Apostle of Unity and Reconciliation
with the Eastern Orthodox

Saint Leopoldo of Castelnovo, O.F.M. Cap.(1866-1942)


St. Leopoldo of Castelnovo

In a beautiful passage of Vatican II's "Constitution on the Church", the Council Fathers voiced once again the Church's doctrine concerning the importance of the Saints in the life of the Church:

"When we look at the lives of those who have faithfully followed Christ, we are inspired with a new reason for seeking the city which is to come (Heb. 13,14; 11,10). At the same time we are shown a most safe path by which among the vicissitudes of this world and in keeping with the state of life and condition proper to each of us, we will be able to arrive at perfect union with Christ, that is, holiness. In the lives of those who shared in our humanity and yet were transformed into especially successful images of Christ (Cf.2 Cor.3,18), God visibly manifests to men His presence and His face. He speaks to us in them, and gives us a sign of His Kingdom, to which we are powerfully drawn, surrounded as we are by so many witnesses (Cf. Heb. 12,1) and having such an argument for the truth of the Gospel.
(Lumen Gentium, n.50)

The Grave Evil of our Time: Secularism

In every age the Holy Spirit raises up holy souls to meet the grave needs of Holy Church. Their exemplary lives manifest the sweet savor of Jesus Christ in a world subject to "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." (1 John 2,16). In their works the unique holiness of the Catholic Church, Mother of Saints, is manifested to men everywhere increasingly infected with the deadly spiritual disease of "secularism". Secularism has been rightly termed the "consummate error, the final heresy" by a Russian Orthodox theologian, Fr. Michael Azkoul:

"What is secularism? It is what the liberal Protestant theologian Friedrich Gogarten calls, ‘radical worldliness', that is, an idea or belief that all institutions, ideas and experiences, once explained as the work of God, are now viewed as products of human thought and action. This means that Christ, albeit a great man, is simply a man; that the Church is no more than a humanly formed and maintained organization; that the Christian is not a special type of man with divine responsibilities, but simply a man — 'not a saint or homo religious but simply a man' declared Dietrich Bonhoffer.
Secularism means a belief in the progress of man toward a perfect society by science and technology; it acts on the assumption that man is essentially good; that he is not a sinner, but a victim of his circumstances. He can escape misery when he is ‘free' and when his civil liberties are protected by law; and he can find happiness only when all his social and economic needs are met.
To put secularism another way: God is only important to the man who wants him, as he wants him; it means holidays for holy days, psychiatrists for priests, service for worship, fame for glory, longevity for salvation, flesh for spirit, tolerance for truth, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for Jesus Christ. And yes, secularism means...abortion, feminism, sexualism and utopianism...In other words, secularism is composed of those temptations to which Adam succumbed and which the Lord overcame: pleasure, bread and power."
(Orthodox Christian Witness — Jan 13, 1975)

In the lives of countless saints and servants of God —the imitators of Christ in every age— we find most striking proof of the radical deficiency and dreary emptiness of secularism (in its many modern forms) as a "meaningful faith" for contemporary man. The life-styles of present-day Marxist atheists, agnostic Anglo-Saxon technocrats, sophisticated monied worldlings, or coarse counter-culture revolutionaries simply pale in comparison with those lived by Christ's spiritual athletes: in the 19th century, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John Bosco, St. Joseph Cafasso, the Cure of Ars, St. Bernadette, St. John Neumann, Blessed Anna Maria Taigi — and in our own times: Blessed Maximilian Kolbe, Padre Pio, Mother Mary Magdalene, C.P., and the subject of this brief article, St. Leopoldo of Castelnovo, O.F.M. Cap. (1866-1942). Not only did this holy son of St. Francis glorify God and His Church by his life of heroic virtue and piety (distinguished by an ardent devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin) but he was a shining example of love of neighbor which has few parallels in the entire history of Christianity. Indeed the early beatification and canonization of this Capuchin servant of God would appear to be a sure pledge in the design of God for the reconciliation of many of our separated Eastern Orthodox brethren with the Catholic Church.

