Capuchin priest (1866-1942)
Saint Leopold was born on 12th May 1866 at Herzegovina, near the Gulf of Kotor, in what was then Yugoslavia. He received the Capuchin habit at Bassano on 2ndMay 1884 and was ordained priest on 2001 September 1890 in Venice. He ardently desired to return to his own country to obey the call of God, clearly perceived since 1887, to promote the unity of the Church. But his superiors assigned him to the ministry of hearing Confessions in the region of Venice, at ﬁrst in different places, then at Padua in the Capuchin friary of the Holy Cross. Conﬁned in a narrow confessional box, he was on duty all day, seeing to the faithful who sought reconciliation with God, treating each one as his Oriental mission‐ﬁeld. He died at Padua on 30th June 1942. On 2nd May 1976 Saint Paul VI beatiﬁed him and he was canonized on 15th October 1983 by Saint John Paul II.
The saints make holy the places where they have lived, as Francis of Assisi did his hermitages, Anthony Padua, John Vianney Ars, Pio da Pietrelcina San Giovanni Rotondo. At Padua, however, there is not only the basilica of the “Saint”, but also a little cell/confessional in the Capuchin Friary in piazza Santa Croce. It too has become a place of attraction. Here Saint Leopoldo Mandic heard the humble stories of sin for more than thirty years. This little place was spared from the aerial bombardment on 14 May 1944, just as the little Capuchin had predicted: “The Church and the friary will be hit by bombs, but not the little cell. Here God has shown so much mercy to souls that it must remain as a monument to His goodness.” The life of the holy “confessor” was contained within those few square metres. And yet it is not easy to tell the story of his life because it is so simple, hidden from the wisdom of the world.
He was born 12 May 1866 in Herceg Novi, or Castelnuovo in Dalmatia, near the entrance to the Bay of Kotor on the Adriatic See. He was the last of twelve children and was baptised on 13 June, receiving the name Bogdan (Adeodato). His father was Peter Mandic, the son of a ‘paron de nave’, that is, a commercial fisherman. Peter had married Carlotta Zarevic, and both were Catholic. Leopoldo often recalled his mother with great affection. “She had an extraordinary piety. I am particularly indebted to her for what I am.” A pensive child, he was composed and bright. His life revolved around his home, the church and the school. He was fervent and at sixteen years of age, on 16 November 1882, he entered the Capuchin Seminary in Udine.
Adeodato’s Capuchin vocation sprang from a keen apostolic concern. He left home so as to return as a missionary among “his people.” His desire for an active apostolate also stemmed from the Franciscan celebrations organised by Pope Leo XIII. In the two years spent in Udine he tried with silence and self-control to correct his marked speech defect that impeded his desire to communicate, a desire prompted by his cordial and extroverted nature. He soon proved himself to be a model for everyone. He did his novitiate at Bassano del Grappa (Vicenza) where he received the Capuchin habit and the name Leopoldo on 2 May 1884. He then completed his three years of philosophy in Padua from 1885 to 1888. On 18 June 1887 – as he wrote himself – for the first time he heard the voice of God speak to him about the return of the Orthodox Christians to Catholic unity. This was a fundamental facet of his whole life, the refrain of his longing, the inspiration for his mission.
In 1888 he was transferred to the friary of the Redentore on the Venice island of Giudecca. There he completed two years of theology, after which he was ordained a priest on 29 September 1890 in the church of La Salute. His missionary dream seemed very close to realisation. Immediately he asked his superiors to be sent as a missionary to Eastern Europe. The reply was negative. His stutter was too pronounced and his superiors did not consider him suitable. Repeated later requests were also rejected. In the silence of obedience and in the mystery of prayer for unity, he submitted to the shadows of the confessional. A mission field much larger than the East appeared before the little friar. His daily Mass, lived out in an ecumenical commitment, gave further depth to his vocation which then shone forth in the confessional with a penetrating light of wisdom.
During his seven year stay in Venice his ecumenical concern continued to grow. So small and almost ungainly in his habit, he had become a significant figure, a true spiritual master endowed with special spiritual gifts. During a short sojourn of three years in the small hospice in Zara it seemed that his dream was coming close to realisation again. Although he was not directly involved, he would have felt at home, so close in spirit to his people. However he was then called back to Bassano in Italy where he spent five years in the confessional, in prayer and in the study of his beloved Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine.
