Saint John Leonardi
Today, October 9, we celebrate the feast day of Saint John Leonardi (1541-1609), founder of the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God. This group, through his leadership and example, served those most in need of assistance, including prisoners, the plague-ridden, the poor, and the forgotten. Saint John Leonardi remains a model of Christian charity for us to ascribe to today.
John Leonardi was born at Diecimo, Italy. Initially, he worked as a pharmacist’s assistant, before feeling the call of the Lord and studying for the priesthood. Ordained at age 31, Saint John was moved by the plight of the downtrodden and forgotten he encountered on a daily basis. In response to the need he discerned, he gathered a group of laymen about him to work for the care of the sick in hospitals and the spiritual good of inmates in prisons. Motivated by reforms of the Council of Trent he founded a society of diocesan priests in 1574 to carry out the mandated renewal of the council. The young men who had been assisting him all became priests. The society was later approved as the Clerics Regular of the Mother of God. Saint John worked within this community to spread devotion to the Our Blessed Mother, devotion to the Forty Hours, and frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist.
Not only remembered for his charitable good works, John Leonardi was also a preacher of renewal and focused on the religious instruction of the young. In a letter to Pope Paul V he wrote: “Nothing should be untried that can train children from early childhood in good morals and in the earnest practice of Christianity. To this end nothing is more effective than pious instructions in Christian doctrine. Children should be entrusted only to good and God-fearing teachers.” He founded the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to assist in the instruction of the young.
Saint John Leonardi also co-founded a society of priests dedicated to working in foreign missions, which later became the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. At the request of Pope Clement the VII, he was summoned to Rome to assist in the renewal and reform of several religious communities. Committed to genuine reform and spiritual renewal, his words to Pope Paul V summarize the approach which earned him the respect of several popes:
"Reform must begin with high and low alike, with superiors and inferiors. Yet the reformers must look first to those who are set over the rest, so that reform can begin at the point from which it may spread to others… Those who want to work for moral reform in the world must seek the glory of God before all else. Because He is the source of all good, they must wait for His help, and pray for it in this difficult and necessary undertaking. They must then present themselves to those they seek to reform, as mirrors of every virtue and as lamps on a lamp stand. Their upright lives and noble conduct must shine before all those who are in the house of God. In this way they will gently entice the members to reform instead of forcing them, lest, in the words of the Council of Trent, they demand of the body what is not found in the head, and thus upset the whole order of the Lord's household.”
Saint John Leonardi died in 1609 in Rome after contracting the plague from those to whom he ministered. He was venerated for his miracles and religious fervor and is considered one of the most profound reformers of the 16th century. The congregations he founded (and co-founded) are mostly still in existence today, continuing their good works.