The saints of God are as varied as the human race itself. God seems to send each one to the right place at the right time so that he (or she) can work the most good. One thinks of the importance of the towering personality of Saint Paul to the spread of Christianity in the first century, the millions of known and unknown martyrs in those brutal years of Roman pagan persecution of the early centuries, the contributions of such as Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Francis of Assisi in their public personae. Let us not forget those early Jesuits who spread the Faith globally. Even those behind the cloister like Saint Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity had great impacts on the Catholic world.
Our present subject, Saint Leopoldo of Castelnovo, could not have been more minuscule an individual, both in his physical presence and his manner. In truth, however, he fits the description “good things come in small packages.” Taking it a step further, we can truly say that great and amazing things came in this particular small package, for Father Leopoldo was, despite his tiny frame, a giant among the men of his time.
Born on the coast of Dalmatia in the area of what is now Montenegro, just across the Adriatic from the shores of Italy, the frail and tiny Bogdan was the twelfth, and last, child of his very devout Catholic parents. He remained tiny — never more than four feet five inches tall; his health was poor; he had a speech defect; and his body was bent and arthritic from an early age. Yet his intellect, his goodness, and above all, his sanctity, were towering even in childhood. His mother would often find him on his knees in prayer in his room when his brothers and sisters were out playing with their companions.
Bogdan Mandic (pronounced “Mandich”) was born in 1866 in the lovely coastal town of Castelnovo in what was then part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. The Mandics were one of the few Catholic families in this overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox part of the Dalmatian coast. Bogdan (the name means “gift of God”) never considered himself anything but Croatian – a Balkan Slav. He learned the languages of the Balkans, not as an academic pursuit, but out of love for his fellow countrymen, most of whom were schismatics. The foremost desire of his life was to bring these Balkan separated brethren back to the fold of Rome. This became his vow at a tender age.
To this end, young Bogdan applied and was accepted into the Capuchin seminary at the age of sixteen. He never received any special treatment because of his frailty. Indeed, he engaged in penances that would have weakened a burly man, so great was his love of Our Lord. Academically, his studies were so advanced that he entered the novitiate and took the rough Franciscan habit at eighteen. This life was terribly penitential — rough clothing, no heat in the winter, no glass on the windows (only oiled paper), no socks for their feet and a straw-filled sack for a mattress with only one blanket. It was a life of silence, fasting, interrupted sleep and much study. In 1885, Bogdan made his simple profession and was given the name Fra Leopoldo. He was immediately transferred to Padua where he began the study of philosophy and doctrine. Ordination to the holy priesthood came in 1890. Sadly, his parents were unable to attend because of their impoverished condition.
Early on, Father Leopoldo’s superiors realized that he could never preach because of his speech defect. (He was a stutterer.) His life’s work would be in the confessional and on the altar. And what a life he led in his little confessional/cell, any time of the day or night that a sinner wanted to receive God’s forgiveness.
During the early years of his priesthood, Father Leopoldo was transferred to several different posts, once spending four years as director of Capuchin students at Padua. He loved his students as a mother would, seeing that they were given more to eat while he took less, and that they had more sleep while he prayed much of the night in the chapel on his knees. He prayed constantly that his charges would become both physically and spiritually strong for the difficult life of a Capuchin. When this stint was completed in 1914, he devoted himself totally to the confessional.
The “Ideal Confessor”
All priests have the God-given power of forgiving sins, bestowed upon them by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Every once in a while, though, God sees fit to reward his people with an extraordinary confessor who treats the poorest of the poor and the most exalted hierarch with equanimity and loving forgiveness, sometimes anticipating in advance their innermost thoughts. People from all around Padua and environs flocked to his little confessional/cell for advice on every matter material or spiritual. This is a heavy responsibility that Holy Mother Church confers on her priests. Because their words in the confessional can mean salvation or damnation, priests need a thorough grounding in God’s laws through study of mystical theology, dogmatics, moral theology, and canon law. Father Leopoldo continued his study of these topics throughout his life, his favorite theologians being Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, each of whose works he kept handy in the confessional.
The breadth of his learning was so great that one of his colleagues in the Franciscan order, Father Orlini, Father-General of the Conventual Franciscans, believed that he had the gift of infused knowledge. It was not only book-learning that made him so wise, however. He prayed constantly for the intercession of the saints, particularly the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, famous for her wisdom. To illustrate both his devotion and his humility, every year on her feast he visited the church dedicated to her, placed her relic on his head and begged her to obtain from God the wisdom necessary for his ministry. Here was humility and holiness personified!
Many of his penitents — even the most educated — believed that he possessed the gift of reading hearts and souls. One, Professor Angelo Zamballo, knew that Father Leopoldo could read consciences, for whenever he approached him as a penitent with “small faults” before he even opened his mouth, Father said, “You don’t need to go to confession; go straight to Holy Communion.” Another gentleman, a secular penitent, went to confession as usual, and before he could open his mouth, Father Leopoldo began telling him everything he had done, down to the last detail. “But Father, that is what I am supposed to be telling you!” Father replied, “Never mind! Just forget about it!”
