It is the Lord who works
“... in the confessional we shouldn't show off our culture, nor need we go on at length in explanation, otherwise we hamper the operation of the Lord.” So said Father Leopoldo Mandic, the confessor of God’s mercy
by Stefania Falasca
One of the last photos of Leopoldo Mandic
Leopoldo Mandic was proclaimed Saint on 16 October 1983, raised by public clamour to the honour of the altars. Only forty-one years had passed between his death and canonization, one of the speediest canonizations this century.
Of noble Bosnian stock
Born in 1866 in Dalmatia, in Castelnuovo di Cattaro, Adeodato Mandic was of noble Bosnian stock. He took the name Brother Leopoldo when he entered the Capuchin seminary in Bassano del Grappa. He was ordained priest at the age of twenty-four and from then on, first in Venice, then in Bassano, Thiene and from 1909 in settled fashion in Padua, he concerned himself with the sacrament of penance. As his superiors saw it, there was nothing else for him: small in stature, of very weak constitution, hesitant and a bit clumsy in his walk... in physical terms he was nothing, and furthermore he stumbled in his speech, eating his words, a defect that came out worse when he prayed or had to repeat responses, and he could not say even an “oremus” in public. It was no slight thing in an order of preachers like the Capuchins. “Many a time,” recalled one of his brethren at the trial, “he himself was amazed that university professors, important men, highly qualified people came to him, ‘the poor friar’. And with great humility he attributed it all to the grace of the Lord who through him, ‘a wretched minister full of defects’, deigned to do good for souls.” All those who knew him remembered this sincere humility, full of acknowledgement and gratitude. In Padua, one late evening around Easter, a young priest bumped into Father Leopoldo who could hardly stand up with tiredness from all the hours spent in the confessional. In a tone of filial compassion he said to him, “Father, how tired you must be...”, “and how happy,” came the soft reply. “Let us thank the Lord and ask his forgiveness, for he has allowed our wretchedness to come into contact with the treasures of his grace.”
Every day there was a group of people from every social class waiting for him in front of the small door of his confessional. Illiterates and rough farm workers, professionals, priests and religious, business tycoons and professors, all waited in silence for their turn and Father Leopoldo received them all with the same concern, the same delicate discretion, especially if they were coming back to confession after long absence. “Here I am, do come in, make yourself comfortable... I was waiting for you, you know...”, a native of Padua heard himself told after many years of neglecting the sacraments. And so embarrassed and confused was he that once inside he went to sit on the priest’s chair instead of kneeling down. Father Leopoldo said nothing, knelt down instead of the penitent and heard his confession like that. His delicacy was concerned to cause no pointless humiliation, comprehending of human frailty. “Don’t be upset, you see, though I’m a friar and a priest, I, too, am very wicked’, he told someone else. “If the Lord God didn’t keep a tight hand on my bit, I would behave worse than others... Have no fear”. And to the man who had grievous sins to confess and to whom it cost a lot to come out with it, to speak of his wickedness: “We’re all poor sinners, God have mercy on us...” He said it in such a way that the man felt immediately encouraged to confess sincerely. He would often say to penitents: “The mercy of God is beyond all expectation”. or “God prefers the defect that leads to humility rather than proud righteousness”.
The Capuchin church and monastery in Padua before their destruction in the bombing raid of 14 May 1944
Believing firmly in the efficacy of the grace the Lord himself communicated through the sacraments, Father Leopoldo could never be shifted on one point: the brevity of confession. Sometimes, it’s true, that when there weren’t a great many people waiting, he might spend half an hour with a person, because he was interested in their studies or their job or to go into things with the clerics or souls who had asked for him as spiritual guide. But the confession as such was always brief. And the penitents reported this brevity of his and the simplicity of his words. A monsignor of Padua wrote: “Confession with Father Leopoldo was usually very brief. He listened, gave absolution, not many words, often even in dialect when dealing with uneducated people, a set phrase perhaps, a glance at the crucifix, sometimes a sigh. He was aware that in the ordinary way long confessions come at the expense of remorse and more often than not feed self-love, so he kept to what the catechism of Christian doctrine has to say about hearing confession”. In a letter to a priest Father Leopoldo wrote: “Forgive, Father, forgive me if I allow myself... but you see, we, in the confessional, we shouldn’t show off our culture, we shouldn’t discuss things beyond the reach of individual souls, nor should we go on at length in explanation, otherwise in our impudence we hamper what the Lord is doing there. It is God, God alone who works in souls! We must disappear, restrict ourselves to aiding this divine intervention in the mysterious ways of their salvation and sanctification”.
