The sacred edifice was packed to hear that great preacher. Clothed in the brown tunic of the sons of St. Francis, few knew that hidden underneath it was a cilice that he wore day and night. His facial features denoted austerity, but his eyes and the tone he gave to his words showed the kindness of someone who knew the infinite love of the Redeemer, always ready to forgive the repentant sinner.
A certain bishop, whose diocese had benefited from one of the hundreds of missions that Friar Leonard carried out throughout his life, wrote about him: “Divine grace triumphs in him, because I don’t think it is possible that, without a very special assistance from God, one man could do so much.”1 Indeed, the Lord with His gifts, accompanied this faithful servant, always ready to work for the good of souls and the Church. Who was he?
Parents who initiated him on the path to holiness
Paolo Girolamo was born on December 20, 1676, in Port Maurice, today Imperia, in Liguria, Italy. His parents took care to bring him up in the fear of God. Above all, his father, Domenico Casanuova, was a man of considerable virtue. In his youth, anxious to keep his chastity intact, he had made a vow: as a ship captain, he would not allow any ill-intentioned women to be among his crew.
Paolo’s childhood on the shores of the crystal-clear waters of the Ligurian Sea was a peaceful and healthy one. He never cultivated bad friendships that could divert him from the path of good, and his amusement, apart from common childhood games, often consisted of improvising an altar and pretending to celebrate Mass, complete with a sermon. In this way, Providence was surely preparing him for the future.
During this period, however, the devil tried in various ways to lead him astray. One day Paolo was walking home with his friends, and on the way they passed a beautiful beach where the sea was pleasant. A man approached the group and struck up a conversation with them, but before long changed the tenor of the conversation to impure topics. Immediately the young man, realizing his evil intentions, ordered all his companions to flee. They began to run, with Paolo leading the way. The stranger pulled his sword from its sheath and began to chase them! However, his age prevented him from overtaking them.
They all reached the harbour of Port Maurice and parted ways, but Paolo decided to thank Our Lady for her protection by going barefoot to the Madonna dei Piani church, which was just over three kilometres away.
A visit to Rome and confirmation of his religious vocation
One of Paolo’s uncles, Agostino Casanuova, invited him to study in Rome, a request he was happy to accept. In the Eternal City, he gave his classmates a great example of virtue, going to every length to avoid sinful occasions, such as unseemly conversations, vain jokes and objectionable friendships. He also managed to find good companions, and a confessor who would later confirm his religious vocation.
During this period, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, he made enormous strides in devotion. When he talked about spiritual matters with his uncle and his servants, they often remarked among themselves that the young man would be a great preacher in the future. At mealtimes he would discuss God with such enthusiasm that he would forget to eat. On one occasion they had no choice but to tell him to hold his tongue so that he could eat. He began to practise countless mortifications, as well, such as sleeping on the bare floor, scourging himself and wearing a cilice.
Finally, a Franciscan
The young man had already discussed his desire to follow the religious life with his confessor, Fr. Grifonelli. The latter, however, out of prudence, had not yet confirmed his calling, as he was waiting for a clear sign.
One day, while Paolo was walking through Piazza di Gesú thinking about which religious order to join, he saw two men dressed in a simple dark habit. Intrigued to know where they were from, he followed them until they entered a church: they were Franciscans. At that moment, the friars began to chant the hymn Converte nos, Deus, salutaris noster.2 He immediately felt overwhelmed by a grace. He seemed to hear the Redeemer himself speaking to him, inviting him to this august vocation.
He then went to tell his confessor what had happened. The latter was finally convinced that the fervour radiating from the young man’s soul could only come from God.
Finally, on October 2, 1697, he donned the Franciscan habit. He spent a year in the novitiate, after which he professed his vows in 1698. In 1703, he was ordained a priest.
From his earliest days, Friar Leonard showed himself to be an exemplary religious. The zeal with which he carried out his duties, his piety in the choir and his perfect obedience impressed everyone and revealed great spiritual maturity. “If now when we are young we do not take care of the little things and fail in them while being admonished, when we are older and have more freedom, we will consider it a small matter to fail in the great ones,”3 he once said.
