In his beautiful 1984 Apostolic Exhortation on the Sacrament of Penance entitled “Reconciliation and Penance,” Pope John Paul II names four “extraordinary apostles of the confessional.”
I have had a lot of fun in seminars, lectures and retreats over the years challenging groups of Catholic priests, or women religious, or highly-catechized laypeople, to name these four “extraordinary apostles.”
Most are able to get the first, St. John Vianney (1786-1859), about whom I [previously] wrote and whom Pope Benedict named the patron saint of all priests during a Year of the Priesthood [2009-2010].
Few get the second, St. John Nepomuc (1345-1393), who was killed by order of King Wenceslaus after he refused to break the seal of confession and divulge what the queen had said to him.
Only one person has ever gotten the third, St. Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860), who, in addition to being St. John Bosco’s mentor and a great seminary professor, distinguished himself by the heroic extents to which he would place himself in danger in order to confess the hardest of criminals.
No one has ever guessed the fourth, whom I think is the most endearing of them all: Bogdan Mandic (1866-1942), known now, but unfortunately not too well, through his religious name, St. Leopold of Castelnuovo.
I must confess that I had never heard of St. Leopold either until I saw his name listed by Pope John Paul II during my first perusal of his apostolic exhortation during college. So I tracked down books that brought me into contact with this obscure but great saint, whom ever since my ordination I have invoked as a beloved intercessor.
St. Leopold was a Croatian born in what is now called Hercegovina. When he was young, his father, a fisherman, lost everything and the family was reduced to destitution. St. Leopold never forgot what it felt like to be in need of everything and always showed a great compassion for those in need.
When he was 16, he left his parents to enter a Capuchin friary in Italy. He dreamed of becoming a missionary in Eastern orthodox lands, to try to heal the Great Schism of the Church, but because of multiple health problems, he was deemed unfit. He was only 4’5” tall, couldn’t walk well, and suffered from terrible stomach ailments, bad eyesight and arthritis. The Capuchins were known as great preachers or parish missions, but Leopold couldn’t share in that work, either, because had a stuttering problem that made it impossible for listeners to hear the message because of the messenger.
His superiors could imagine only one ministry for him, the ministry of the confessional, and to that he was assigned. Looking at his confessional, he began to call it “My Orient” and said “I will be a missionary here.” And before long he became a modern St. Francis Xavier of the Confessional.
Looking back later, he realized how the Lord had prepared him for this crucial missionary work. When he was eight, he recalled, he had gone to Church to confess a venial sin against his sister. The priest gave him as a penance to kneel in the middle of the Church in the sight of all. It was the birth of his vocation.
“I stayed there deeply saddened, and wondering within myself: Why treat so severely a child for such a slight fault? When I get big,” he vowed to himself and to God, “I want to be a religious, a confessor, and treat the souls of sinners with much goodness and mercy.”
That’s precisely what he did. For most of the 52 years of his priestly life, the vast majority of them spent in Padua, he heard confessions 12-18 hours a day. His confessional was besieged by penitents won over by that “goodness and mercy.”
Many of the friars thought he was too easy on penitents. He routinely responded to the criticism with a smile but with seriousness, saying, “If the Lord wants to accuse me of showing too much leniency toward sinners, I’ll tell him that it was he who gave me this example, and I haven’t even died for the salvation of souls as he did.” He would tell penitents who were afraid of returning to the sacrament because of the penances other priests were known to give, “Be at peace; place everything on my shoulders. I will take care of it.” And he did take care of it. He would give the penitents light penances but, in reparation for the evil they had done, would do the rest of their penance himself, staying up most of the night in prayer as penitential satisfaction for their sins.
Some charged that he was simply killing himself in the confessional. A priest must died from apostolic hard work,” he would reply. “There is no other death worthy of a priest.” He would even eat in the confessional, saying to those who thought he was extreme, “How can I desert so many poor sinners on the excuse of seeking food for my body?” When he had to leave, there was a bell for penitents to ring, and no matter what time of day they rang it or what inconvenience it caused, he would come running saying, “Here I am, sir, here I am!,” lest they become discouraged and leave. “
One experience shows the great extent to which he’d go to make his penitents comfortable. One absolved sinner recalled, “I had not been to confession for several years. I finally decided to go and went to see Fr. Leopold. I was troubled and anxious. I had just come in, when he got up from his chair and greeted me joyfully like a long-expected friend: ‘Please, come in,’ he said. Troubled as I was, I went to sit in his armchair [rather than kneel down]. Without a word, he knelt down on the floor and heard my confession. When it was finished, only then did I realize my blunder. I wanted to excuse myself; but he said with a smile: ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing. Go in peace.’ This show of goodness remained engraved in my memory. By it, he had entirely won me over.”
When people would thank him for his love for them in the confessional, he would always deflect their attention to the Lord. He’d point to the crucifix with tears in his eyes and say, gently and warmly, “It’s he who forgives! It’s he who absolves!” Pope John Paul II said at his 1983 canonization that it was this “heroic fidelity to Christ,” the Good Shepherd who lays down his life to save every lost sheep, that constituted his holiness. He understood and lived by the principle that heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 who never needed to repent.
“If you wanted to define him with just one word,” John Paul II stated, “then he is ‘The Confessor.’ His only expertise was how to ‘confess.’ But this is where his greatness is found.” He disappeared so as to make room for Christ, the “true Pastor of souls.” He desired to be nothing other than a nearly-hidden “shadow” of Christ’s saving love from the Cross.
Shortly before his death of esophageal cancer in 1942, he predicted that during the World War then ongoing, “The Church and the friary will be hit by bombs, but not this little confessional-cell. Here God exercised so much mercy for people and it must remain as a monument to God’s goodness.” That’s precisely what happened in 1945, when the Church and friary were almost completed destroyed, but his confessional left unscathed. It, and he, remain as testimonies to the goodness of God in extending his mercy and the goodness of priests like Leopold in dispensing it so lavishly at such a cost.
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