He always exhorted his penitents to have faith, to pray, to frequent the sacraments. But the little friar was, needless to say, kindly with his penances and to those who objected that he made them too easy he would say: “Oh it’s true... and afterwards I’ll have to give satisfaction. But purgatory is always better than hell. If the people who come to us for confession have to go to purgatory because of the small penance given, isn’t there a danger that by making them heavy they’ll have no taste for it and end up in hell?” And so he usually gave three Hail Marys and three Glory bes. He gave little to lay people who were uninvolved in the life of the Church and he gave little to those who have to say many prayers every day because of their vocations. One day a priest asked him whether it wasn’t right to encourage a respectable girl who wanted to wear an instrument of penitence. The good priest immediately replied that it was in no way a desire to encourage. “But, forgive me Father, you don’t know her. She’s no run-of-the-mill soul, she’s made of gold, devout...” And Father Leopoldo was more adamant still in his denial. And the other man insisted. So the prudent confessor asked the following question: “Permit me, permit me. But do you wear the hair shirt?” “No!” “Well then? My dear Father, let us get penitents used to obeying God’s commandments and their duty. That’s enough as it is, enough as it is! And away with bats in the belfry!”
Father Leopoldo was generous, he was also so in absolution. He practically never denied it to anyone. And on the extremely rare occasions he did so he regretted it immediately. A few days before he died a priest asked him, “Father, was there ever anything that caused you serious distress?” He replied, “Oh yes!... unfortunately yes. When I was young, in the first years of my priesthood, I denied absolution three or four times”.
The outside of the cell-confessional of Father Leopoldo, untouched by the bombs that destroyed the Capuchin church in Padua in 1944
Everyone knew him for his goodness: Father Leopoldo, the blessed! That’s one who certainly is good! He’s a Saint, people said in their homely way. With the result that when his superiors transferred him to Fiume in 1923 the citizens of Padua mourned. But they reacted so vigorously and insisted to such an extent that the superiors had to go back on their decision and shortly sent him back to Padua. The young clerics were also very fond of him. In 1910, the year after his first arrival in Padua, he was appointed director to the clerics in the Capuchin upper seminary, a post from which he was soon relieved. One of his brethren related: “He had great affection for the seminarists and behaved very paternally towards them, always encouraging them in hope. Our rule was very ascetic. At one in the morning we got up to say Matins and in winter, in the bitter cold, it cost a lot... And he would think about those poor young men... I remember that Father Leopoldo went more than once to Father Superior to ask him to bring Matins forward to the evening: ‘Father Superior, look its going to be cold tonight...’ ‘But Father, the temperature hasn’t gone below zero.’ ‘Oh, but it will tonight...’ ‘Let’s let them sleep,’ he would say to Father Superior, ‘let them rest... I’ll do it for them.’ And he kept an eye on their health, saw that they ate well, that they weren’t reprimanded by the superiors for some fault during meals, as was the custom”. The then Superior General of the Capuchins wrote: “Aware of the great affection I had for him he trusted me deeply and often would say to me: ‘Father Provincial, if you’ll allow me, see if you can’t avoid burdening the conscience of the young friars with rules that are not really necessary, for, you see, one has to obey the rules of superiors. When they’re not really necessary they’re a snare for the weak... Forgive me, forgive me...’”.
Of just how much pity and love the heart of the little friar was capable, even towards those who did not deserve it, is shown by this painful story of a cleric brusquely expelled for grave and wilful infractions. The testimony comes from a priest: “Arriving at the monastery I met Father Leopoldo who had just come out of the hospital. He called me into his confessional and begged me in God’s name to take in the ‘poor man’ and to plead with the Father Superior of the House to treat him well, so that his faith would be saved at least. Weeping, he repeated more than once, ‘May his faith be saved, may his faith be saved!’ Then, sometimes stumbling over a word in his emotion, he went on; ‘Tell him, tell the poor man that I’ll pray for him. Tell him that I’ll pray for him tomorrow in holy mass, indeed... indeed, tell him that I’ll say all my mass just for him and will always bless him. Tell him that Father Leopoldo always wishes him well!...’ I, too, was moved at seeing a heart so full of evangelical charity. Only mothers express themselves in such heartfelt fashion when a son gone to the bad leaves home”. But some people began to see this boundless goodness as over-indulgence and take it amiss.