With regard to his brothers in the community, he endeavoured to raise them to the highest level of the spiritual life. On Friar Leonard’s initiative, for example, they would agree to practise a certain virtue more attentively during the week. If a friar wavered due to weakness, he had to kneel before another, ask for forgiveness and promise to make amends with divine help.
Through this exercise, he achieved many fruits. He transformed recreation into devout colloquies and a school of perfection; he ended idle chatter, instead always dealing with spiritual topics and particularly devotion to Our Lady.
The trumpeter of the Gospel!
Martyrdom in faraway lands for the love of Christ was a calling that impressed the young Franciscan. One day an opportunity presented itself to him. There was a cruel persecution of Christians in China, and the Lord’s flock there needed shepherds to support them. Bishop de Tournon, later Cardinal, was looking for missionaries to accompany him in this endeavour.
Friar Leonard wasted no time. He immediately explained his wishes to his superior. It was decided that he and Fr. Pietro de Vicovaro, his companion in the same monastery, would go to the Far East. His joy, however, was short-lived. For various reasons, the endeavour could not be completed. Disconsolate, Leonard did not realize that Providence was preparing other missions for him. When he told Cardinal Colloreto of his desires, the latter replied that God had destined the lands of Italy for him as a field of apostolate.
Some time later, he was sent to Rome to preach his first retreat. A priest who heard him commented: “This young man will be a trumpeter of the Gospel, who will lead many sinners back to the path of salvation!”4 And the future would verify the truth of this statement.
From illness to the Way of the Cross
The austere life the young Franciscan led gradually undermined his already poor health. On one occasion, he had to be sent to the infirmary because he was expelling a quantity of blood from his mouth.
His superiors ordered him to be transferred to Naples, in the hope that he would be able to rest there. However, as his condition worsened during the journey, he was sent to Port Maurice. All to no avail…
Seeing that nothing helped him regain his vigour, Friar Leonard decided to turn to the One who is invoked under the title Health of the Sick. He asked her to intercede with her Divine Son, promising that if he obtained a cure, he would set about preaching missions for the honour of God and the conversion of sinners.
Our Lady never forsakes those who turn to her for help. After a short time, the illness that had been so long tormenting him disappeared. Keen to fulfil his promise, but not yet authorized to do so, he began to write several prayers on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to which he had always had a deep devotion. He decided to disseminate them to the faithful of Port Maurice, and the fruit of this first “mission” was to introduce the devout exercise of the Stations of the Cross there.
This was the first of the 576 Stations of the Cross he would erect. In the following years, wherever he went on mission, he would always leave among the people this custom, which he liked to call a great battery against hell.
Start of the missions
Finally, in 1708, the Bishop of Albenga authorized him to carry out missions in his diocese. He began his apostolate in the town of Artallo, just over three kilometres from Port Maurice. He travelled there every morning, returning at sunset. All on his own, he preached and heard Confessions. He organized processions and always instituted a Stations of the Cross. Little by little, his work was winning over greater numbers of the faithful.
One evening, as he was returning to the monastery where he was lodged, he noticed a man following him. He could see the man was distressed and had no bad intentions, so he asked him if he needed help. The man fell to his knees and exclaimed:
“You, Father, have at your feet the greatest sinner on earth.”
“And you, son, have found a wretch, who will be a loving father to you,” replied the Franciscan, while the sinner wept bitterly.
He then led the penitent to the convent’s confessional and reconciled him with God.
On St. Bartholomew’s Day, he was sent to preach a mission in Caramagna. The townspeople had turned the celebration of this Apostle into a real carnival. While everyone was distracted and men and women were dancing to the beat of their unruly passions, he entered the place where they were gathered and gave a sermon so penetrating that the profane feast became an occasion for repentance and tears.
While he was preaching, one of the arms of the crucifix he was holding detached and fell to the ground, and the whole crowd began to cry out for mercy. Taking advantage of this incident, he spoke out more forcefully against the profanity and added that God was making known by this sign His willingness to punish the participants in the dance if they did not promise to never repeat such an offence.