Early Years of Father Leopoldo

Padre Leopoldo was born at Castelnovo of Cattaro in Dalmatia. (The Croatian part of modern Yugoslavia) on May 12, 1866 of a very ancient Bosnian noble family. The last of twelve children he was christened Bogdan, which means "gift of God."

"A genuinely pious and precocious child who was acknowledged as "different" from his fellows (who nevertheless loved him), he soon applied his whole soul from his tenderest years to the attainment of Christian perfection; he was an example of every virtue."
(testimony of the Bishop of Cattaro, Msgr. Casimiro Forlani)

While only a young teenager, Bogdan Mandic felt keenly the misery of the centuries-old Byzantine Schism which separated millions of souls from integral communion with the Catholic Church: Serbians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Russians. Bogdan felt himself called to help lead them to the One True Faith.

It was after much prayer that he decided: "Very well, I shall, I shall dedicate myself to the salvation of all these unhappy people. I shall be their missionary." Becoming a Capuchin friar, he thought, would give him the best opportunity to realize this holy aspiration. On November 16, 1882, he entered the strict Capuchin Seminary of the Venetian Province at Udine. He was 16 years of age. In 1884 he began his novitiate at the Capuchin Friary at Bassano del Grappa, and took the name of Fra Leopoldo. The following year he made his Simple profession. He was then transferred to study philosophy at Padua, Italy. On October 20, 1888, he made his Solemn profession at Padua as a member of the Venetian province. He was then transferred to Venice to study theology and prepare himself for the future. On September 20, 1890, he was ordained priest to the joy of his devout mother and father by Cardinal Agostini at 'Santa Maria della Salute' in Venice.

He hastened to make known to his superiors his desire to work in the Eastern European missions for the return of dissident Eastern Orthodox to the Church, but in view of his frail constitution and poor speech, they thought otherwise. (Throughout his life Padre Leopoldo suffered from defective articulation: however carefully he tried to pronounce words —even at Mass—, they came pouring out in a rush — to his great embarrassment. Moreover, he was only four-feet five inches in height, not at all handsome, and quite awkward in gait). Not permitted to preach, the diminutive Capuchin occupied himself with being useful — hearing confessions. Thus began his marvelous apostolate as an Apostle of the Confessional which extended over a 50 year period — with most of those years being spent in Padua, Italy, exerting an extraordinary influence on souls.

From 1906 (with the exception of a brief period of enforced absence due to World War I) Padre Leopoldo rivaled the celebrated St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars in a life of constant prayer, mortification, and suffering in the confessional. All these he offered for the reconciliation of his beloved Orthodox peoples.

"Since God has not given me the gift of words for preaching, I want to dedicate myself to bringing souls to him in the confessional."

For him the Sacrament of Penance was a divinely-ordained means to lead a soul to the highest degree of union with God.

The meekest and humblest of men, Padre Leopoldo became the cherished spiritual director of priests and Bishops, theologians and lay apostles (such as the Servant of God Guido Negri), laity from all walks of life, and hardened sinners. As a Capuchin biographer notes: "For nearly 40 years (in his small cell in a Padua friary) he remained a voluntary prisoner for the salvation of the souls who came in an uninterrupted stream to see him. Always there, for 10, 12, or even 15 hours a day, never thinking of rest or relief, always suffering (from a variety of illnesses). And all because his love of souls was greater than any desire to escape, and because from the bare walls of the cell looked down the figure of Christ nailed to the Cross for the salvation of souls. Seeing the Crucifix, he would repeat to himself, ‘I shall remain too, till I can do no more, even unto death, for souls are of more value than my poor life.' His was, in truth, an incredible life.

In Padre Leopoldo's last illness, his physical and moral suffering was nothing to the agony he felt in not being able to hear the confessions of his beloved penitents. Even then, the day before his death, he heard, among others, the confessions of some fifty priests. It is clear that he possessed the gifts of the Holy Spirit in abundance, and especially the Gift of Wisdom to be able to direct the souls of penitents in confession. Many witnesses testify to his having had the gift of prophecy, and being able to read the deepest secrets of conscience. He was a veritable thaumaturge (wonder-worker) performing all kinds of miracles for the spiritual and physical healing of those who could not but regard him as a living saint.

