“The Mandić family? They used to be a big deal. Money, titles, land: you name it, they had it”
You can just imagine young Dragica Zarević asking her grandmother’s advice can’t you? Petar Mandić has stolen the young girl’s heart and he’s asked her to be his wife but she just can’t make up her mind. So she goes to see her Grandma, a wise old lady who’s lived in the town for decades. Grandma Zarević tells a wide eyed Dragica about the noble House of Mandić who came from Bosnia to Croatia in the 15th century with wealth untold, power unrivalled and influence unimagined. “And now….now he’s a fisherman…..”, Grandma concludes wistfully. There can be no doubt that by the time Dragica married Petar, the Mandić family had certainly been brought down a peg or two. There were no more castles, no more vineyards, no more titles – just fishermen. And pretty impoverished fishermen at that. This was clearly a love match and Dragica married Petar despite his fairly poor prospects, settling in a modest little house in Castelnuovo which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but which today is part of Montenegro.
Today, tourists flock to Herceg Novi (once known as Castelnuovo) for it’s breathtaking sea views and it’s fascinating old town complete with imposing Venetian fortress and sunny plazas. But when the Mandić family lived there in the 1850s, there was little time for holiday making. Money was short and the local community relied heavily on fishing and farming to make a living, whilst their spiritual needs were tended by a small community of Capuchin friars who had served the town for 200 years (a leftover from when Herceg Novi formed a part of the Republic of Venice). In such modest circumstances, you would have thought that the Mandić family would have watched every penny and tried to avoid giving themselves too much added financial responsibility – but you’d be wrong. Because by 1866, Dragica was expecting her TWELFTH child….her twelfth child out of a total number of sixteen! This large family was a happy one, a hard working one but also a very devout one. Every child was seen as a blessing from God and things just seemed to always work out regardless of how few material possessions the Mandićs had.
But on the 12 May 1866, something changed when Dragica gave birth to her 12th child. Whilst all of her other children had (remarkably) survived infancy in good health, her new-born baby boy provided cause for concern. He was frail and malformed and as he grew older, these signs of disability didn’t seem to get better – they only got worse. He was shorter than everyone else, clumsy and had a terrible stutter that made it impossible for him to speak in public. He had friends but they were often Orthodox Christians and their families rarely mixed. There was ongoing religious tension between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and two monasteries vied for souls in the town where sometimes tensions bubbled over into all out street brawls. This deeply affected young Bogdan Mandić and he wanted to make a difference. We have no proof of it but I’m certain that when a ten year old Bogdan said he wanted to heal wounds in the town and bring everybody together, his friends must have laughed themselves silly. How could a little disabled boy from a poor family do anything for anyone? He needed their care and attention, they certainly didn’t need his.
At 16 years old, Bodgan said goodbye to his parents and travelled to Udine to enter a seminary where the Capuchins who served his hometown were educated and trained. Dragica must have been full of worry for her son who’s physical disability set him apart and made him seem an unlikely candidate for the religious life but two years later, Bogdan was admitted to the noviciate in Bassano del Grappa. He was given the name Leopold of Castelnuovo. He made his first profession of vows in 1885 and was then sent to Padua and later Venice to continue his studies. But Castelnuovo was never far from his mind, especially the rift between the East and the West which existed among the Catholics and Orthodox Christians there. He proclaimed his mission: “I consecrate myself for the salvation of the beloved dissidents”, he said, “I will become a missionary to them!”. He wanted to unite all souls for Christ, not an easy task for a young friar with so many crosses to bear. It’s hard to imagine that anyone took him seriously and maybe they put his enthusiasm for such a ministry down to youthful enthusiasm. How wrong they were.