Superior of St. Francis of the Mount
The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, edified by the holiness of the Franciscans, asked Pope Clement XI for authorization to open a similar house in Florence. Four religious, including Friar Leonard of Port Maurice, were sent there in 1709.
The following year, he preached for the first time in the monastery of St. Francis of the Mount, where they lived. That was enough for his fame to spread. From then on, there was no shortage of requests for him to carry out missions in the region.
In 1713, he was in the city of Prato. His first sermon in the cathedral was so impressive that the faithful burst into tears, raising their arms and asking God for mercy for their sins. The Stations of the Cross and other devotions were followed assiduously, so that by the end of the mission, the city looked like a garden of good works and devout resolutions.
Hs fruitful work in Tuscany certainly played a large part in his being elected superior of the Monastery of St. Francis of the Mount, governing it for nine years, during which time he worked hard to attract religious who were committed to adamantine fidelity, and to reorganize other houses of the Order.
Itinerary of perfection
The well-known Propositions, which he wrote when he was still superior of the monastery, date from this period. In it he outlined sixty-six maxims, a veritable programme of perfection, which he proposed to follow all his life.
Holy Mass would always be celebrated with a cilice and preceded by Confession, and meditation on the Passion would accompany the Divine Office. As a penance, he was to perform the Way of the Cross frequently, and every fault committed was to be repaired immediately by a prayer. As for devotion to Our Lady, he proposed to preach with special fervour about her virtues, and he would always wear a seven-pointed cross on his chest in honour of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. The last resolution was to be constantly in the presence of God.
He recopied them five times over the years, always asking for his confessor’s signature, in order to practise them under obedience. The last document was signed when he was sixty-nine years old, which shows that these resolutions were not the fruit of a passing springtime fervour. On the contrary, they were the corollary of decades of perfect religious life.
Mission and solitude
“Mission, being always occupied for God; solitude, being always occupied in God,”5 he once wrote about his vocation.
In fact, missionary work was not an obstacle to his recollection; rather, it was seen as a campaign against hell, for which he momentarily abandoned the peace of the monastic cloister for the good of souls.
In 1712, he drew up a rule for this type of activity. Each mission was to last between fifteen and eighteen days. It began with the enthronement of a large crucifix, since the Passion of the Redeemer was the object of the preaching and meditation, and included processions, meditations and moments of spiritual direction. The end was always marked by the erection of a Way of the Cross.
For forty-nine years, Friar Leonard travelled the arduous roads of Italy in those days. “I want to die on mission, with sword in hand against hell,”6 was the ideal that animated him throughout the 339 missions he preached.
“When I die, I will revolutionize Paradise”
Friar Leonard of Port Maurice surrendered his soul to God on November 26, 1751, at the age of seventy-four, and was canonized on June 29, 1867. His tireless apostolic endeavours earned him the title of patron of priests on mission, given to him by Pope Pius XI in 1923.
On one occasion during his life, he commented: “When I die, I will revolutionize Paradise and oblige the Angels, the Apostles and all the Saints to do holy violence to the Most Holy Trinity, so that They will send apostolic men and rain down a flood of most efficacious graces that will convert earth into Heaven.”7
Let us unite our prayers and intentions with his, so that we can see this desire realized without delay. ◊
1 DA ORMEA, Salvatore. Vita di San Leonardo da Porto Maurizio. Roma: Tipografia Tiberina, 1867, p.31.
2 Passage from Psalm 85: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation” (85:4).
3 DA ORMEA, op. cit., p.16.
4 Idem, p.18.
5 VILLAPADIERNA, Isidoro de. San Leonardo de Porto Mauricio. In: ECHEVERRÍA, Lamberto de; LLORCA, SJ, Bernardino; REPETTO BETES, José Luis (Org.). Año Cristiano. Madrid: BAC, 2006, v.XI, p.632.
6 Idem, p.634.
7 Idem, ibidem.