Two Heroes of the Counter-Reformation — Sts. John Leonardi and Louis Bertrand
St. John Leonardi and St. Louis Bertrand share Oct. 9 as a feast day.
In one of those happy coincidences that occur so often in Church history that we must be convinced that it is not a coincidence at all, but the hand of God at work, Oct. 9 is the Optional Memorial of St. John Leonardi and, per the official Roman Martyrology, the date we also recall St. Louis Bertrand. Both men are responsible for the systematic spread of Catholic Christianity, especially here in America.
St. John Leonardi
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written and spoken at length of the great St. John Leonardi. There is little I could add to this to make it a better form of hagiography, but here’s a thumbnail sketch: St. John Leonardi was born in Lucca, in the Tuscan region of Italy, in 1541. Early on he was apprenticed to a pharmacist, but he turned his mind and soul to the Franciscans who, for reasons that remain obscure, refused him admittance. Undaunted, John joined a loose confraternity of the laity that shared a common life of prayer and active ministry, especially to the poor and sick.
Surprisingly (for a member of the laity at the time) John was conversant in the many changes of the Council of Trent and even wrote to Pope Paul V about how he envisioned the implementations of the Tridentine council.
It’s not clear when St. John came up with the concept of Clerics Regular of the Mother of God, but by 1583 he and his followers were officially recognized by the local ordinary of Lucca, and soon approved by Pope Gregory XIII.
I’ve written often about how saints rarely live or work in a vacuum, and St. John Leonardi was no exception. He was a familiar of St. Philip Neri of Rome as well as St. Joseph Calasanctius, both of whom encouraged St. John in his new enterprise. (Both St. Philip and St. Joseph had founded religious congregations themselves.) St. Philip even deeded to him the grounds of St. Girolamo della Carita (which included care of his pet cat!) and for a short time St. John was associated with St. Joseph’s order.
However, as Benedict XVI noted in his 2009 talk, it was not only for the founding of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God that St. John was remembered. Rather, St. John was commissioned and actively involved in the planning of formation of foreign missions in a systematic way, per the Council of Trent. This was the forerunner of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith, whose “simple” mission was straightforward, if not overwhelming: to have the Gospel preached all the ends of the earth. He is rightly revered as the proto-founder of that august enterprise.
St. John was not finished, though. He was a voluminous writer, especially on the importance of sound preaching, and he wrote treatises on familial duties. He promoted the Forty Hours devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and personally devoted himself to the catechizing of young children, as well as admonishing all Catholics to frequent, even daily, reception of Holy Communion.
He died in 1609 ministering to those with the plague, which had swept through Italy.
St. Louis Bertrand
St. Louis Bertrand (also Luis Beltrán) was born 16 years before St. John Leonardi, in 1526. He was, in a sense, surrounded by saints, as he was directly related to the great Dominican St. Vincent Ferrer. He was clothed in the habit of the Order of Preachers by the saintly (at least as he was regarded by the people of Valencia, Spain) Father John Mico, and ordained to the priesthood by St. Thomas Villanova in 1547.
Almost immediately Father Bertrand was made master of novices, a position he discharged with both severity and understanding. Another great saint, Teresa of Ávila, wrote to him about her putative reform of the Carmelites and St. Louis wrote back that “your order will be one of the most famous in the Church.” He was right.
A pestilence tore through Valencia in 1557 and St. Louis was absolutely fearless in facing down the disease in order to minister to the spiritual and corporal needs of the sick and dying. Mercifully, he himself survived this plague.
Though there was little inkling of it before 1562, St. Louis departed from Spain for the Americas to preach the Gospel. He landed in Colombia (and is now the patron saint of that country). Though he spoke only Spanish, and thus had to rely on an interpreter in his evangelical work, he was soon blessed with the gift of tongues and conversions to the True Faith came in droves. We know this since St. Louis recorded baptisms in his own handwriting in the official registers.
Not content with evangelizing South America, St. Louis soon traveled to Panama, the Virgin Islands, and almost all of the rest of the Caribbean Islands (both the Leeward and Windward Islands), where he toiled for more than six years. Though he was one of the great successful missionaries of South and Central America, St. Louis was recalled to Spain — where he hoped to report not only on his salvation of souls, but the damage done by the Spanish rapaciousness that was endemic to the Americas.
All but the last two years of his life were spent back in Spain training preachers (which is, after all, what the Dominican Order was founded for) and Butler’s Lives tells us that he was famous for admonishing his novices that “words without works never has the power to change people’s hearts.”
His body was racked with pain for the last two years, and he died Oct. 9, 1581, just about the time St. John Leonardi was forming his Clerks Regular of the Mother of God.
Thus these two saints — St. John Leonardi, the great religious founder, catechist, and originator of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith, and St. Louis Bertrand, the great Dominican Missionary to Central and South America, whom the Church recognizes on the same day, show the importance not only of having good, great preachers, but a systematic plan to follow in carrying the Word of God to all the ends of the Earth.
St. John Leonardi and St. Louis Bertrand, pray for us!