My kids and I enjoy talking about the lives of the saints. Recently, we listened to a podcast about the life of St. John Bosco on our drive to school. As the kids heard the story of this beloved priest of the 19th century, their eyes lit up in wonder, filled with laughter, and they smiled cheek to cheek. This podcast illuminated some key lessons for us who strive to imitate the lives of the saints as Christian leaders today.
Leadership with St. John Bosco
Leadership is influence, and the power of influence is shown in many ways. St. John Bosco cultivated his influence primarily through the power of relationships. This power is a foundational aspect of leadership seen throughout the Gospels. Whether it be Andrew going and telling his brother Peter about Jesus, Phillip telling Nathaniel that he had found the Messiah, or the friends of the paralytic bringing him before Jesus to be healed (not to mention they were committed even to tearing off the roof of a house and lowering him down before Jesus), the power of relationship is found everywhere in the Gospel. Relationships are a significant aspect of leadership, and St. John Bosco teaches us three powerful truths about how we can influence others today.
The first of these powerful truths is to bring God into everything. St. John Bosco was known for saying, “Run, jump, shout, but do not sin.” I can imagine how free the boys he worked with felt as they went out and played hard on the soccer field and then return to adore the Blessed Sacrament. In short, it is not a sin to have fun. In these moments, bonds are built, and friendships are formed. Don Bosco knew the power of friendship and that it would create a foundation for the faith to be built upon. This way of bringing God into everything is what the Church has called living a unity of life. St. John Paul II wrote about the need for a unity of life in his document on the laity. He warned “that the split between the faith that many profess and their daily lives must be counted as one of the more serious errors of our age” (CL, 59). St. John Bosco knew this danger and strove to bring God glory in everything he did.
The second truth that Don Bosco teaches us is that we should be friends with everyone. We live in an age where people only build friendships with those who agree with everything they believe. While we don’t want to promote relativism, we do want to encounter and love others who think and believe different things than we do. Don Bosco had a friendship with a statesman named Urbano.1 Urbano was a leader of the anti-clerical movement of Italian at that time. This movement was working to undermine all religious institutions and associations and had significant influence over new institutions being founded. Urbano had heard of Don Bosco’s work in Turin and watched it grow. While he was anti-clerical and did not like priests, he was impressed by the work of Don Bosco, and they developed a friendship. One day, Don Bosco went to Urbano and asked to help establish his community under an official society in the Church. Because of their strong relationship, Urbano wrote a letter to support this endeavor and urged Don Bosco to continue his work. This friendship between the saint and the anti-clerical statesman was what God used to further of work of St. John Bosco.
The final, powerful truth that Don Bosco reminds Catholic leaders of today is to keep our eyes on the prize. After the letter from Urbano, it took Bosco 16 years before the Church fully sanctioned his community. There were many ups and downs during this time. This hindrance did not deter John Bosco but helped him lean more on Jesus, keeping his eyes on Him. Bosco desired only to do what our Lord had called him to, and he knew the more we are conformed to the will of Jesus, the nearer Cross of Jesus would be. He knew that the Cross was part of the Christian life, especially for those called into leadership. He once said,
All past persecutors of the Church are now no more, but the Church still lives on. The same fate awaits modern persecutors; they, too, will pass on, but the Church of Jesus Christ will always remain, for God has pledged His Word to protect Her and be with Her forever until the end of time.
St. John Bosco teaches us to keep moving forward while suffering setbacks. He preserved his zeal, his cheerfulness, and his mission despite hardship and difficulty.
He remained faithful to his friendships, with those inside and outside the Church. He was loyal to his friendships and to his spiritual fatherhood of the boys he worked with and the young men who followed him in the early days of the Salesians. Most of all, he lived with enduring fidelity to Jesus Christ and His Church and spent time developing a deep sacramental and prayer life. His dedication to our Lord and others gives today’s Christian leaders a model to imitate.