St. Leopold of Castelnovo

(1866-1942)

“Medieval” saint in a modern setting. Such was St. Leopold, a Capuchin Franciscan canonized only 41 years after his death. His chief apostolate had been hearing confessions. For 36 years he spent most of his waking hours in the confessional, because he believed that ministry was most needed.

Fr. Leopold lived and worked in Italy. He had been born in the small Italian seacoast town of Castelnovo. Actually, he was not Italian, but the twelfth and last child of a Croatian couple who had come to live in Italy only a short time before his birth. Indeed, during World War I, when he had already been a priest for over 20 years, he was imprisoned for a year for refusing to give up his Croatian citizenship.

He entered the Capuchin Franciscans in Bassano, Italy, in 1884, changing his baptismal name Bogdan (“God-given”) to “Leopold.” His ambition had been to work among the Greek Orthodox. But circumstances, and the decision of his superiors, directed him rather into missionary work in northeastern Italy. For the first fifteen years he was given various assignments: study, teaching, counseling, administration. He began his chief work at Padua in 1906. For 36 years he heard confessions daily for 10, 12 and more hours. On the very day before he died, he heard 50 confessions in his sick room.

Anticipating the practice introduced by Vatican II, Leopold heard confessions normally not in a simple confessional but in a little “reconciliation room.” The room was furnished with an old chair, a kneeler, a crucifix and a statue of Our Lady. There were always fresh flowers before the statue.

Obviously, Fr. Leopold was a popular confessor. He was most kind to his penitents. For him there were no hopeless cases. The penances he assigned were very light, for he would make up the rest of the burden by saying more prayers himself. Not that he was an easy confessor. When firmness was called for, he was very firm. If the penitent balked, he would say, “God has spoken. That is enough.” Once when a penitent was resisting the truth, Leopold rose and said indignantly, “Sir, you cannot play with God. Go and die in your sin.” Shaken by his remark, the man broke down and made a good confession. St. Leopold then embraced him and said, “Now we are brothers.”

Friar Leopold was a man of great simplicity and devotion. It is not surprising that his effectiveness as a confessor came much from his own personal holiness. A number of cures were attributed to him while he lived, although he sought to belittle his own part in them. Once when the uncle of a dying child asked his help, he blessed an apple and told him, “Take this apple and make the child eat it. She will be cured. Trust in Our Lady.” The uncle obeyed and the little girl recovered instantly. When Leopold learned of the cure, he said, “Ah, Blessed Lady, how good you are!” On another occasion he told the father of a child who was dying of endocarditis, that he would offer his Mass for her on the next day, which was the feast of St. Joseph, and she would recover. Recover she did, and the Friar commented, “Haven’t I said that St. Joseph does some wonderful things?”

Occasionally Leopold also prophesied in the same offhand manner. Once he predicted that the Capuchin church and friary in Padua would be bombed but his confession room would not be touched. Two years after his death, on May 14, 1944, during World War II, the prophecy was fulfilled. Church and friary were badly damaged by bombs, but the confessional room and the statue of Our Lady remained intact.

The point of the prophecy must have been this: confessions and confessional rooms are terribly important. Yet in our time Catholics all too often ignore them. St. Leopold often used to accompany his penitents to the door of the reconciliation room, saying, “Don’t’ forget to come back. I shall be waiting for you.” Is some priest waiting for us?

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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