The bodies of two saints now lie on view in the Vatican at the request of Pope Francis for the Jubilee of Mercy. One is Padre Pio (St. Pio of Pietrelcina) who is the world-renowned stigmatic priest from Italy. The other is St. Leopold Mandić. Pope Francis asked the Capuchins to bring the relics of St. Padre Pio and St. Leopold to Rome for Ash Wednesday and for the commissioning of the “missionaries of mercy.”
Most of us are familiar with Padre Pio, but who was St. Leopold?
St. Leopold was also a Capuchin priest like Padre Pio. Born the youngest of 12 children in 1866 in the Montenegro area of Croatia, he was called Bogdan as a child. Throughout his life he suffered from severe abdominal pain as well as a severe stutter. Along with these ailments, chronic arthritis deformed his posture and hands. His bent spine gave him a height of just 4'5". He had poor eyesight and was usually in pain. Despite his lifelong physical problems, his was a life of faith and sacrifice.
At 16, Bogdan began his studies at the Capuchin Seraphic School in Italy. He took the religious name Brother Leopold and made his Profession of Vows at 17. Brother Leopold was ordained a priest in Venice in 1890. He wanted to become a missionary in Eastern Europe, which was under siege by religious conflict, but his request was turned down because of his poor health. He was instead stationed at several friaries around Venice. He began to teach about the early Church Fathers at a school in Padua, where he became well known for his devotion to his students and his hours spent in prayer each night.
Besides one year in an Italian prison during World War I for refusing to renounce his Croatian nationality, Brother Leopold would spend most of the next three decades devoted to spreading the faith in Padua. From his small cell he would spend up to 15 hours a day hearing confessions and giving spiritual direction. He was known for his constant prayer, fasting, and sacrificing. His dream was to reunite the Catholic and Orthodox churches by going to the Orient, but that never happened. He became known as the Apostle of Confession and Apostle of Unity. He wrote a famous prayer for ecumenism, and was known to prophesy and to levitate.
When his superiors would say he was too lenient with the people who came to him for confession, he would respond, “If the Lord wants to accuse me of showing too much leniency toward sinners, I'll tell him that it was he who gave me this example, and I haven't even died for the salvation of souls as he did.” Leopold would often remark, “Be at peace; place everything on my shoulders. I will take care of it.” He once explained, “I give my penitents only small penances because I do the rest myself.” At nighttime, he would spend hours in prayer, explaining: “I must do penance for my penitents.”
Brother Leopold was known to be especially fond of expectant mothers and young children. He set up orphanages for children without parents. He had a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary who he referred to as “my holy boss,” and he prayed the Rosary regularly. Each day he celebrated Mass at the side altar in the Little Office of the Virgin Mary. Then he would go around and visit the sick in nursing homes, hospitals and homes. He also visited sick Capuchin friars in the infirmary, encouraging them to keep the faith.
Leopold used to repeat to himself: “Remember that you have been sent for the salvation of people, not because of your own merits, since it is the Lord Jesus and not you who died for the salvation of souls... I must cooperate with the divine goodness of our Lord who has deigned to choose me so that by my ministry, the divine promise would be fulfilled: ‘There will be only one flock and one shepherd’” (John 10:16).
Brother Leopold suffered from esophageal cancer, which would ultimately lead to his death at age 76. On July 30, 1942, after an entire night of prayer and a previous day hearing confessions nonstop, he collapsed while preparing for Mass. He was brought to his cell where he was given the Last Rites. Friars gathered at his bed sang “Salve Regina,” and when they got to the words, “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary,” St. Leopold died while singing the final words.
The church and part of the friary where Brother Leopold lived were demolished by bombs during World War II, but as he predicted, his cell and confessional were left unharmed. He stated before his death, “The church and the friary will be hit by the bombs, but not this little cell. Here God exercised so much mercy for people, it must remain as a monument to God’s goodness.” Pope Paul VI beatified Leopold on May 2, 1976, and St. John Paul II canonized him during the Synod of Bishops on October 16, 1983. Leopold is hailed as the “Apostle of Unity.” His feast day is July 28.