Today is the feast of St. John Leonardi, who you may note shares a surname and possibly a common ancestor with your host. Five years ago, to mark the 400th anniversary of St. John’s death, Pope Benedict XVI gave one of his marvelous catecheses at a general audience in Rome. Somehow I missed it at the time. Here’s a generous snippet:

John Leonardi was born in 1541 in Diecimo, in the province of Lucca. The last of seven siblings, his adolescence was sprinkled with rhythms of faith lived in a healthy and industrious family group, as well as the assiduous frequenting of a shop of herbs and medicines in his native town. At age 17 his father enrolled him in a regular course in pharmacy in Lucca, with the aim of making him a future pharmacist, that is, an apothecary, as they were called then. For close to a decade young John Leonardi was vigilant and diligent in following this, but when, according to the norms established by the former Republic of Lucca, he acquired the official recognition that would have allowed him to open his own shop, he began to think if perhaps the moment had not arrived to fulfill a plan that he had always had in his heart.

After mature reflection he decided to direct himself toward the priesthood. And thus, having left the apothecary’s pharmacy, and acquired an appropriate theological formation, he was ordained a priest and celebrated his first Mass on the feast of Epiphany of 1572. However, he did not abandon his passion for pharmaceutics because he felt that professional mediation as a pharmacist would allow him to realize fully his vocation of transmitting to men, through a holy life, “the medicine of God,” which is Jesus Christ crucified and risen, “measure of all things.”

Animated by the conviction that, more than any other thing, all human beings need such medicine, St. John Leonardi tried to make the personal encounter with Jesus Christ the fundamental reason of his existence. It is necessary to “start anew from Christ,” he liked to repeat very often.

The primacy of Christ over everything became for him the concrete criterion of judgment and action and the generating principle of his priestly activity, which he exercised while a vast and widespread movement of spiritual renewal was under way in the Church, thanks to the flowering of new religious institutes and the luminous witness of saints such as Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri, Ignatius of Loyola, Joseph Calasanzius, Camillus of Lellis and Aloysius Gonzaga.

He dedicated himself with enthusiasm to the apostolate among youth through the Company of Christian Doctrine, gathering around himself a group of young men with whom, on Sept. 1, 1574, he founded the Congregation of Reformed Priests of the Blessed Virgin, subsequently called the Order of Clerks Regular of the Mother of God. He recommended to his disciples to have “before the mind’s eye only the honor, service and glory of Christ Jesus Crucified,” and, like a good pharmacist, accustomed to giving out potions according to careful measurements, he would add: “Raise your hearts to God a bit more and measure things with him.”

Moved by apostolic zeal, in May 1605 he sent newly elected Pope Paul V a report in which he suggested the criteria for a genuine renewal of the Church. Observing how it is “necessary that those who aspire to the reform of men’s practices must seek especially, and firstly, the glory of God,” he added that they should stand out “for their integrity of life and excellence of customs thus, rather than constraining, they gently draw one to reform.” Moreover, he observed that “whoever wishes to carry out a serious moral and religious reform must make first of all, like a good doctor, a careful diagnosis of the evils that beset the Church so as to be able to prescribe for each of them the most appropriate remedy.” And he noted that “the renewal of the Church must be confirmed as much in leaders as in followers, high and low. It must begin from those who command and be extended to the subjects.”

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