Padre Pio and Padre Leopoldo

Interestingly, his fellow Capuchin, Blessed Pio da Pietrelcina had the greatest esteem for Padre Leopoldo, and after the latter's death invoked him with veneration. Padre Leopoldo had often begged his penitents to pray daily for the priest-stigmatist [Padre Pio] that the Lord would bless his work for the salvation of souls. Though appertaining to the Capuchin order, these two spiritual giants never knew one another personally, nor ever exchanged a letter; but they remained intimately united in the mysterious ways of the mystical life, both having consecrated themselves to the salvation of souls through the Sacrament of Penance.

"The love for Jesus is a fire fed by the fuel of sacrifice and love of the Cross; without this fuel [this love] dies", Padre Leopoldo would often say. He had too a great love of Our Lady, and encouraged devotion to her under her various titles, especially "Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners." "I was consecrated to Our Lady as a child, and she has been of particular help to me in my vocation."

Always an ardent student of Mariology (the study of Mary's role in Christ's Redemption of mankind), Padre Leopoldo wrote on a picture of the Blessed Virgin in 1927: "I, Fr. Leopoldo Mandic Zarevic, firmly believe that the Blessed Virgin as Co-Redemptress of the human race is the moral cause of all grace, since everything we receive comes from her fullness." He hoped that his work would help to add a new diadem to the brow of the Mother of God--namely, the Church's proclamation of the dogma of Our Lady, Mediatrix of all Grace. When he prayed the Litany of Our Lady, he would repeat the refrain "Cause of all our joy" and remain plunged in deep mediation, his face radiant and eyes raised to heaven. On one occasion he solemnly wrote:

"The August Mother of God is in truth Co-Redemptress of the human race and source of all Grace. In fact, on the one hand we have in her the most perfect obedience to God's laws and, after her Son, the most perfect innocence: He, impeccable by His nature, she, impeccable by Grace. On the other hand we see her as Our Lady of Sorrows, as He was the Man of Sorrows. If, therefore, by eternal decree of God, the Immaculate Virgin was the moral victim of sorrow as her Son was the physical victim, and if God's avenging Justice found no shadow of fault in them, it follows inevitably that They were paying the price of the sins of others, that is of mankind." Padre Leopoldo never hesitated to say: "I rely on the powerful intercession of Our Lady, on her mother's heart, for everything."

Special Call to Be a Victim — for Unity

It was in union with the Blessed Virgin that the saintly son of St. Francis offered himself to the Holy Trinity as a victim for his separated brethren of the East. On June 18, 1887, while still a student in Padua, Padre Leopoldo first received the mysterious call to pray and work for the reconciliation of the dissident Eastern churches to Catholic unity. He was to note this remarkable design of God on many occasions, jotting down on the back of prayer cards and small slips of paper (preserved in his Breviary) his thoughts concerning the Divine Will in this regard:

  • On August 31, 1908 while assisting in hearing the confessions of priests on Retreat, he wrote: "Truly before God and the Blessed Virgin, confirmed by oath, I have undertaken in honor of the Co-Redemptress of mankind, to use all my strength in this life, under obedience to my superiors, towards the redemption of the Dissident Eastern people from schism and error."
  • On May 21, 1914 he wrote: "I believe by Divine Faith that you, O Blessed Virgin, are most solicitous for the Eastern Dissidents, and I wish to cooperate as much as possible with your maternal love. All my actions shall have this intention."
  • On August 21, 1914 (and again on August 3, 1928) he added: "The object of my life must be the return of the Eastern Dissidents to Catholic unity. That is, before God, in the faith of charity of Our Lord Jesus Christ who expiated the sins of the world. I must direct all my energies, so far as my poor condition allows, towards the goal of making some contribution to that great work through the merits of my life."
  • On February 2, 1918 he wrote: "I believe and therefore I speak: Christ Our Lord is the Redemption: I, his unworthy minister, am truly his minister in the redemption of the Eastern schismatics. Lord, thou knowest all: thou art thyself the author of my will."
  • In 1937 Padre Leopoldo wrote: "The will, the very desire, be it more or less urgent, to obtain the return of the Dissident Easterners to Catholic unity is the same divine vocation which Divine Providence has granted me...Before God I must have no further doubt about whether or not I am called for this work. In fact this has already been made abundantly clear to me."
  • It was in 1935 at the Seminary in Vicenza that he wrote: "...In the grace of my vocation in favor of the Eastern Dissidents, I bind myself to a vow that from now on the whole purpose of my life shall be to obtain that as soon as possible the words of our Lord Jesus Christ that there shall be one fold and one Shepherd shall be true of the Eastern Dissidents."