In 1905 he was sent for another year as vicar in the friary in Koper (Capodistria). Called back to Italy again he spent three years in Thiene (Vicenza) in the sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Olmo. Here he animated groups of tertiary Franciscans. Nevertheless he spent many hours in prayer at night. This intensified after he had been hoaxed by three young workers. Because of this he was relieved from confessional work. He felt that everything would fall apart: his missionary vocation to the East, his desire for an active apostolate and to work for the benefit of the public. He was a small friar, unsuited for anything except hearing confessions. And now he had even been deprived of this: a denial of his self, a mystical abandonment in prayer that was both bitter and serene for him.
In 1909 he was transferred to Padua where the superiors entrusted him with the direction of the students and to teach patrology. He was seized with a new apostolic zeal. He wished to dedicate himself to preaching based on his reading and his teaching. He was stunned when he realised that many priests and religious made a show of secular erudition in their preaching. Even though he was not skilled with words because of his stutter he knew how to instil in others a love for preaching based on the Gospel. This period of intense commitment to study and teaching in Padua represented the dramatic climax of his missionary and ecumenical vocation, transformed into a heroic self-offering as both holocaust and victim. In January 1911 he wrote to his spiritual director, who replied, reassuring him that his “approach based on prayer and victimhood before the Father of all will be a great benefit to many of those people” in the East who were dissident with the Catholic Church. Then on 9 November 1912 he offered himself as a victim for his own students.
These heroic actions mark a turning point in his life, the foundation a new spiritual reality. Father Leopoldo had now chosen the permanent state of being a victim, a radical obedience that had something of the tones of a strict Ignatian obedience and the mysticism of self-denial undertaken with all the wealth of his strong Dalmatian humanity. By now he was forty seven years old. It was difficult for him to substitute his dreams of a missionary apostolate with sufferings accepted in conformity to Christ and Saint Francis. As one biographer wrote, he replaced it with all he could of himself – physically and existentially – for his students, penitents and friends. His life-dream was entirely compromised by this, compromised because it was cast off.”
Released from the direction of the students in 1914 his future life would have been a martyrdom of confession, a crucifixion to the confessional. However his heart always remained focused on Eastern Europe. Because of this he always refused Italian citizenship. Consequently he was exiled during the First World War and from 1917-1918 he had to sojourn in southern Italy. He travelled from friary to friary, as a citizen of the Hapsburg empire then at war with Italy. In 1923, when Istria and Kvarner were annexed to Italy, Leopoldo was made a confessor in Zara. This was an immense joy for him. He immediately transferred to the new destination, but a short while later he was called back to Padua on 16 November. His sudden departure upset a veritable crowd of penitents who approached the bishop Elia Dalla Costa. However Odorico da Pordenone, the Minister Provincial, was compelled to call the little friar back. He continued his silent martyrdom, relieved somewhat in 1924 by a course in Croatian held in Venice for the young the friars. He hoped at least that he could nurture a group of missionaries for the East and his teaching was adorned with examples that would be useful for the apostolate. He was fifty five years old. Then on 13 November 19927 he edited a brochure on his wish for the return of dissidents to Catholic unity.
Everyone, small or great, learned or ordinary people, religious, priests, clerics and lay-persons, all flocked to his confessional. Shut within his little two by three metre room, with its small window poorly defended by curtains that opened onto a narrow and stifling yard, Leopoldo exercised the ministry of reconciliation and mercy and until his death. His East became each and every soul that came to seek his spiritual help. On 13 January 1941 he wrote, “Any soul that needs my ministry will be an East for me.” He heard confessions for ten to twelve hours a day, irrespective of the cold, heat, weariness or illness. “Stay calm,” he used to say to his penitents, “put everything on my shoulders. I will look after it.” He took on himself sacrifices, prayers, night vigils, fasts and disciplines. He met each penitent with joy and gratitude. Once a penitent entered Leopoldo’s cell and sat on his armchair. Leopoldo heard his confession while kneeling down himself.
He was accused of being too lenient, and he endured many conflicts. Pointing to the Crucified he used to answer with his marvellous experience of the mercy of God. “If the Crucified would correct me about leniency, I would answer: ‘paron Benedeto’, you have given me this bad example yourself. As yet I have not arrived at the folly of dying for souls.” However the story of his confessional would be an epic royal poem, a joyful dance of gifts, graces and miracles, that would take too long to tell. The victim was now ready for the ultimate sacrifice.
