Father Leonard of Port Maurice he was called after his home town on the Italian Riviera. Born Paul Jerome Casanova, he made a brilliant course of theology at the Jesuit Collegio Romano in Rome. Then he joined a branch of the Franciscans noted for its austerity and its strict observance of the rule of poverty.
After a period of illness, Leonard began the work for which he was to become famous – preaching parish missions. He started in his native area, northwest Italy. Then he moved south to Florence and from there extended his work throughout Central and Southern Italy. Pope Clement XII and Benedict XIV called him to Rome, and Benedict made him promise that he would come to Rome to die.
St. Leonard was tremendously successful in these public missions, first because of his own reputation for holiness, and second because of his talents as a preacher and developer of mission techniques. He attracted such crowds that the churches were often too small to hold them, and he would have to adjourn to the city squares or the neighboring fields. His follow-up was important, too, in confirming his many converts in their spiritual renewal. Thus, he founded for them a number of pious societies and confraternities, and he popularized several pious practices, like devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and devotion to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The Immaculate Conception would not be defined as a dogma for another century, but Leonard became one of the earliest promoters of its definition. He recommended the course that Pope Pius IX was to take in 1854 – the proclamation of the dogma by the Pope himself, after consultation with the whole Catholic hierarchy.
The practice that Friar Leonard espoused most ardently, however, was the Stations of the Cross. It is said that he personally set up and blessed Stations in 571 places in Italy. Best known of these were the Stations he installed in 1750 in the Colosseum in Rome. To this day, each Lent the popes lead the Stations of the Cross in this great ruined amphitheater where died many of the early Christian martyrs.
St. Leonard did not restrict his labors to any one class of people, for religion had gone into a general decline. On the one hand, he was spiritual director to Clementina Sobieska, the wife of the exiled “James III”, the English “Old Pretender.” On the other hand, he worked among soldiers, sailors, galley slaves, and run-of-the-mill Catholics. Probably his hardest papal assignment was to preach on the island of Corsica, where vendetta (feuding) ruled and those who attended his sermons came with weapons in hand.
Obedient to his promise, Leonard, when aged 75 and ailing after 43 years of tireless preaching, returned to Rome. Arriving in the Eternal City on November 26, 1751, he sent word to the pope that he had come to Rome to die. He died that very evening. One of those who promoted his canonization was Cardinal Henry Stuart of York, grandson of exiled James II of England and the last Stuart pretender as “Henry IX of England.”
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been times when Christian faith and Christian practice seem to be failing. Then God in his providence has raised up one or more inspired and saintly preachers to shake the faithful out of their lethargy. St. Leonard of Port Maurice was God’s new John the Baptist for his own era and his own locale.
Today Christian faith and practice again seem to be vanishing. Do we not need another army of St. Leonards? Mighty missionaries, who awaken consciences not only by their words but even more by their example of Christian holiness? Jesus himself will use them as his mouthpiece.
We pray then the prayer of the Book of Revelations: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
–Father Robert F McNamara