Father Leopoldo in his cell-confessional
Criticism arose of his broadmindedness towards penitents, even the worst of those who fell back into their sinful behaviour, through the generosity with which he forgave. They chided him with being too quick to content himself with summary reprimand, even going so far as to accuse him of being lax on morals. Clerics were openly advised not to go to him for confession. The criticism reached the ears of the little friar and one day a priest said to him: “You are too good, Father... you’ll have to give account to the Lord!... Aren’t you afraid that God will ask you why you forgive so easily?” And Father Leopoldo pointed to the crucifix: “He set us the example! It wasn’t us who died for souls but he shed his divine blood. So we must treat souls as he has taught us through his example. Why should we further humiliate the souls that come to prostrate themselves at our feet? Aren’t they humiliated enough already? Did Jesus humiliate the publican, the adulteress, the Magdalen?” And spreading his arms wide, he added: “And if the Lord should chide me for such lack of strictness I could say to him: ‘Blessed Father, it was you who set me this bad example, out of your divine charity, by dying on the cross for souls’”.
“They tell me I’m too good,” he wrote to a priest friend, “but if someone comes to kneel in front of me, isn’t it sufficient proof that he wants God’s forgiveness?”
The criticism was soon swept aside. The then canon theologian of Padua, Monsignor Guido Bellicini, sent a letter to Father Leopoldo’s monastery: “Yours is large generosity of heart, dearest Father, not laxity in moral principles but understanding of human frailty and trust in the inexhaustible riches of grace; not acquiescence or indifference to sin but longanimity granted to the sinner so that he may not despair of the possibility of return and become more resolute to do good. Let us thank God who does things rightly: he has seen to it that the confessor and judge is a mere man and not an angel from heaven. Woe to us if the confessor were an angel: how strict and fearsome he would be! Whereas the man understands mankind, and the sacraments are for mankind!”
In May 1935 Father Leopoldo celebrated his fifty years in the religious life. It is needless to describe the show of affection he received that day. It would never have occurred to him that he might receive such treatment, for he was discretion personified. Honor sequitur fugientes! In fact his widespread reputation for sanctity never aroused loud publicity or excessive enthusiasm while he was alive nor even after his death. And the extraordinary benefits and the great work the Lord deigned to achieve through him took place in silence and hardly anyone noticed. So true was this that many of his brethren testified at the process that they had realised only after his death: “I myself would never have believed it because during his life he never seemed anything special. Father Leopoldo seemed an exemplary friar but nothing more”.
How many, out of that “nothing more”, obtained grace and miracles while he was alive, how many “VIPs” came to tearful repentance, how many unknowns went through the small door into his confessional... How many were to remember all their lives that welcome, that gaze... And he entrusted everything to Mary, she to whom everything had been forgiven beforehand. How many hours of the night did he spend praying for those souls? How many times did the Father Guardian find him before dawn kneeling in the dark of the chapel in front of the statue of Our Lady? For her he had a childlike tenderness, kissing her and pleading with her like a child, with tears in his eyes.
During his last years, when he was sick with cancer of the oesophagus, his prayers to his dear Heavenly Mother were even more full of moving tenderness: “I have an extreme need,” he wrote to a friend, “for her, my sweet Heavenly Mother, to deign to take pity on me. May her motherly heart deign to look down on poor me; may she deign to take pity on me”. And he asked his close friends to pray for him so that the pain of his illness would not prevent him from hearing confession: “And beg her,” he asked, “beg her motherly heart that I may humbly serve Christ the Lord according to the nature of my ministry up to the end... Everything, everything for the salvation of souls... Everything for the glory of God!”
At dawn on 30 July he wanted to say mass but was so weak he had to be put to bed. Feeling himself fade he asked his brethren to sing the Salve Regina. At the last lines he raised eyes full of tears... Dulcis Virgo Maria, oh sweet Virgin Mary. It was his last breath. The evening before he had confessed fifty people, the last of them at midnight.