St. Leonard of Port Maurice
by Emily Mary Shapcote, 1877
St. Leonard, who, on account of his innumerable missions, has received the title of the Apostle of Rome and of Italy, may most justly be called the Apostle of the Most Holy Sacrament and of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He was born at Port Maurice on the 20th December 1673, and was baptised by the name of Paul Jerome. His father, an honourablewell-to-do citizen, was also a God-fearing man, who, in order to shelter his chastity while owner of a little packet-ship, made a vow–which he punctiliously kept–of never permitting a woman to sail therein.
Under the eyes of this pious parent Paul grew up to be a God-fearing youth. At the age of twenty-one he entered the Franciscan Order, already far advanced in virtue and knowledge. Being ordained priest he fell ill, and could find no means of recovery. At this juncture he turned to the Blessed Mother of God, and with most fervent prayer he promised her to devote his life entirely to missionary work, and in this manner to the honour of God and the conversion of sinners, if she would obtain of her Son for him the gift of restored health. His prayer was granted. In a short time after he became so strong and healthy that he was able to undertake any work, however difficult.
In the year 1708, at the age of thirty-two, he began his mission work. For forty-four years he travelled through all villages, cities, islands, even the entire kingdom of Italy, in order to sow the good seed of the Word of God. He passed through the roughest country amidst snow and rain, and even to the latest years of his life, with naked feet. He wore always the worst of clothes, fasted continually, and permitted himself but little repose on a hard bed. He entertained the greatest mistrust of self, and submitted himself at all times to the commands of others. But all the more he trusted in the Lord, saying continually, ‘O my Jesus, mercy!’ Innumerable were the conversions which, by the grace of God, he effected. Abuses were rectified, manners improved, devotion and the fear of God increased. He used to say, ‘My only deadly foe is mortal sin.’ This one enemy of the soul he persecuted incredibly, both in himself and in others, by prayer, penance, mortification, and his wonderful ardent preaching. It was as a special means of resisting and overcoming this great enemy of man’s salvation that he regarded the devotion to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. This devotion he himself had practised from his tenderest years.
When he commenced his missionary career he made this Sacred Mystery to be the aim and centre ef all his endeavours, and strove to honour it on every occasion by inward and outward acts of faith and love, and to further this devotion by every means in his power in the hearts of others.
His first visit when he arrived at any place was to the Blessed Sacrament. Daily he offered Holy Mass with such intense devotion that all present who assisted thereat were edified. In order to prepare himself worthily for this–the most awful act of priestly functions –he confessed every day, sometimes even twice in the day. Everything, from the hour of Compline until that of Mass the following morning, he offered in intention, as a preparation for that Most Divine Sacrifice. In the sacred observance itself he most scrupulously fulfilled the very smallest of the prescribed ceremonies; he received Holy Communion daily by way of Viaticum. Every morning he heard as many Masses as his work permitted, and at the Elevation it was his custom to make an intention of being present at all the Masses offered that day throughout the whole world, in order to present them to the Divine Majesty.
Holy Mass he called the sun of Christendom, the soul of the faith, the central point of the Catholic religion, towards which all the customs, ceremonies, and the other holy Sacraments tend, and the circumference containing within itself all that is good and beautiful which may be found in the Church of God. He never approached the altar without offering to the Eternal Father three-and-thirty times the Precious Blood of Jesus, in honour of the three-and-thirty years of His life, in order to gain the grace of purity of heart, which should never be stained by the smallest spot.
In all his missions he impressed with fiery words of zeal upon his hearers the duty of attending the Blessed Sacrament with the greatest possible solemnity when being carried to the sick. In consequence of his exhortations, in many places where the Holy Viaticum had become totally disregarded it was a fact that after each of his missions it was accompanied in the most glorious manner. This was specially observable at Ancona. Here his exhortations had such effect that from that time the burgesses hurried in couples to follow the procession whenever the All-Holy was being carried to the sick. On some occasions five hundred wax lights might be counted in these processions.
This, and the devotion and fear which he taught the people to entertain towards the Blessed Sacrament, was followed by solid establishment in the faith and divine consolation to all who assisted in it. In one place this pious custom had fallen into such disuse, because the people were ashamed of carrying the baldachin, that the priest was in the habit of waiting a considerable time, until here and there a good man could be found to bear the canopy. The pious missioner spoke much and warmly on the subject; and, after considerable pains, the people were so convinced of the greatness of the honour of thus accompanying the God of heaven and earth, that on the first opportunity the whole village collected together in order to follow the Blessed Sacrament, and there was even a holy strife amongst them as to which should have the privilege of bearing the canopy. It has continued so ever since in that village. Also at Minerbio, in the province of Ferrara, the whole people turned out of doors, carrying wax lights, in order to accompany the Blessed Sacrament to a poor person whose hut lay ten minutes’ walk from the church. In the same way he carried his point at Ochiobello in Ferrara, where he induced bishops and other persons of rank to accompany the Blessed Sacrament.
He had it specially at heart to spread the devotion of the Perpetual Adoration, which was already founded in Rome, and in other places besides. How great was his zeal in propagating this devotion maybe gathered from the fact that before his death he had the satisfaction of seeing it introduced into one hundred and thirty parishes. He succeeded also, though indirectly, in introducing it into the far-distant kingdom of Mexico. In short, from his earliest childhood until his dying day our Saint was full of unbounded love for Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament.
Being greatly advanced in years, the Saint undertook, by command of the Pope, a mission into the Bolognese Mountains. He commenced this arduous work in the midst of such great bodily suffering that he not unfrequently fainted on the chancel floor, and was unable to finish preaching. Many times during this mission the servant of God said it would be his last. Being recalled to Rome by the Pope he set off on his journey, though he was in his last sickness. Being come to Foligno he desired to say Holy Mass. His companion, perceiving his great weakness, begged him not to attempt it; the holy man replied, with the deepest emotion, ‘Brother, one Holy Mass is worth more than all the treasures of the world!’
So he began the Holy Sacrifice, which he could not conclude without the greatest difficulty. Being arrived in Rome he was carried into the infirmary, where he confessed at once and received Viaticum. After this he spent some time in calm recollection alone with God. When the physician arrived he begged him, with childlike simplicity, not to order him to eat fleshmeat. The doctor, on finding the pulse nearly gone, ordered him a reviving draught. When the servant of God had taken it he thanked him for his love; but went on in a half-whisper to himself, saying, ‘O, that men would do as much for their souls as for their bodies!’ When night came he desired that no one should sit up with him but the infirmarian. During the night the latter heard him uttering glowing acts of love to God, and appearing to converse with the Blessed Virgin, as though she were present. The infirmarian approached his bed, and saw the face of the Saint glowing with celestial fire. They hastened to give him the last anointing; immediately after which, and without the slightest movement, he fell sweetly asleep in Jesus on November 27, 1751.