During his general audience on Oct. 7, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about St. John Leonardi, the founder of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God and a priest whose missionary zeal found expression in the establishment of the forerunner to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
After training to be a pharmacist, St. John Leonardi became a priest committed to offering “God’s medicine” to the men and women of his time. During a period of great reform and renewal in the life of the Church, he made Christ the center of his preaching, and made a special effort to catechize the young, promote missionary activity, and renew Christian life and practice. Pope Benedict XVI offered him as an exemplary model to all Christians today, especially to priests during this Year for Priests.
Dear brothers and sisters,
On Oct. 9 — the day after tomorrow — we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of St. John Leonardi, the founder of the religious order of Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, who was canonized on April 17, 1938, and proclaimed the patron saint of pharmacists on Aug. 8, 2006.
We also remember him for his great missionary zeal. Along with Msgr. Juan Bautista Vives and a Jesuit priest, Father Martin de Funes, he helped draw up plans for and establish a congregation of the Holy See specifically dedicated to missions, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, as well as the Pontifical Urban College, which, in the course of centuries, has formed thousands of priests — many of whom were martyrs — for the evangelization of peoples.
For this reason, I am happy to hold this outstanding priest as an example for all other priests during this Year for Priests. He died in 1609 from influenza, which he caught while caring for all those who had been struck by a flu epidemic in the Campitelli section of Rome.
John Leonardi was born in 1541 at Diecimo in the province of Lucca. The youngest of seven brothers, his immediate family provided a healthy and hardworking environment.
This, along with his apprenticeship in a shop for herbs and medications in his hometown, which he followed assiduously, contributed to a life of faith.
At the age of 17, his father enrolled him in an apothecary course in Lucca as preparation for becoming a pharmacist (an apothecary as they were called then).
For almost a decade during his youth, John was an attentive and diligent student, but when, under the norms prescribed by the Republic of Lucca at that time, he finally obtained the official recognition that would have allowed him to open an apothecary shop himself, he began to wonder whether the time had come instead to pursue a dream that he had nurtured in his heart for a long time. After much mature reflection, he decided to prepare for the priesthood.
Thus, leaving the apothecary shop and after having acquired adequate theological formation, he was ordained a priest and celebrated his first Mass on the feast of the Epiphany in 1572.
Nonetheless, he never lost his passion for pharmacology; he felt that his profession as a pharmacist would serve as a bridge that would allow him to fulfill his vocation more fully, dispensing to men through a holy life “God’s medicine,” which is Jesus Christ who was crucified and who rose again, “the measure of all things.”
Medicine for Mankind
Inspired by a deep conviction that all human beings need this medicine more than anything else, St. John Leonardi sought to make his personal encounter with Jesus Christ the foundation for his own life.
“We need to start over once again with Christ,” he would often say. The primacy of Christ over everything became for him the concrete criterion for judgment and action, as well as the principle that guided his own activity as a priest, which he carried out at a time when there was a vast and widespread movement of spiritual renewal in the Church thanks to new religious institutes that were blossoming everywhere and to the exemplary witness of saints like Charles Borromeo, Phillip Neri, Ignatius of Loyola, Joseph Calasanz, Camillus de Lellis and Aloysius Gonzaga.
He enthusiastically devoted himself to an apostolate among children and young people through the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, gathering around him a group of young people with whom, on Sept. 1, 1574, he founded the Congregation of Reformed Priests of the Blessed Virgin Mary, later called the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God.
He exhorted his disciples to have “before the eyes of their mind only the honor, service and glory of Jesus Christ crucified,” and, like a good pharmacist accustomed to prescribing medicine in precise doses, he added: “Lift up your hearts just a little more to God, and with him measure things.”
Reform and Renewal
In May of 1605, moved by apostolic zeal, he sent the newly elected Pope Paul V a letter in which he suggested some criteria for an authentic renewal of the Church. He observed that it is “necessary for those who aspire to reform men’s habits to seek first and foremost the glory of God,” and he added that they should shine forth “a life of integrity and of excellence in their own habits, so that they may gently attract people to renewal instead of demanding it of them.”