There are many more instances of his ability to read hearts and souls, even of perfect strangers whom he was simply casually passing on the street. He brought many “fallen-aways” and unbelievers into the Church with a mere glance that penetrated like a sword into their souls, causing them to run after him and beg for confession.
Besides his astounding abilities in the confessional, Father Leopoldo was an all-purpose dispenser of counsel and advice because of the wholehearted trust people had in his thoughtful decisions. Always prudent, he would take their questions under consideration for a time, praying that God would direct him to give the correct answer. He was balanced, measured, and always right! People knew that it was God who spoke through him.
The astonishing thing about Father Leopoldo’s talents in the confessional was that he remembered each and every one of his thousands of penitents. He once casually remarked to Father Orlini that it had been twenty-five years to that day since he first came to his confessional. He could hear a person’s particular problem, give advice, and years later ask how the situation resolved. The secret of his astounding abilities was his love — his love for the soul of each individual penitent whom he wished to bring to Christ, Who is Love Itself.
The Gift of Prophecy
Father Leopoldo had other gifts. A number of times he seemed to prophesy the future both for individuals and for world events. Once, in March of 1932, a gentleman whom he knew well visited Father in the confessional. The friend immediately discerned that the priest was very sad. “Are you unwell, Father?” he inquired. “No, no. I am perfectly well” came the reply, but — he began to sob. Yesterday at evening prayers ”God opened my eyes and I saw Italy in a sea of fire and blood.” Whenever the future of Italy was mentioned, he covered his face with his hands and cried, “God have pity on Italy!” By 1940, he was predicting that the Franciscan Friary in Padua would be destroyed — all but his little confessional/cell which would remain as a “monument to God’s kindness.” His prediction came true on May 14, 1944, two years after his death, when the Church and the Friary were bombed. Only Our Lady’s statue and the little cell were untouched!
Our Lady’s Role in his Life
Father Leopoldo was wholly and entirely devoted to Our Lady. His lifelong intention was someday to write a book to show her as co-redemptress of the human race and the channel of all grace. He seemed to have the book already composed in his mind, for his friends told of how beautifully he thought and spoke of her. Unfortunately, his duties in the confessional never permitted the time for this project, but no one ever doubted his great devotion. He was consecrated to Our Blessed Mother as an infant by his earthly mother and throughout his life honored her in every way possible. Each time he passed a statue or picture of her, he made some gesture of reverence; he believed her to be present at every Mass that was said because she was there at her Son’s first Mass — the blood sacrifice of the Cross. When he prayed her litany aloud, he would pause at the phrase “causa nostrae laetitiae,” (cause of our joy), raise his eyes to Heaven and enter into a few moments of ecstasy, as though he could see her in her heavenly grandeur (which he very well may have!) Many stories are told of miracles performed by his hand through the intercession of Our Lady.
One gentleman of Udine confided to Father that his Jewish wife’s heart remained closed to the Catholic faith. Father gave him a small medal of Our Lady and instructed him to give it to her and say “This is a relation of yours.” The wife wore the medal for some time and eventually Our Lady brought her into the Church.
Several young children were cured by him of various illnesses by his prayer from afar. To one child gravely ill with a raging infection, he sent an apple that he had blessed. When the child’s uncle showed her that apple, the infection left her and she gobbled up the fruit! Father, of course, gave credit to the powerful intercession of Our Lady.
We know that the greatest desire for Father Leopoldo’s heart was to bring “his people” into the fold of the Roman Church. Although he was never allowed to work for any length of time in his native land, primarily because of his always-poor health, in June of 1887, he heard the “voice of God” calling him to pray and work for the return of the schismatic Eastern Churches to Catholic unity. He vowed that this would be his life’s work: for every penitent who came to his confessional, he prayed for the return of one schismatic to Rome. He renewed this vow in writing thousands of times during his life. In 1937, he commerated in writing the fiftieth anniversary of his hearing God’s directive. He understood that God wanted to use him in a particular way for the salvation of the dissident East. That way was to sacrifice himself for “his people” with only God knowing of it. He told a friend “I was born among a people that does not think as we think, but I live for that people. Indeed, greater love no man hath… for he did indeed give his life for these others.
