was leaving Dominic said, “Please Father, leave me a remembrance before you go.”
“What remembrance can I leave you?” asked the priest.
“Something to comfort me,” said the boy.
“...Remember the sufferings of Christ.”
“Thanks,” said Dominic. “The sufferings of Christ will always be in my mind, in my heart and on my lips. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony.”
After that the boy fell asleep for about a half hour. Then he woke up and said to his father, “Dad, it’s time. Take my prayer book and read the prayers for a happy death!”
His father read the prayers, choking on his tears as he did so. The boy rested for a while after that, and then he said, “Goodbye Dad, goodbye... Oh, what a beautiful thing I see!” He smiled, and breathed his last. It was March 9, 1857, just a few weeks short of his 15th birthday.
Father Picco, his Latin teacher was deeply moved when he heard of Dominic’s death. He spoke to the boys in his class about Dominic: “Life, boys, is a gift God gives us to gain merits for heaven. What can we say of a boy who forgets this all his life and never lifts his heart to God, even in a short prayer? Think of the saintly life of your classmate and the wonderful reward he enjoys today. Compare your behavior with his and remember you will have to give an account to God one day. Take him for your model. Imitate his purity of soul. Be ready to give your life to God as he did...”
During the days after Dominic’s death, there were many favors received by those who prayed to him. One boy had a terrible toothache. When he prayed to Dominic, the pain left him all of a sudden and never returned. Several were freed from bad fevers. One boy who had become too sick to study prayed a “novena to God through the intercession of Dominic” that he might have the health to study for exams. In five days he recovered and was able to study. He passed his exams with ease, and stayed well.
Within a month of his death Dominic appeared to his father in a blinding light. His father asked him, “Are you in heaven?”
“Yes, daddy,” he replied, “I am in heaven.”
On December 6, 1876, 19 years after he had died, Dominic appeared also to his teacher and guide, John Bosco, flooded with light. When the priest asked what gave him the greatest satisfaction at death, Dominic answered, “...the help of the loveable Mother of God. Tell your boys that.”
On June 12, 1954, Pius XII declared Dominic Savio a saint. His feast day is March 9, the day he died.
Dominic Savio had the blessing of good parents and eight brothers and sisters. He also had the blessing of meeting John Bosco who would become a saint himself, and of living in John’s school. Dominic listened very carefully to his teacher, and responded to his words. Dominic found good friends to get the support he needed to be a good person. He learned from John Bosco that he could be holy and happy so he tried even harder to be holy. He wanted to be a saint, and thought about that all the time.
He didn’t stop at his own holiness: he tried to help his fellow students live their faith by stopping their fights, helping them realize the sinfulness of bad language, and turning them from impure pictures. He knew the horrible nature of sin, and so his motto was, “Death but not sin!”
Dominic was always cheerful, happy. All young people can learn from this that real happiness will not come from watching television or constant games or other stimulations. It comes from getting close to God and doing His will.
He knew how to get close to God: by frequent confession, prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, and holy communion. And, to be sure, he found great help from Mary. In fact, it was Mary who gave him the most comfort at death. “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
To be a saint: this is what God wants of us all. Prayer, confession, Mass and communion, devotion to Mary, and real effort: this the true way to happiness, and it’s not only for adults. Dominic Savio proved that.