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When most people, Catholics or not, find out that there actually is a Catholic saint whose sphere of influence includes stage magic, they generally ask if I'm sure. The answer is, I'm very sure. January 31 is the day set aside on the Catholic liturgical calendar to honor St. John Don Bosco. Don is simply the Italian honorific for a respected person, equivalent to our Sir. He was referred to as Don even during his life by both villagers and the children for whom he cared.
Many people would wonder how it is how it is that the Catholic Church and magic could get mixed up together. During the later half of the 19th century, as Europe's poor were suffering from the effects of Industrialization, Don Bosco saw how most of the children in his village remained uneducated and unchurched. After Mass on Sundays, he would round up his little friends and relate the Bible stories he learned in church to them. To keep their attention he would use magic tricks as he retold these stories.
As a young man, Don Bosco became a priest and directed his ministry solely to poor children. He needed a way to get kids interested in coming to church and to accept the aid he was offering. He used puzzles, riddles and juggling but it was the magic that most quickly caught the kids' attention. Stories that have come down to us from his contemporaries include some specific tricks he used. He was said to be especially good at tying three ropes together to form one seamless rope in order to explain the mystery of the Christian Trinity. He also would pull coins from ears and change pebbles into money delighting the children who were under his care. Don Bosco started a community of Catholic priests, nuns and brothers who still to this day help street kids and youth in gangs throughout the world including New York City.
Catholic magicians in Europe still celebrate this day by performing benefit shows for children. Some Catholic magicians here in America celebrate the day in their own creative ways. Though the day might easily go past us, as it has so many times previously, it's gratifying to sit and reflect, whether or not you are Catholic, on the "magical effect" that tricks have on people and especially children. The real magic occurs when, during performances, we can transport our audience to an alternative world and reality, even if for only a few seconds. Being able to show something fantastic, something "unbelievable" is our special province. Magic can allow us to bring gasps, smiles and open-mouth gapes to anyone we wish. We intentionally stupefy, stagger, mesmerize, enthrall and amaze for no other reason than to see the smiles on a thousand faces. It's not so strange that our most appreciative audiences are frequently kids; they are the most willing to temporarily suspend belief. When we look back to the first magic trick we can remember, it's not so hard to see why Don Bosco chose to help kids with the use of magic. Happy Don Bosco day everyone!
"They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic." - Acts of the Apostles 8:11