By the end of autumn of 1940 his health had declined and became ever worse. At the beginning of April 1942 he was taken to hospital. He ignored the fact that he had a tumour in the oesophagus. He continued to hear confessions in the friary. He was not afraid of death or the pain that consumed him. On 29 July 1942 he confessed without a break and then spent the night in prayer. The following morning, on 30 July, he fainted as he prepared as he prepared for Mass. Taken to bed he received the Sacrament of the Sick. While reciting the final words of the Salve Regina, he raised his arms, as if he were going towards something. Transfigured, he breathed his last. All of Padua turned out around his remains and his funeral was a triumph. Thirty-four years later Paul VI declared him “blessed” on 2 May 1976. On 16 October 1983 John Paul II proclaimed him “saint.”
From an address by Pope Paul VI on the occasion of the Beatiﬁcation of Brother Leopold Mandic
Who is he, who draws us together today, that in his blessed name, we may celebrate the radiance of the Gospel of Christ? It is an event which cannot be described, and yet one so clear and evident, an event of enchanting luminosity, which lets us see, in the face of a humble friar, a form that is at once ennobling and amazing: look, look, that is Saint Francis; do you not see him? See how poor he is, how simple, how courteous indeed it is he, he Francis, in ecstasy through some interior vision of the invisible presence of God, and yet so present to us and for us , so accessible and ready to serve us, that he seems to know us, to await us, to know our business and to read our hearts. Look carefully, he is a poor, humble Capuchin, always in pain and of halting step, yet so incredibly strong that each of us feels himself attracted and fascinated by him. Look well through the calm Franciscan window. Do you see him? Do you tremble? What do you see? Let us say that he is a feeble, human but authentic image of Jesus; that that Jesus who at one and the same time converses with the ineffable God, with the Father, and with us, his lowly audience, limited by the measure of our small and sorrowing humanity. And what does Jesus say to this, his poor little prophet? Oh wonderful mysteries, the mysteries of the inﬁnite transcendence of God; he enchants us, and at once takes up a phrase which moves and draws us, which echoes the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.”
But who is he? He is Father Leopold, who was born on 12th May 1866, who died at Padua, where he spent the greater part of his life, on 30th July, little more than 30 years ago.
But we cannot overlook a special characteristic of his. He was born on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, at Hercegovina, near the Gulf of Kotor, and always preserved a constant love of his native land; nor had he less affection for his new and hospitable fatherland all the while he dwelt in Padua, especially for the people among whom he exercised a silent and tireless ministry.
Thus did Blessed Leopold unite in himself this double citizenship, a symbol of friendship and brotherhood, a trait which every devotee should make his own. This special mark of the life of Father Leopold is the primary fulﬁllment of the idea and purpose which dominated his whole life.
As everyone knows, Father Leopold was “ecumenical” before his time, that is he dreamed of, foresaw and promoted, without fulﬁlling, that restoration of the perfect unity of the Church, which likewise zealously protects the manifold variety of its ethnic components.
Another of his special talents was the heroism a n d the charismatic quality of Father Leopold; who does not know it? We refer to his ministry in the Confessional. This was his daily programme. Having celebrated Mass at a very early hour, he sat in the Confessional, and there he remained all day, at the service of his penitents. For nearly forty years he followed this way of life, never complaining. This, in our opinion, is the main title by which our humble Capuchin merited the beatiﬁcation which we are now celebrating. He attained to sanctity chieﬂy through the ministry of the sacrament of Penance. To the best of our ability we should regard with wonder and gratitude the Lord who today gives the Church such an outstanding example of a minister of the grace of the Sacrament of Penance, a man who on the one hand reminds priests of a ministry of such capital importance, such teaching value, and incomparable spirituality, and on the other hand reminds the faithful, be they fervent or tepid or indifferent, of what providential and ineffable help it offers them even today, and indeed today more than ever before, by individual and auricular confession, a source of grace and peace, a school of Christian living, an incomparable aid on the earthly journey to eternal happiness. May our Blessed brother draw to this tribunal of Penance, which is indeed austere but nonetheless a desirable haven of help, of inner truthfulness, of resurrection to grace, and an exercise in maintaining Christian authenticity, many who are deadened by the fallacy of today’s customs, many who will thus have an opportunity of experiencing the hidden and renewed consolations of the Gospel, of conversing with the Father, meeting the Son and drinking from the inebriating fountains of the Holy Spirit, and of renewing in themselves zeal for promoting the good of others, for justice, and for dignity of conduct.
true love and supreme unity,
you adorned Saint Leopold your priest
with the virtue of great compassion for sinners,
and filled him with zeal for Christian unity.
Through his prayers grant that we,
renewed in mind and heart,
may be able to show your love to all,
and confidently seek the unity of all believers.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever. Amen.