But one year before his death at the age of 76 (20 years before the opening of the Vatican II Council in 1962), he wrote to his spiritual director, Fr. Odorico of Pordenone:

"I have the East always before my eyes and I feel that God wishes me to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries, saving where justice and charity demand otherwise, so that the great promise of one fold and one Shepherd may in due course be fulfilled. And it certainly will be. This is what I think about it: God moves his ministers to apply his merits to the Eastern Dissidents, so that He is praying for them to the extent that we celebrate the Sacred Mysteries for that intention. That means, then, that He Himself is praying through us, and we know from His own words that God the Father always answers His prayers. The great event will therefore infallibly happen. My task therefore is to work toward the realization of this great prophecy. There you have my ideas on the subject."

The unshakeable devotion of the Eastern Orthodox peoples to the Mother of God was to Padre Leopoldo a guarantee of their re-integration into the visible communion of the Catholic Church.

"O most Blessed Virgin," he prayed, "you said in your Magnificat, ‘The Lord hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy; I too firmly believe that the reunion with the Eastern Dissenters will take place."

A Totally Hidden Apostolate

It is important to stress that St. Leopoldo's life of heroic sanctity offered for the salvation of Eastern Orthodox peoples was a hidden life in Christ. During his life-time only his own confessor and a couple of close friends were aware that he had offered himself as a victim-soul for the reconciliation of his separated brethren. It did not matter to him that all his work and suffering and tears in hearing the confessions of countless souls in his little cell in Padua — far away from the active missionary labors in the East he had once dreamed of and diligently prepared for — might remain unknown forever. Fortunately, in the Providence of God — and thanks in part to the many miracles and supernatural favors claimed by thousands visiting his tomb on pilgrimage, the real spiritual stature of the diminutive Capuchin friar has become known to the entire Catholic world. "A Saint has died" was the cry of the entire city of Padua when Padre Leopoldo entered into the rest of the blessed on July 30, 1942. The words of the Salve Regina were on his lips when he died: "O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary."

Before a vast crowd, Msgr. Giacomo Gianesin pronounced the funeral oration which reduced many to tears:

"He has not left behind writings and publications to draw the attention of the learned, but on the souls of innumerable people thirsting after justice and peace he has written in indelible characters words and memories that will never fade; he did not move crowds with the flow and force of his eloquence, but with evangelical simplicity he gave thousands of penitents words of kindness, of forgiveness and of new life; he did not sail the seven seas nor force his way through desert or jungle in search of souls to win for Christ. Instead people of every age, of every class and condition, from near and far, came to him to find the Jesus whom they had lost; he founded no charitable institutions, but like the Good Samaritan poured the oil and wine of Christian charity in generous measure into the wounds both material and moral of so many suffering hearts. He bound their wounds; in hearts darkened by sin or doubt he caused the sun of truth to shine anew; to souls burdened by the weight of human suffering he brought that peace which the world cannot give, the peace of Jesus; he was not endowed with exterior charm, but he had another charm, one which does not fade with the years but in chosen souls grows ever stronger, the charm of kindness, of virtue, of sanctity, a charm which informed his every word and gesture and which conquered all who had the good fortune to meet him."

