The Life of Dominic Savio
His Studies at the Oratory. His Conduct at School. His Dealings with Quarrels and Special Dangers.
Having already laid a good foundation at Mondonio for the study of Latin, and owing to his powers of application and exceptional talent, Dominic was soon raised to the fourth class, which, according to present scholastic arrangements, would correspond to the second course of Latin grammar. During this course he was one of the pupils of Professor Bonzanino, for at that time classes for students were not yet conducted at the Oratory itself. Were I to speak here of his conduct, of the advancement he made, of his exemplary behaviour, I should have to repeat what his previous masters said of him. I shall therefore restrict myself to relating some incidents which were noted down during this period by those who were closely associated with him. The Professor himself often said that he could not recollect ever having had a pupil more attentive, more respectful than young Savio, for he was quite a model in everything. There was never any affectation about his manner or appearance; he was always careful and courteous, so that his companions, many of whom were drawn from good families, were anxious to become friendly and to converse with him. If the professor noticed a pupil who was restless and troublesome, he contrived to put him near Dominic, who, in his own tactful way, was sure to get him to keep silence, and apply himself to study or the work then in hand.
It is during this year that the record of Dominic's life gives us an incident full of heroism, and which is the more remarkable when his youth is taken into consideration, for he was only fourteen when he came to the Oratory. The occurrence in question concerns two of his school fellows, between whom a fierce quarrel had arisen, on account of some remarks on a point of family honour. The quarrel proceeded from the exchanging of insults to the giving of blows and stone throwing. Dominic came to hear of this quarrel, but he saw the difficulty of trying to interfere, for both boys were older and bigger than he was. However he found means for approaching each in turn, urged them to give up their hatred, and pointed out that anger and revenge were against the commandments of God; he wrote to each of them, threatening to acquaint their parents and their master, but the headstrong boys were not to be influenced; their minds had become so embittered that all entreaties were in vain. Apart from the risk of bodily injury to themselves, Dominic was most concerned with the offence against God, and he was eager to find some means of effectually interfering, but was perplexed as to the manner of doing so.
He then seemed to have an inspiration. He waited for the boys after school, and contriving to speak to each alone, he said: "Since you will persist in this insane and sinful quarrel I ask you to accept one condition." Each agreed, provided it did not interfere with their challenge of a fight with stones, and indulged in some very unbecoming language in reference to his enemy. The very language was enough to make Savio shudder, but desirous of preventing a greater evil he said: "The condition I wish to impose does not interfere with the challenge: "Then what is it?" "I shall not tell you till you meet for the duel."
They thought he was making game of them, but Savio insisted that he was quite serious and that he would be on the scene. Neither could conjecture what his plan was.
The place for the fight was a lonely spot outside the town. The boys, getting more and more incensed, were almost going to fight on the way, but Dominic managed to prevent them. The scene of action was reached, and the boys took up their positions at a little distance from each other, and had by them the stones they were to hurl. Now was Dominic's time for mediation. He stepped in the middle and said: "Before you commence to fight you must fulfil the condition you agreed upon." So saying he drew out of his coat pocket a crucifix and held it up in the air. "I desire," he said, "that each of you should look on this crucifix, and then if you will throw, you must throw the stone at me and say: "Our Saviour died pardoning his very persecutioners; I, a sinner, am about to offend Him by an act of open revenge."
Having said this, he threw himself on his knees before the one who seemed most enraged, and said: "Throw your stone at me; let me have the first blow." A shiver seemed to go through the boy thus addressed. "No," he exclaimed, "I couldn't do it. I am not so mean as that. I have nothing against you."
On hearing this Dominic turned to the other boy, who had been watching in amazement, and made the same proposal to him. He too refused such a cowardly act.
Then Dominic got up and said, with great earnestness: "You are both ashamed to commit this act of brutality against me; and yet you would commit it against God and lose your soul by grievous sin." And he held up the crucifix again.
This proved too much for the two boys; they were moved by his true Christian charity and his courage. One of them confessed that he felt a cold shiver, and felt thoroughly ashamed that he had forced a friend of Savio's character to take such extreme measures. Wishing to make him some amends, he forgave entirely the boy with whom he had quarrelled and promised to go to Confession at once. Thus Dominic secured a victory for charity and taught the boys a lesson. Is it too striking an act of courage to recommend for example to young school boys? This incident would have remained a profound secret, had it not been related by both boys who were the partners to the challenge.
It will be gathered from this incident that Dominic had gained great influence over his companions, but he often had to put up with annoyance from some who tried to draw him into undesirable practices. On one occasion in fact he had almost consented to go off with some boys, who wished him to join them at play instead of going to school, but the arguments against it arose so vividly before him, that he not only rejected the proposal for himself, but convinced the others that it would be wrong, and made them go with him to school.
At the end of that year he was among the very best of those who were promoted to a higher class, but when his next year began there were already signs that his health would need careful attention, and it was thought more prudent to let him have some private teaching at the Oratory, where intervals of rest and fewer tasks could be given him. Under this arrangement his health seemed to improve a good deal, so that he was again sent out to the higher classes in the town, this time to Professor Picco, who was held in the highest estimation as a teacher. Several interesting facts are recorded of this year of rhetoric, and they will be related in their turn as the narrative proceeds.