Leopold was ordained to the priesthood at the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice at the age of 24. After a while, he was asked which particular ministry he felt called to. “I, Brother Leopold”, have understood the plan of divine grace“, he wrote, “I have been called to the salvation of my people, the Slavonic people” – and he asked that he be allowed to go back to Castelnuovo to begin his work. But his request was denied. He was given household duties instead, his superiors always concerned that his physical impairments would be too heavy a burden to overcome. He was sent to the Friary of Santa Croce in Padua where he would spend the rest of his life, never fulfilling his dream of returning home to try to heal the divisions in Castelnuovo. The Superiors of the friary must have felt deeply troubled by Leopold. I mean, what exactly could he do? He stuttered, he bumped into things, he was always falling over….he couldn’t even stand for long periods of time. At first, they decided to let him teach the young seminarians. He had a good grasp of doctrine and theology and despite his speech impediment, he seemed to be able to engage people with his message. Unfortunately, the Superiors saw it as the wrong message.
As devout as he was, Leopold believed that the law alone wasn’t enough. The application of mercy had to come first. Stealing was a mortal sin but surely the Lord wouldn’t require so heavy a penance for a man who had stolen bread to feed his starving family? Leopold saw individuals and their needs, he understood the poor, he felt that blanket penances given at confession were reductive and didn’t take account of the emotional needs of the penitent. Leopold’s teaching career came to an abrupt end and perhaps in an effort to keep him out of the way, he was appointed to be a confessor in the adjacent Church of the Holy Cross. It was 1914 and the division Leopold had so often warned about came to a dreadful and tragic conclusion when trouble in the Balkans kicked off a bitter and devastating war in Europe.
Whilst Leopold was never allowed to return home as he wished, he finally got the opportunity to work with the Slavonic people when in 1923 he was transferred to Dalmatia with the express instruction that he should go to hear confessions in the Slavic tongue. He was so filled with joy that he recited the Te Deum before a statue of the Blessed Virgin and immediately sought her patronage for his work. His placement lasted only one week but he refused to be beaten. Inspired by a new zeal for healing souls, he returned to the Holy Cross Church where he placed himself in the confessional receiving penitents for up to 15 hours a day. He was determined that as many souls should be healed as possible. He even thanked penitents for trusting him to hear their confessions, praying for them and trying to share the burden of their sin. When some accused him of being too lenient Leopold replied, “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”. For Leopold, there had to be an emphasis on mercy and word of his unique style spread throughout Italy making him a popular confessor and fostering his reputation as a great holy man.
But by 1942, Leopold’s health began to give way. Whilst preparing for Mass on the 30th July that year, he collapsed and was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was taken to his cell and laid in bed as the friars began to sing the Salve Regina. “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary…”, they sang….and at that precise moment, Leopold died. He was 76 years old. Immediately, Leopold was buried in the church at Padua but few had any idea of what would come next. As Leopold had predicted, the friary and the church was hit by bombs during an air raid but Leopold’s cell and his confessional were spared. They were the only remnants left amidst the rubble, as if they had been specially protected. Before his death, Leopold explained, “Here God exercised so much mercy for people, it must remain as a monument to God’s goodness”. And it still stands today, a place of pilgrimage and prayer.
Leopold was beatified in 1976 by Blessed Pope Paul VI. He was canonised by Pope St John Paul II on the 16th October 1983. He has been hailed as the ‘Apostle of Unity’ and is considered to be the patron saint of those seeking to make good confessions. But most importantly, he’s regarded as an example of great faith and mercy. So much so that in the 2015/2016 Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, St Leopold was designated a Saint-Confessor along with St Pio of Pietrelcina and the two saints were presented to the faithful at St Peter’s Basilica for veneration. 75 years after his death, St Leopold of Castelnuovo is still saving souls and healing wounds, just as he always set out to do. But his story is important for another reason. His example teaches us never to underestimate the will of God. St Leopold is an unlikely Saint but his works are truly inspiring and miraculous. Who would have thought that the clumsy little boy with the stutter from a poor fishing village could have achieved so much? St Leopold knew that was his calling, all he had to do was to trust the Lord. And that’s an example we should all follow each and every day of our lives. St Leopold of Castelnuovo, Pray for Us!
A Prayer to St Leopold Mandić