Since Padre Leopoldo's death in 1942 a vast popular movement has urged that the saintly Capuchin friar be rendered the honors of the altar. As the papal decree of May 25, 1962 authorizing the apostolic process for the beatification and canonization of Padre Leopoldo to begin – observed:

"It is extraordinary how swiftly and how widely the reputation for the sanctity of the \Servant of God Leopoldo of Castelnovo spread and is still spreading in almost every corner of the globe."

It is indisputable that St. Leopoldo's heroic life expanded as a humble minister of the Sacrament of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace on behalf of sinners and for the restoration of full communion between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the See of Peter — makes him a particularly fitting figure for canonization in the wake of the Second Vatican Council's call to the faithful to live a more intense interior life and pursue the reconciliation of the separated Eastern Churches with Rome.

Father Leopoldo Focuses Attention on Confession

A modern Apostle of the Confessional, Padre Leopoldo knew only too well the many ills both flesh and spirit are heir to; his generous administration of the holy Sacrament of penance throws into sharp relief (especially in these days of growing neglect of the sacrament) the inestimable benefits to be derived from its frequent use by the faithful.
Apostle of the Supernatural in our time, Padre Leopoldo utterly confounds the spirit of a suffocating secularism which mocks Christian virtue and piety and ruthlessly promotes that very kingdom of Satan which Christ came to destroy. St. Leopoldo had no illusions concerning the primary mission of the Church and its members:

"The Kingdom of Satan, which began with Adam's sin and will end with that of the last sinner, is nothing tangible, but exists within man so long as he has a mortal sin on his soul. The whole world of irreligious people gives allegiance to Satan and in this sense he is said to be the prince of this world. It is against this supreme enemy of the Gospel of Christ that we are called to fight."

An Apostle of Ecumenism

As an Apostle of ecumenism and precursor of the Second Vatican Council, St. Leopoldo may be said — by his life of heroic supplication and sacrifice — to have prepared the way for Vatican II's "Decree on Ecumenism". The hoped-for glorification of this humble and meek servant of God who treated every penitent as his "East" ("Every soul that needs my ministry will be as it were my East") would give marvelous impetus to the Church's efforts to restore full and perfect communion with those venerable Eastern churches which still possess the priesthood and Eucharist, and the other 5 sacraments as well as devotion to the Mother of God and the Saints. Significantly, it was Pope John XXIII who signed the apostolic commission to introduce the cause of the Servant of God on May 25, 1962. On March 1, 1974 Pope Paul VI signed the decree authenticating St. Leopoldo's practice of heroic virtue, thereby permitting his cause for beatification to proceed.

Already known and venerated by large numbers of people in Italy and in his native Yugoslavia, particularly Slovenia and Croatia, St. Leopoldo is invoked in Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece and other Middle East countries. In the United States where millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians now live, prayers to St. Leopoldo of Castelnovo, O.F.M. Cap. by the faithful for his intercession before the throne of Christ the King would prove a powerful stimulus towards fulfilling in our time the words of Our Lord: "That all may be one even as Thou, Father, in me, and I in Thee; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me" (Jn. 17,21).

St. Leopoldo of Castelnovo was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1983. His Feast day is celebrated on May 12.

Author's note: Biographies in many languages (Italian, English, French, Portuguese, German, Croat, Spanish, etc.) other literature, and prayer cards with relics of St. Leopoldo may be obtained by writing:

Direttore Convento Cappuccini
Santa Croce
35100 Padova (Padua) Italy

I am indebted for various quotations in the article to the 1st English edition of Fr. Pietro da Valdiporro's 1963 biography "Father Leopoldo" (obtained from the above address) translated by Stephen Deacon and foreword by the late Cardinal William Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster. Also helpful was "Servus Dei P. Leopoldus a Castronovo Capuccinus et Dissidentium Reditus ad Ecclesiam Catholicam" (Romae 1960) by P. Bernardinus a Senis, O.F.M.Cap.
A fine German biography by Peter Bernardi, "Pater Leopold: Anwalt den gottlichen earmherzigkeit," has been published by Thomas Verlag-Zurich, Ferdinand Schonigen, Paderborn.

This article appeared in "Immaculata" magazine, October 1975
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