St. Dominic Savio, the boy who insisted on growing up

I wrote to you last week to tell you about my “press agent” St. Dominic Savio. Today I am writing, as I promised, to tell you about why the saint, who died a few weeks short of his fifteenth birthday (making him the youngest canonized saint whose death was not by martyrdom), is also a dear friend, patron, and model of life for me.

The best source we have on Dominic Savio is the story of his life written by another saint, Don Bosco, who admitted Dominic to his Oratory school and there became his mentor.

Reading Don Bosco’s account, the first thing I notice about Dominic Savio is that he seemed to live with one foot on earth and the other in heaven. Although he abhorred fights and lewdness, Bosco stresses that he was no plaster saint. He was a normal boy who enjoyed doing the things boys do:

He was the life of the games at recreation. He did not monopolize the conversation or keep butting in, but if silence came he was always ready with something interesting, a difficulty which had cropped up in class or an interesting story. The others were always glad to be with him. If someone started grumbling or criticizing, he would raise a laugh over something else and so distract them and dispel any word of criticism.

His cheerful smile and spirit of zest made him popular also with those who were not too fond of religious things. They were always glad to be in his company and whenever he gently chided them it was taken in good part.

Yet, at the same time, Dominic had an ongoing, intimate friendship with Christ and His Mother. This friendship seems to have taken the form of an ongoing dialogue, with Christ. Before he makes his First Communion, he writes down the resolution, “My best friends will be Jesus and Mary.” His intimacy with Our Lord and Our Lady grows more intense over time, so that by the time he reaches his teens, Don Bosco overhears him in an impassioned conversation:

Another time, as I was going out of the sacristy after finishing my thanksgiving, I heard a voice which seemed to be engaged in argument. It came from the little chapel behind the high altar and when I went there I saw Dominic. He was speaking and then stopping as though waiting for someone else’s reply. Among other things I heard quite clearly these words: “Yes, my God, I have already said it and I say it again: I love you and I wish to go on loving you till my last breath. If you see that I am going to offend you, let me die: I much prefer to die than to offend you by sin.”

And so, as Dominic gets older, a tension arises in his life as he tries so hard to maintain his friendship with Christ while also being engaged with the world.

After another saint, Edith Stein, entered a Carmelite monastery and became Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she wrote to a friend,

Immediately before, and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us in this world and that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world. I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must “go out of oneself,” that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it. [Source]

I see that same tension between sacred and secular in Dominic Savio’s experience, as when Don Bosco writes of how the saint reacted when he was prevented from taking on extreme penances:

[One] day I came across [Dominic] looking somewhat sad, and I asked him what was the matter. He replied: “You’ve got me in a real bind. Our Blessed Lord says that if I don’t do penance I will not get to heaven. I am forbidden to do any penance; what chance then have I of heaven?”

I explained to him that the penance Jesus wanted from him was complete obedience,; obey and that’s enough.

“Can’t I do some other penance?”

“Yes, you can allow yourself the penance of being patient with others and the unpleasant things of life; to accept equally the heat and the cold and the rain; to be cheerful when tired and not feeling so well and so on.”

“But,” said Dominic, “these things come to you whether you like it or not.”

“Precisely,” I replied, “offer them willingly to God; there is nothing that will please him more, and you will be doing real penance.” Thus reassured, Dominic was very happy and completely at peace.

When I see the maturity with which Dominic accepted Don Bosco’s correction—not with blind submission, but with a sincere desire for holiness at all costs—I begin to understand how he was able to attain such a high level of sanctity in such a short life.

Another reason I admire Dominic is that he was able to passionately throw himself into becoming a saint as only a boy could.

It is important to note that this is not a Peter Pan approach to holiness. Dominic is not “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.”

Peter Pan is self-made. He concocts fantasies of his own and then seeks to reify them.

Dominic Savio, by contrast, is always looking upward and outward to God. He sees Jesus and wants to receive his own identity from Jesus as a gift. He is immersed in the real world, the world that has been given to us by the Father who created us. He rejoices in his identity in Christ.

Witness Dominic’s response to a boy who tries to convince him to join in dressing in a Halloween-style getup, as Don Bosco narrates:

On one occasion a companion wanted Dominic to go with him and dress up. Dominic would not go, and said to the boy: “Would you really like to be what you are going to dress up as—two horns, a big nose and a clown’s costume”?

“Of course not,” replied the other.

“Well, why make yourself look like something you would not want to be and in addition deface the nice face that God has given you?”

Finally, I see in Dominic Savio a kindred spirit because he, like me, suffered evil things from people who took advantage of his vulnerability and innocence.

Don Bosco’s Life of Dominic Savio tells of three such incidents. On one occasion, Dominic is traumatized when some of his schoolmates tried to show him pornographic pictures in a magazine. He tears up the magazine angrily, prompting one of the schoolmates to protest, [There] is nothing wrong in looking at pictures like that.”

Dominic responds by calling out the schoolmate for his lack of sensitivity to sin: “If that is really so, it means that your eyes are already used to looking at such horrors.”

Another time, Dominic intervened to protect Oratory schoolmates from a strange man who entered their playground and mesmerized them with blasphemous stories:

Dominic came along and as soon as he grasped what was going on, cried out: “Come on, let’s get away from this unfortunate man who wants to ruin us”.

The spell was broken and all the boys, obedient to a friend whom they loved and respected, scattered, leaving the man talking to the wind. He was never seen again.

Today we would say that the man’s actions were grooming behavior. Dominic protected the boys against the predator.

The third such occasion took place earlier in Dominic’s life, when he was about ten years old. Some boys invited him to go swimming, and Dominic saw something that deeply disturbed him. Don Bosco does not say what it was, but he notes pointedly that bathing can have “dangers for the soul in certain circumstances, when boys are stripped together and have little care and respect for each other.”

Whatever it was that Dominic saw on the swimming excursion, Bosco says that “he was profoundly grieved and made up his mind never to go again.”

In My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, I write about another young saint, Karolina Kozka, who was martyred at the age of sixteen while resisting sexual assault. An official from the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints told me that it has never been definitively established as to whether Kozka’s attacker raped her before killing her; in any case, her unquestionable sanctity assures her a place among the Church’s holy ones. And I observe that

if there were a saint whom we knew for certain was raped, our knowledge of that rape would be, in itself, a kind of intrusion into the saint’s private sphere. The very mystery surrounding the question of what was or was not done to Karolina serves to protect her personal dignity.

That is how I feel about what Dominic Savio may have seen, or not seen, when he went swimming with the boys at the age of ten. What happened to him will always be a mystery, yet one that preserves his modesty, enabling us to treat him with the reverence in death that he was not always granted in life.

At the same time, what we do know about the things Dominic endured is that he he was not always respected and was not always protected. He is therefore a friend and spiritual brother to all who have been mistreated, especially those who suffered in childhood, and his close friendship with Jesus and Mary points the way to healing.

So you can see now why I turned to St. Dominic Savio when I wanted to spread my book‘s message of healing for adults who have suffered childhood sexual abuse, and why he remains an inspiration as I continue my own journey of healing in Christ.


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