The Dreams of Saint John Bosco
Most of the prophecies associated with Don Bosco came to him during dreams, but just as in Matthew's Gospel where the process of Joseph being instructed by angels during dreams is described it is clear that Don Bosco's experiences were more than the sort of dreams most of us have when asleep. Most of his dreams were concerned with the direction both he and his order, the Salesians, were to take in the future, and in particular with the boys who lived at his oratory in Turin. He would often speak to them just before they went to bed, sometimes predicting that one of their number would die within a certain period, but without indicating which.
On 30 May 1862 Don Bosco at his 'Good Night' talk told his boys, and the young clerics he was training, about a dream he had dreamt a few nights previously: he actually described it as a parable or allegory. Strictly speaking a parable is a general story with a deeper meaning, but one in which the points of the story may not all be significant, while in an allegory every detail is important and meaningful. In the case of Don Bosco's dream it is difficult to know just how significant each point is. After some preliminary remarks he went on to describe what he had seen:
"Try to picture yourselves with me on the seashore, or, better still, on an outlying cliff with no other land in sight. The vast expanse of water is covered with a formidable array of ships in battle formation, prows fitted with sharp spear-like beaks capable of breaking through any defence. All are heavily armed with cannons, incendiary bombs, and firearms of all sorts - even books - and are heading toward one stately ship, mightier than them all. As they try to close in, they try to ram it, set it afire, and cripple it as much as possible.
"This stately vessel is shielded by a flotilla escort. Winds and waves are with the enemy. In this midst of this endless sea, two solid columns, a short distance apart, soar high into the sky: one is surmounted by a statue of the Immaculate Virgin at whose feet a large inscription reads: Help of Christians; the other, far loftier and sturdier, supports a [Communion] Host of proportionate size and bears beneath it the inscription Salvation of believers.
"The flagship commander - the Roman Pontiff [the Pope]- seeing the enemy's fury and his auxiliary ships very grave predicament, summons his captains to a conference. However, as they discuss their strategy, a furious storm breaks out and they must return to their ships. When the storm abates, the Pope again summons his captains as the flagship keeps on its course. But the storm rages again. Standing at the helm, the Pope strains every muscle to steer his ship between the two columns from whose summits hang many anchors and strong hooks linked to chains.
"The entire enemy fleet closes in to intercept and sink the flagship at all costs. They bombard it with everything they have: books and pamphlets, incendiary bombs, firearms, cannons. The battle rages ever more furious. Beaked prows ram the flagship again and again, but to no avail, as, unscathed and undaunted, it keeps on its course. At times a formidable ram splinters a gaping hole into its hull, but, immediately, a breeze from the two columns instantly seals the gash.
"Meanwhile, enemy cannons blow up, firearms and beaks fall to pieces, ships crack up and sink to the bottom. In blind fury the enemy takes to hand-to-hand combat, cursing and blaspheming. Suddenly the Pope falls, seriously wounded. He is instantly helped up but, struck down a second time, dies. A shout of victory rises from the enemy and wild rejoicing sweeps their ships. But no sooner is the Pope dead than another takes his place. The captains of the auxiliary ships elected him so quickly that the news of the Pope's death coincides with that of his successor's election. The enemy's self-assurance wanes.
"Breaking through all resistance, the new Pope steers his ship safely between the two columns and moors it to the two columns; first to the one surmounted by the Host, and then to the other, topped by the statue of the Virgin. At this point something unexpected happens. The enemy ships panic and disperse, colliding with and scuttling each other. Some auxiliary ships which had gallantly fought alongside their flagship are the first to tie up at thetwo columns.
"Many others, which had fearfully kept far away from the fight, stand still, cautiously waiting until the wrecked enemy ships vanish under the waves. Then, they too head for the two columns, tie up at the swinging hooks, and ride safe and tranquil beside their flagship. A great calm now covers the sea."
At this point Don Bosco asked one of the priests present for his views. He replied that he thought that the flagship symbolised the Church headed by the Pope, with the ships representing mankind and the sea as an image of the world. The ships defending the flagship he equated with the laity and the attackers with those trying to destroy the Church, while the two columns represented devotion to Mary and the Eucharist.
He did not mention the death of the Pope and neither did Don Bosco in his reply, in which he agreed with what the priest had said, while adding that the enemy ships symbolised persecutions: "Very grave trials await the Church. What we have suffered so far is almost nothing compared to what is going to happen. The enemies of the Church are symbolised by the ships which strive their utmost to sink the flagship. Only two things can save us in such a grave hour: devotion to Mary and frequent Communion. Let us do our very best to use these two means and have others use them everywhere."
Not surprisingly this contents of this dream amazed all those listening, and four of those present wrote down what they had heard. Two wrote the next day, 31 May and two some time later, but all four narratives agree substantially. Such small differences as were found can be explained on the basis that it is impossible to get every detail when remembering and writing a spoken narrative.
One point that did cause some argument amongst those who had been present was over whether there had been two popes as commander of the flagship as in the above account, or, as some thought, three. This point was made clearer in 1886 when one of those who had heard the dream recounted in 1862 returned to the Oratory.
At dinner with Don Bosco he began to narrate the dream and was quite certain that two popes had fallen, since he was sure that after the first was struck down the captains of the other ships had said, 'Let's hurry, We can quickly replace him'; on the second occasion he maintained that they had said nothing. Don Bosco seemed to back up this version of events by calling attention to what was being said, and so its probable that we are dealing with three popes in the account.
Those who had written down the dream were convinced that it was a genuine vision and prophecy, although Don Bosco's immediate aim was probably to encourage his boys to pray more fervently for the Church and the Pope, as well as to indicate the importance of devotion to Mary and the Blessed Sacrament.
We may be living part way through Don Bosco's vision, but as in all genuine prophecy before its fulfilment, there is quite a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, and it would be foolish to attempt to come to definite conclusions at this stage. The important point is the way in which the end of the vision points to what would seem to be the world-wide triumph of the Church, a triumph which will be recognised by all, but one which is only gained after much suffering.
The emphasis on the role of Mary, Help of Christians, and the Blessed Sacrament, are also significant especially with regard to the message given at Fatima when Mary promised a period of peace for the world following troubled times, paralleled by the 'great calm' of Don Bosco's dream.
Sources: E. M. Brown, Ed., Dreams, Visions and Prophecies of Don Bosco, (Don Bosco Publications, New Rochelle, 1986); Sexton, Dominic Savio, Schoolboy Saint.