Italian saint liked the basics
Saint adapted for times, but held to long-time truths
By Tony Staley
St. John Leonardi
When: c. 1542-1609
What: Reformer, religious order founder
Feast: Oct. 9
"Bigger is better." "Adapt or die." We all know those common bits of wisdom. St. John Leonardi didn't subscribe to them.
This 16th century saint, reformer and founder of both a religious order and university refused to let his order adapt too much.
John was born to a peasant family in Diecimo in the Republic of Lucca, in northwest Italy. Before becoming a priest, he studied pharmacy. He was ordained 10 years after the close of the Council of Trent and was a strong proponent of the council.
Because of his desire to carry out Trent's goal of bringing Catholics back to the basics of faith, John founded a confraternity to teach doctrine. He also compiled a book of Christian teachings that was used until the 19th century.
John also recruited laymen to work in hospitals and prisons. After some expressed an interest in the priesthood, John started a congregation of diocesan priests dedicated to reform of the clergy, education and charitable work.
His idea didn't play well in Lucca, which banned him for life. He was able to return only on rare occasions, when the pope forced Lucca's Senate to allow it.
His new order, the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God, was recognized in 1583 by Bishop Alessandro Guidiccioni of Lucca, with approval of Pope Gregory XIII.
Since they needed a place to live, St. Philip Neri, John's spiritual director, invited them to stay at San Girolama Della Carita Church in Rome, where Philip and a group of priests had lived after Philip's ordination. It's said that Philip, known for his sense of humor, had one condition for living at the church: John had to care for Philip's cat. Philip also encouraged John's priests to go into mission work.
John took the next step in serving the missions when he helped found what became the Pontifical Urbaniana University, now operated by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to train priests, religious and laity to work in the missions.
In 1595, Pope Clement VIII gave formal approval to the Clerks Regular as a congregation and, the next year, asked John to reform the monks of Monte Vergine. In 1601, the pope charged him with a similar reform of monks at Vallombrosa.
In 1580, John secretly acquired the ancient Santa Maria Cortelandini Church in Lucca. But he turned down other requests to take over churches. The order has followed that wish and has been in charge of only 15 churches in its history, never more than seven at a time. All the churches are in Italy, except one in Monte Carlo.
John died at age 68 after contracting the plague while working with its victims. He was buried in Rome at Santa Maria Church in Portico, which his order has staffed since 1662.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia, Dictionary of Saints, Lives of the Saints, Saints of the Roman Calendar and Voices of the Saints.