Looking back over nearly seventy essays written for my weekly postings over the past sixteen months, many saints have been discussed, including Ambrose, Benedict, Augustine of Canterbury, Frances of Rome, Charles Borromeo, Joseph Moscatti, Januarius, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Padre Pio, Rose of Viterbo and Benedict Joseph Labre. All of them were Italian, except Benedict Joseph Labre, and just a small representation of the innumerable Italian men and women who have been beatified or canonized by the Catholic Church over the course of the Christian centuries.
I trust that at least a few of the above mentioned saints are somewhat or even well known to readers of my essays. Others reading may be discovering some or all of these saints for the first time. Hopefully my reflecting on the saints has given new perspectives on holy men and women I have come to know and love over the course of nearly seven decades of life! Tempus fugit.
This essay is about a lesser known Italian saint, John Leonardi, whose name in Italian is, Giovanni Leonardi. He founded a religious Order of men to which belong the priests who staff our local parish of Santa Maria in Portico in Compitelli. I confess I knew nothing of Leonardi’s Order of Mater Dei (Latin for, Mother of God) until I came to Rome last year. Leonardi’s life, like most saints, is interesting, worth retelling and hopefully a source of inspiration.
On April 17th this year, the Mater Dei priests, who are technically “clerks regular” or “clerics regular,” meaning they are clergy who follow a particular Rule of Life, celebrated the eightieth anniversary of the canonization of their founder, San Giovanni Leonardi. The canonization of Leonardi occurred in Rome in 1938. Perhaps feeling eighty years was as good an anniversary as any to celebrate, the priests of the Order of Mater Dei and their friends gathered on April 17th for an evening Mass for all who wished to attend. Several of us from our Curia Sant’Ambrogio attended the solemn Mass at the beautiful parish church of Santa Maria in Compitelli.
John Leonardi was born in Diecimo, in the Tuscany region of Italy, in 1541. He eventually became a pharmacist’s assistant and then studied for the priesthood, being ordained a priest in 1572, at the age of thirty-one. Leonardi gathered around him a group of men to work in hospitals and prisons, and these men became the nucleus of the Order he founded in 1583, the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, which he founded in 1583, when he was forty-two. They are dedicated to education and pastoral care and started in the diocese of Lucca, Italy.
John Leonardi was assisted in his efforts by two other Italian saints who were his friends, Philip Neri and Joseph Calasanctius. Some years later, Pope Clement VIII appointed John, recognized by then as a holy and competent leader, to help reform the Benedictine monasteries of Vallambrosa, Montevergine and Montesenario in Italy. All three abbeys were slipping into decline and John was instrumental in bringing them back to better monastic observance, even though John himself was not a monk. Sometimes such arrangements work well, though never a guarantee.
John Leonardi died in Rome on October 9, 1609, at the age of sixty-eight, at his community’s house in the historic center of Rome. His death was caused by the plague, which he contracted while ministering to other plague victims. He was quickly venerated after his death for his holy life and as a miracle worker. Even so, his canonization took place three-hundred twenty-nine years later, in 1938. His feast day is kept on October 9th, the day of his death. Saint John Leonardi is the patron saint of pharmacists, as he had been one before priesthood. His burial place is at an altar inside our parish church of Santa Maria in Compitelli, Rome, where his Order carries on his work.
John Leonardi was also one of the founders of the Roman College for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide), whose special work is the arrangement of missionary endeavors on behalf of various religious Orders of the Catholic Church. Today Propaganda Fide is more often called the Congregation or Office for the Evangelization of Peoples.
The parish of Santa Maria in Campitelli in Rome, which the Order of Mater Dei runs and where they have their Generlate, has been their church since 1662.
The recent Mass for the eightieth anniversary of the canonization of Saint John Lernardi at Santa Maria in Compitelli Church was presided over by Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella. He is the President of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. Our pastor, Father Davide Carbonaro, OMG, is always successful in getting important figures for the celebrations in the parish. Before Mass Archbishop Salvatore individually greeted me and all of us who were concelebrating at the Mass. His homily centered on the question: what does Saint John Leonardi have to say to people today? The reply was multi-layered and included the notion that holiness begs questions such as, who am I? who do I want to be? who should I be? These questions touch the depths of our being, calling us to be followers of Jesus and his Gospel, doing so joyfully and willingly, the Archbishop said.
John Leonardi teaches, Archbishop Fisichella went on to say, that we must place Christ in the center of our existence, recounting a phrase from Leonardi: “Prefer Christ above all things.” Of course this is a Benedictine motto too, from the Rule of Saint Benedict, “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” I presume Leonardi got this phrase from his familiarity with the Benedictines he helped at Vallambrosa, Montevergine and Montesenario! Putting Christ in the center of one’s life is the key to true success, which is simply nearness to God. Giovanni Leonardi is also remembered as a promoter of peace, another Benedictine trait.
The evening Mass on April 17th this year, which began at 6:30 pm and lasted almost an hour and forty-five minutes, was attended by a few hundred faithful and some thirty concelebrating Mater Dei, Benedictine, and other religious and diocesan priests. At the end of Mass all processed to the burial place of San Giovanni Leonardi within the church of Santa Maria in Compitelli and listened to the parish choir singing from the loft in honor of San Giovanni Leonardi and then the Archbishop offered prayers to the saint we were venerating that night.
Today the Order of Mater Dei has houses in several places in Italy, as well as Tamil Nadu in India, Nigeria in Africa, Chile in South America and Indonesia. It is from the latter four parts of the world that their vocations are coming today.
Saint John Leonardi, while proclaimed a saint, was also an ordinary human being, like all the saints and like all of us. This point is certainly part of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation “Rejoice and Be Glad.” The document is a call to everyone to become holy by prayer and serving others. We can view others as an annoyance or we can “respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own,” Pope Francis writes. He also points out Saint Benedict as an example of one who legislated that his monks should receive all as Christ.
This approach was certainly that of Saint John Leonardi. May he intercede for us in our striving to do good and growing closer to God.