He also observed that “those who want to bring about a serious religious and moral renewal should, like a good physician, first make a careful diagnosis of the ailments that trouble the Church in order to be in a position to prescribe for each of those ills the most appropriate remedy.”
“Likewise,” he noted, “the renewal of the Church should take place equally among the leaders as well as those under them — on high as well as below. It must begin with those who lead and extend down to those under them.”
For this reason, at the same time he was asking the Pope to promote “a universal reform of the Church,” he himself took a concern for the Christian formation of people, especially of children, who needed to be educated “from their earliest years ... in the purity of the Christian faith and in holy morals.”
Pursuit of Holiness
Dear brothers and sisters, the shining example of this saint invites all Christians, but first and foremost priests, to strive constantly towards “the highest measure of Christian life” which is holiness, each one, of course, according to his own state in life.
Indeed, it is only from faithfulness to Christ that authentic Church renewal can spring forth. Back then, during the cultural and social transition from the 16th to the 17th centuries, some of the premises of contemporary culture began to emerge, characterized by an unwarranted split between faith and reason whose negative results include, among others, the marginalization of God under the illusion that man can have complete autonomy, choosing to live “as if God did not exist.”
This is the crisis of modern thought which I have pointed out on several occasions and which often leads to forms of relativism.
John Leonardi knew what the true medicine for these spiritual maladies was and summarized it in the expression “Christ first of all” — Christ at the center of the human heart, at the center of history and at the center of the cosmos.
Mankind, he stated firmly, has an extreme need for Christ because he is our “measure.”
There is no area that cannot be touched by his power. There is no ailment that does not have its remedy in him. There is no problem that cannot be resolved through him.
“Christ or nothing!” — this was his prescription for every kind of spiritual and social reform.
Love for the Church
There is another aspect of St. John Leonardi’s spirituality that I would like to highlight. In various circumstances, he reiterated that the living encounter with Christ is fulfilled in his Church, which is holy but fragile, rooted both in history and in a sometimes murky future, where the wheat and the weeds grow together (see Matthew 13:30).
Nonetheless, it is always a sacrament of salvation. Clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (see Matthew 13:24), he was not scandalized by her human weaknesses. In order to counteract the weeds, he chose to become wheat. That is, he chose to love Christ in the Church and to contribute to making her a more transparent sign of him.
He viewed the Church with a great deal of realism. He saw her human fragility, but he also saw her as “God’s field,” his instrument for the salvation of mankind.
Furthermore, out of love of Christ, he worked enthusiastically to purify the Church in order to make her more beautiful and holy. He understood that any reform must be accomplished within the Church and never against the Church. In this, St. John Leonardi was a truly extraordinary figure, and his example remains relevant today.
It is clear that reform affects structures, but it must primarily affect the hearts of believers. Only the saints — men and women who allow themselves to be guided by God’s Spirit and are ready to make radical and courageous choices in the light of the Gospel — can renew the Church and make a decisive contribution to building a better world.
An Example for Us Today
Dear brothers and sisters, St. John Leonardi’s life was always illuminated by the splendor of the holy face of Jesus, which is preserved and venerated in the cathedral in Lucca and which has become an eloquent symbol and undisputed synthesis of the faith that inspired him.
Conquered by Christ just like the apostle Paul, he showed his disciples and continues to show all of us a Christ-centered ideal for which “we need to strip ourselves of all selfish interests and only be concerned with service to God ... having before the eyes of the mind only the honor, service and glory of Christ Jesus crucified.”
Along with the face of Jesus, he gazed upon the maternal face of Mary. He chose her as the patron of his order. For him, she was a teacher, sister and mother. He experienced her constant protection.
May the example and intercession of this “captivating man of God,” especially during this Year for Priests, be a reminder and encouragement for all priests — and all Christians — to live their specific vocation with passion and enthusiasm.