January 31 – Cyrus and John the Unmercinaries; John Bosco

Line drawing icon of John and Cyrus, artist and date unknownCyrus and John the Unmercinaries* (d. 304 or 311) were healers who healed for free, which is what “unmercinaries” means. (We pause a bit for our readers from the USA to process this amazing concept.) Cyrus, born of Christian parents in Alexandria, studied medicine at the University of Alexandria. Immediately out of the chute he started treating patients without requiring remuneration. He was supported by the Christians of the city, who went so far as to build him a clinic. The historical record is silent, but we are probably not far amiss in imagining that the chairs in the waiting room were horribly uncomfortable. In the persecutions under Diocletian, Cyrus was targeted for arrest, and fled to the desert. There he became a monk, and was granted the ability to heal through prayer and making the sign of the cross, a method sadly not taught in the medical school back home (or nowadays neither).

He was joined by John, a former military doctor and friend of the emperor, who whilst on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem found himself at Cyrus’ monastery on the Persian Gulf (he was using the fourth-century equivalent of Apple Maps). At some point the two heard about an Alexandrine woman and her three girls (ages 15, 13, and 11—and they’re always mentioned in that order, never 11, 13, and 15), who were scheduled to be martyred. They caught the next Greyjackal to the city, intending to encourage the ladies with encouraging words. Predictably, they were caught and tortured (disgustingly, so we won’t go into it), which did encourage the women, who proved brave and true when their turn came.

Finally, what martyr’s story would be complete without the tale of the bones? They were buried in the church of St. Mark in Alexandria, then their relics were moved to Mauphin (near Canopis), then to Rome, and ultimately. . . to Munich (Munich?!).

Photo of statue of John Bosco and a child, from the church of St. John Bosco, Taipei, TaiwanJohn Bosco (1815–1888) started life as an infant, but after that he became something of a circus addict, catching every circus that came to town and learning by watching (as opposed to learning by looking away) how to do sleight-of-hand tricks. Soon he was entertaining the local boys with his own “magic” show. After the show he repeated (verbatim? alas, we are not told) the day’s sermon. He worked his way through college and seminary doing various jobs (tailor, baker, shoemaker, carpenter, nuclear physicist[1]).

Before or after ordination (dratted sources!) he became a teacher and sought to bring a better life to street children, juvenile delinquents, and others that society had thrown away. These he did not return for the deposit, but set them up for new lives entirely. He founded an organization that placed youths as apprentices, which got them off the street and into a trade. He had strict rules for the master craftsman he placed his students with, one being that they must employ the apprentice in their actual trade, and not just as general help. He also checked up on them to make sure they were keeping up their end of the bargain. Apparently this, like the apprentices, worked.

Don Bosco (as he was also called) established two religious* orders for men and one for women (the latter to work with homeless girls), using the name “Salesian” after Francis de Sales, whose philosophy he admired. One of them sent workers to Argentina, where they worked with that country’s youth, in particular those of native ancestry.

Bosco advocated the supremacy of the pope in matters political[2], which failed to endear him to the anti-clerical politicians of his day; but his work among teenagers did (and that was no sleight-of-hand). The justice minister of Piedmont (Rattazzi if it matters) had pushed through anti-clerical legislation, but in private he informed Bosco of how to get around it. He also set up a foundation to fund Bosco’s work after his eventual demise. Don Bosco died of “natural causes” in 1888, was canonized in by Pius XI in 1934. He is the patron saint of (among other things) stage magicians.


[1] One of these is not accurate.
[2] This was right at the time of the unification of Italy, which stripped the papacy of political power.