On May 3, 1938, the dear little priest celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his profession as a humble Capuchin. Two years and four months later, he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his Ordination to the holy priesthood in September of 1940. All of Padua joined in both celebrations out of the great love and pride for the humble friar that the people felt. In all likelihood, there was not one Catholic in the area who had not confessed to him at some time in his life. Cardinals and bishops paid him tribute; even the Pope sent his blessing. Telegrams and letters poured in by the thousands. Humbled by the effusive praise, Fra Leopoldo could only answer “All this is not for me. It is for the habit.” And of course, it was for the praise and glory of the King of kings, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Final Journey
To the many who continued to congratulate him on his Jubilee he replied “But they were farewell celebrations.” Always frail and afflicted with bodily sufferings since childhood, during his last two years, these sufferings were very much intensified. In the winter of 1941 the stomach pains which had afflicted him all his life worsened exponentially. The doctors thought it was a gastric ulcer. Poor Father Leopoldo could take no nourishment and grew so weak that he could no longer stand. When urged to cut down on his work in the confessional, he answered “We’ll get our rest in Heaven when our heads rest on the divine Heart of Jesus.”
His greatest agony was knowing that he was lying uselessly in bed while many souls needed his comfort and consolation in the confessional. During the warmer months of the Italian summer, he improved slightly. But with the return of winter, once more his agony increased and it was impossible to take nourishment.
A month’s stay in the local hospital and seven blood transfusions enabled him to rally for a time, but soon the true cause of his illness manifested itself. X-ray located a cancerous tumor in his esophagus for which there was no cure. He continued his work, even from his bed, for as long as God gave him the strength. Father Leopoldo lived three more months after his return from the hospital, seeing penitents daily from his sick bed. The day before his death, he heard the confessions of fifty priests. He wished to be conscious to the end, remarking to a priest friend of his, “A miserable business to appear before God unconscious.”
He spent his last night on earth entirely in prayer. When a young brother looked in on him, he observed his lips moving in prayer. He asked Father to hear his confession, to which he replied as usual, “Here I am, at your service!”
The next morning, July 30, 1942, he awoke and prepared to say Mass. In the sacristy where he was preparing to vest for Mass, he had an attack and was brought back to bed. He seemed to regain strength a short while later and wanted to get up to say Mass, but immediately had another attack. The Father Vicar, Father Marcellino, brought him Extreme Unction. Prayers for the dying were begun. He recited the Salve Regina. His last words were “O, Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary.” One can only imagine that Our Lady was there to greet him at the gates of Heaven.
He died at seven in the morning. The moment word of his death was made public, the people of Padua set up a huge cry, “A saint is dead!” An enormous influx of faithful wanted a last look, a last touch, a final goodbye to their beloved confessor. Even little children approached the body, one little girl saying to her equally small companion, “Look, isn’t he like Jesus?” Crowds were huge; one estimate had it that on that first day alone twenty-five thousand passed before the bier. The little Capuchin church and the Square of Santa Croce outside of it filled to overflowing.
The decision was made to process through the streets of Padua to the larger Servite church. Still, the crowds overflowed the church. Those who did not join the procession looked on from their windows, many throwing flowers upon their beloved little priest as he passed.
Local newspapers devoted pages to the memory of the humble little man from across the sea, so great was he loved and respected. Mourners came from as far as Rome and Naples. The tiny, humble priest who wanted to remain unknown to all except God was universally proclaimed a saint.
Even in death Father Leopoldo had a tremendous influence on souls. After the War, a group of tourists was listening to a priest explain that he had predicted the bombing of the church and friary, but that the little confessional/cell would remain untouched. An elderly gentleman, standing to the side, suddenly began to cry. He said aloud, “I haven’t been to Confession in forty years…” He returned to Father’s cell and soon after asked for a priest to hear his confession. When people visit his cell, many feel the need to write their impressions down before they leave. There are hundreds of volumes of books where visitors have written their thoughts and impressions of their experiences at the place where the little priest worked for more than fifty years. Here are outpourings from people’s innermost hearts, many of them not Catholic, of the effect that their visit here had on them.
Path to Sainthood
Although his people declared him a saint, that is not the official way of the Church. In 1946, the Diocesan Informative Process was opened. It was not until 1983 on October 16 that he was canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Many of the articles about Saint Leopoldo Mandic on the Internet refer to him as a forerunner of today’s ecumenism. No one would more vehemently disagree with this description than Father Leopoldo himself. He did not want to “reach out in friendship to the Orthodox.” Quite the contrary, as we have seen, he gave his life doing great penance for the conversion of the Eastern Orthodox so that their souls, so dear to him, could be saved. He is also called “the apostle of unity.” True, but he prayed for unification under the Roman Catholic Holy Father, not some flimsy, namby-pamby “let’s agree to disagree” attitude. Conversion to the one, true Faith was his goal — his only goal for “his people.”
That being said, I recommend a very informative four-part youtube presentation in English. There are many pictures of Father Leopoldo both as a young friar and as an old man. The piece is filmed on location both in Dalmatia and Italy and shows the churches that he knew as a child, a seminarian and an old priest. He is called “Adeodato” rather than “Bogdan,” the former being the Latin for “Gift of God.” There are lovely pictures of his parents, and the beautiful Dalmatian coast with its mountains and peaceful bays is a wonder to behold.
Dear little Saint Leopoldo, pray for us; pray for your Church!