St Leopold Mandić: The Great Little Man and Apostle of Confession

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It was on this day, Mary 12th 1866, at Herzegovina, close to the Kotor Gulf, in Herceg Novi, or Castelnuovo in Dalmatia on the Adriatic sea when Bogdan (Adeodato) was born. The youngest child from twelve children, he was the Benjamin of the family. Bogdan was baptised on June 13, feast of St Anthony of Padova.

Bogdan’s father, Peter Mandić, was the son of a ‘paron de nave’, in other words, a commercial fisherman. Peter united himself in marriage with Carlotta Zarevic. Both of them were staunch Catholics. Later on in his life Leopold had words of great appreciation and love towards his mother. He used to say: She had an extraordinary piety. I am particularly indebted to her for what I am. Bogdan was a thoughtful, composed and intelligent boy. All his life was centred on his home, the church and the school he attended. At 16 years of age, precisely on 16 November 1882, he joined our Capuchin Seminary in Udine.

Bogdan’s Capuchin vocation revolved around a great apostolic mission: he wanted to be a missionary working among “his people”. The Franciscan celebrations which were organized by Pope Leo XIII made him more eager to be involved into an active apostolic life. During his two year stay at Udine he was an example to everyone, particularly by his silence and self-control. He completed his novitiate at Bassano del Grappa (Vicenza), on 2 May 1884, where he received the Capuchin habit, as well as the name Leopoldo. After doing his temporary profession he spent three years studying philosophy in Padua from 1885 till 1888. It was on June 18, 1887, when he felt God’s voice speaking to him concerning the return of Orthodox Christians to the Catholic fold. This was, certainly, a basic feature of his entire life, the refrain of his desire, as well as the insight for his mission.

From Padua, Bro Leopold was sent to the Redentore friary on the Venetian island of Giudecca. At this friary, he finished two years of theology and then headed towards his ordination as priest on September 29, 1890 in the La Salute Church. At this moment in his life what he had hoped for, to be a missionary in his native lands, seemed to come true. He promptly requested his superiors to send him as a missionary to Eastern Europe. However, his superiors had other plans for him. His stutter gravely impeded him to fulfil his dream. Fr Leopold kept insisting but his superiors kept saying no. Instead, God, through his superiors, prepared for Fr Leopold the ministry of the confessional. In the spirit of obedience and prayer for the unity of Christians, Fr Leopold carried out this delicate yet very important ministry wonderfully. The little friar celebrated his daily Mass as an offering for his ecumenical commitment. Coupled with the confessional, both sacraments gave Fr Leopold a penetrating light of wisdom.

In his seven year stay at Venice, Fr Leopold grew steadily in his ecumenical vocation. Although he looked so insignificant, spiritually he was a great guide of souls adorned with particular spiritual gifts. His three year stay in the Zara hospice gave Fr Leopold the impression that he was going to fulfil his dream. Nevertheless when he was called back to Bassano Del Grappa in Italy he started realizing that Divine Providence had other plans for him. In fact, at Bassano, Fr Leopold not only spent some five years administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation but also delved deeper into the study of St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine.

Another mission to East was that of 1905, when Fr Leopold spent another year as vicar at the Koper friary (or Capodistria). Following that year the superiors sent him to Thiene (Vicenza), precisely in the Sanctuary of Madonna dell’Olmo. At this Sanctuary he took care of the spiritual care of tertiary Franciscans, spending hours praying at night. After he was deceived by three young workers, this bitter experience lead to him being relieved from confessional ministry. He was also to offer to God the sacrifice not simply his missionary ecumenical desire but also the ministry of hearing confessions. His total surrender to God brought a lot of serenity in his heart and soul.

With his transfer back to Padua, in 1909, this time his superiors gave him the mission of being director of students as well as to teach Patristics. Fr Leopold entered this new mission with much vigour. His desire was to commit himself to preaching sustained by his continuous reading and teaching. Fr Leopold was taken aback as he was made aware that several priests and religious used preaching to show how intelligent they were. On the contrary and besides his stutter, in his preaching Fr Leopold tried to put in others a genuine love, supported by the transforming message of the Gospel. At this juncture of his life where he gave himself to study as well as teaching in Padua manifested the striking apex of both his missionary and ecumenical calling. Here, Fr Leopold was transformed by grace into a heroic self-offering in terms of being a holocaust and victim. Two years later, in January 1911, Fr Leopold wrote to his spiritual director, who assured him of his right spiritual way, namely that his approach based on prayer and victimhood before the Father of all will be a great benefit to many of those people, particularly in the East who broke away from the Catholic Church. His altruistic love continued to give abundant good fruit when, on November 9, 1912, Fr Leopold offered himself as a victim for the benefit of his Capuchin students.

