An older man I know well is terrified of death, because he fears condemnation, rejection, and a harsh judgment from God. At the same time, he reflects on his experience on being a father. He says that he always tried to be gentle with his kids, and love them “no matter what.” Since God is his Father, he wonders if God will treat him the same way he tried to treat his own children. Nevertheless, he just can’t get rid of his image of a wrathful God.
Many people, like my acquaintance, live in fear of a vengeful, punishing God. I mention this because today is the memorial of St. John Bosco. When he was a child, John Bosco had a dream in which he was surrounded by misbehaving and foul-mouthed boys. John tried to stop them by shouting and fighting, but was unsuccessful. Then a man, dressed in a flowing robe and whose face was filled with light, made John the leader of the boys and said: “You will have to win these friends of yours, not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness.” Later in life, John Bosco took these words to heart in his priestly work with poor and neglected children.
John Bosco founded an order, known today as the Salesians of John Bosco, to assist him. In their work, he forbade spanking or any form of corporal punishment, and he stressed the importance of being joyful, friendly, kind, and patient with the children they served. Children should be treated that way, he taught, because this is how Jesus treats us. John Bosco wrote: “(Jesus) treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalized, and still others to hope for God’s mercy.”
Let us be among those who hope for God’s mercy, as we allow the gentle witness of St. John Bosco, remind us, and assure us, of the gentleness of God.