St. John Bosco experienced a series of visionary dreams during his lifetime. In one of them, he saw a vast ocean with fleets of enemy ships in it, all battling against one large ship, representative of the Church. Two columns rose in the sea, one smaller than the other. The smaller one was topped with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the larger one with a large Eucharistic host. Two ship was attached to the columns by two large anchors, keeping it fast against the storm, while an unnamed pontiff guided the ship.
This vision of how Mary and the Eucharist keep the Church steadfast against the waves of the world is just one instance of the extraordinary way God worked through St. John Bosco. St. John Bosco led an extraordinary life of missionary entrepreneurship, drawing on all his resourcefulness and God-given talents to help souls, particularly the souls of children and young adults.
St. John Bosco the Missionary
From the time that he himself was a child, St. John Bosco felt called to a particular area of ministry: ministering to children. He later wrote, “I have promised God that until my last breath I shall have lived for my poor young people.” After he became a priest, St. John Bosco focused his attentions of making this calling a reality, and on preventing boys from winding up in the soul-numbing conditions of the slums and prison. He began caring for one boy he met in need, then a few, then many. He established an “oratio,” an institution where he taught, had leisure with, and took care of boys in need. Eventually he built trade shops to teach the boys practical skills, and the number of boys grew to several hundred.
Bodies and Souls
St. John Bosco was a missionary at heart, and cared for the boys’ souls, not just their physical well-being. Yet he knew that the body and soul are closely woven together. He used a preventive method, trying to keep the boys out of prison by busying them with good things: education, learning, leisure, sports, etc. However, St. John Bosco’s ministry to the youth was not characterized by indulgence or mere distraction or pity. He wanted to guide the young to live out their full potential and he realized that their human flourishing required discipline and order as well as time for fun.
Above all, St. John Bosco’s missionary efforts were fueled by the Eucharist and personal prayer. St. John Paul II, in a message to the Salesians in 2002, reminded the religious community St. John Bosco founded of this, saying that the saint “lived entirely in God and recommended the unity of his communities around the Eucharist.” The Pope continued, “Only from the Tabernacle will flow that spirit of communion that becomes a wellspring of hope and dedication for every believer.”
St. John Bosco the Entrepreneur
St. John Bosco had a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, as already evidenced in his innovation of the oratio for the young people to whom he ministered. St. John Bosco’s entrepreneurial spirit is also clear from his appreciation for hard work. St. John Bosco’s own father died when he was young, causing the saint’s childhood to be one chock-full of hard work, with little time for education. St. John Bosco became accustomed from a young age to working hard to support his mother and help his family get by. When his mother sacrificed for him to attend public school, his hard work overflowed into his study habits, helping him catch up on the education he hadn’t had the time for and prepare for the vocation he felt called to: the priesthood.
A Little Courage
Despite the hardships St. John Bosco faced— both as a child and throughout his priesthood as he founded a new order and established new schools and programs for youth— he demonstrated a remarkable spirit and vitality. He said:
If one is to do good, he must have a little courage, be ready for sacrifice, deal affably with all and never slight anybody. By following this method I have always had significant success, in fact, marvelous success.
It was true. Despite the fact that St. John Bosco founded the Salesian Order in a tumultous time, the order would quickly expand and send missionaries to Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and other distant places.
St. John Bosco lived and died a poor priest, with barely any money. Yet somehow he resourcefully managed to obtain the funds to build a basilica in honor of Mary in Turin, open large schools, and pay for mission expeditions. The key to his resourcefulness as an entrepreneurial priest? Prayer and abundant quantities of hard work. “Entrust everything to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary, Help of Christians and you will see what miracles are,” he said.
In Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath talk about the phenomenon of “the bright spot.” While most people get bogged down in the true but useless information about an obstacle, successful entrepreneurs find a reason for hope— something that is working— and duplicate that or expand on that bright spot. When we seek to make a change, we need to realize that “even in failure there is success,” as Chip and Dan Heath put it. They go on to say:
An alcoholic goes an hour without a drink. Three sales reps out of fifty sell like crazy. A few Vietnamese mothers, with no more money than any others, manage to raise healthy kids. These flashes of success— these bright spots— can illuminate the road map for action and spark the hope that change is possible.
This is precisely what St. John Bosco did with his work for young people! He found a bright spot in the boys he served— their love of fellowship and learning— and used that as the basis for their conversion and personal growth.
For Us: Make Love Felt
As missionary entrepreneurs, we need to find creative ways to make love felt. This is the truth St. John Bosco was getting at when he said, “It is not enough to love the young; they must know that they are loved.” St. John Bosco learned how to juggle and walk on the tightrope. He didn’t cultivate these skills for his own amuseument; they were skills that helped him evangelize, ways of expressing love and service to the boys he was trying to reach.
Each of us has a special call to an area of ministry. For some it is orphans, for others it is those in need of education, for others it could even be the wealthy. What are special ways we can cultivate resources to make love felt in our area of ministry?
For Us: Value Joyful Education
Another lesson we learn from St. John Bosco is to value education. St. John Bosco saw education as a way of lifting others out of poverty and giving them a greater opportunity to achieve great things in their life. “In every young person, a point of goodness is accessible,” he said, “and it is the primary duty of the educator to discover that sensitive cord of the heart so as to draw out the best in the young person.”
In what ways can we better appreciate the role of education? What lessons have been most effective in our lives? Can we share these with a young person? Be willing to offer mentorship? Be unafraid to volunteer in some capacity toward the young?
St. John Bosco’s Intercession
St. John Bosco is an example of someone who worked tirelessly for the Kingdom of God. When we struggle with exhaustion, with burn out, with lack of joy, let us turn to him for intercession. Let us also turn to him for inspiration to care for the young people we encounter, that we may be faithful witnesses to them of the joy of Love.
St. John Bosco, pray for us.