These bold behaviours show a turning point in Fr Leopold’s life. They introduced him to a novel spiritual plane. He had now opted the perpetual state of victimhood, an innate obedience much on the lines of Ignatian kind of obedience as well as the mysticism of self-denial embarked on by the wealth of his robust Dalmatian humanity. At the age of 47 years old Fr Leopold came to terms with the fact that although it was not easy for him to change his missionary apostolate with sufferings embraced like Christ and St Francis he did it for his students, penitents and friends too.

In 1914, when he finished directing the students, Fr Leopold’s future life had taken a different direction. In fact, we find him hearing confessions for hours and hours. It was his crucifixion at the confessional. Having said that, Fr Leopold’s heart stayed focused on Eastern Europe. Since he was still hoping that he would return to his lands he kept rejecting Italian citizenship. The Italian government of the time exiled him to southern Italy from 1917 till 1918. During the war days, due to his Hapsburg empire citizenship which was warring against Italy, Fr Leopold was displaced from one friary to the next. At last, when in 1923 Istria and Kvaner became part of Italy Fr Leopold was made a confessor in Zara. What a great joy was this for him! As he packed up for this new destination Divine Providence wanted him back to Padua on November 16. The reason was that the penitents were so sad when he left them that they wanted him back to their city. At the request of Bishop Elia Dalla Costa the Capuchin Minister Provincial at the time, Fr Odorico da Pordenone, was constrained to bring Fr Leopold back. In 1924 we find again Fr Leopold teaching this group of young friars in Venice in Croatian language. He wanted to prepare them for the East. In his teaching he brought to them examples that they would find helpful in their apostolate. On November 13, 1927, Fr Leopold edited a brochure portraying his ardent wish of dissidents to Catholic unity.

Many people, whether they were young or old, ordinary people, religious, priests, clerics as well as lay people literally flocked to him for confession. Shut within the tiny room of two by three meters he would hear confessions for hours until his last breath. By this time Fr Leopold understood that his East was every soul’s penitent who came to seek his spiritual support. In fact, on January 13 1941, Fr Leopold would write: Any soul that needs my ministry will be an East for me. For his penitents he would always have a consoling word: Stay calm, put everything on my shoulders. I will look after it. For this purpose he did a lot of sacrifices, prayers, spent entire night vigils, fasts and other disciplines. Joy and gratitude were the attitudes with which he met his penitents. There is the story of when once a penitent entered his cell and sat on his armchair. Fr Leopold just knelt and heard the confession kneeling.

When accusations were flared at him because he somewhat appeared to be too lenient in confession, Fr Leopold used to point to the Crucified and said: If the Crucified would correct me about leniency, I would answer: ‘paron Benedeto’, you have given me this bad example yourself. As yet I have not arrived at the folly of dying for souls. Was this not an excellent reply showing God’s mercy for us sinners at full blast?

Towards the end of autumn 1940 Fr Leopold’s health declined from bad to worse. Following his admission to hospital at the beginning of April 1942 it was discovered that he was suffering from a tumour in the oesophagus. Notwithstanding this bad news, Fr Leopold kept hearing confessions until he died on 30 July prior to a day where he heard confession uninterruptedly as well as spending the entire night in prayer. As he fainted whilst preparing to celebrate Mass, the Anointing of the Sick was administered to him. On his death bed his last words were the ending words of Salve Regina – O Clemens, O Pia, O Dulcis Virgo Maria! St Pope Paul VI beatified him on 2 May 1976, and St Pope John Paul II canonized him on October 16, 1983.

Fascinating was the address given by St Pope Paul VI on Brother Leopold Mandić’s beatification.

Who is he, who draws us together today, that in his blessed name, we may celebrate the radiance of the Gospel of Christ? It is an event which cannot be described, and yet one so clear and evident, an event of enchanting luminosity, which lets us see, in the face of a humble friar, a form that is at once ennobling and amazing: look, look, that is Saint Francis; do you not see him? See how poor he is, how simple, how courteous indeed it is he, he Francis, in ecstasy through some interior vision of the invisible presence of God, and yet so present to us and for us , so accessible and ready to serve us, that he seems to know us, to await us, to know our business and to read our hearts. Look carefully, he is a poor, humble Capuchin, always in pain and of halting step, yet so incredibly strong that each of us feels himself attracted and fascinated by him. Look well through the calm Franciscan window. Do you see him? Do you tremble? What do you see? Let us say that he is a feeble, human but authentic image of Jesus; that that Jesus who at one and the same time converses with the ineffable God, with the Father, and with us, his lowly audience, limited by the measure of our small and sorrowing humanity. And what does Jesus say to this, his poor little prophet? Oh wonderful mysteries, the mysteries of the infinite transcendence of God; he enchants us, and at once takes up a phrase which moves and draws us, which echoes the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.

O God, true love and supreme unity, you adorned Saint Leopold your priest with the virtue of great compassion for sinners, and filled him with zeal for Christian unity. Through his prayers grant that we, renewed in mind and heart, may be able to show your love to all, and confidently seek the unity of all believers. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.