Saint John Leonardi

Saint John Leonardi, Priest

October 9—Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of pharmacists

“Either Christ or nothing!” was his cure for every ill

Today’s saint was among that first wave of post Council of Trent priests and founders whose purification of the Church started with themselves. Saint John Leonardi was a man ardently in love with Christ and Mary and the sacred field of the Catholic Church, where theological truths grow tall and dense in the richest soil. Because that sacred field was so in need of clearing, pruning, and weeding in his era, Saint John stripped from himself every single personal interest, desire, or goal and merged his life totally with that of Christ. John was like a small twig grafted onto the verdant root-stem of Christ. John, Christ, and the Church all grew and thrived together as one living thing. 

Like so many saints, John Leonardi was born into a large family. The hum and whistle of daily life, work, meals, conversation and prayer in large families is a small school where children learn generosity in a natural atmosphere. The large family’s numerous siblings serve as proxies for the diverse personalities found in the broader culture, better preparing the children for life outside the home. John’s parents won the battle for his soul early. He was a religiously inclined boy from the start. As a teenager, John studied to be a pharmacist under a local mentor for many years and later maintained a life-long interest in medicine. But mature reflection eventually took him down another path. He would not apply essences, compounds, or poultices to patients’ bodies but rather feed the sacraments to people’s souls. John studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1572.

Father John served among the youth at parishes in his native city of Lucca, Italy, and was active in visiting hospitals and prisons. His ardour attracted a loyal following of laymen with whom he lived and worked and prayed. John’s life and priesthood flowed effortlessly into the great river of reforms that gushed from the Council of Trent, which had concluded just a few years before John was ordained. John was intensely focused on implementing the Council’s teachings. His local bishop tasked John with preaching in all of Lucca’s churches to straighten the crooked lines sketched by some theologically confused priests. Father John’s experience of orthodox preaching, and of the fierce resistance it generated, convinced him that only an impeccable moral and spiritual life could draw people to self reform and conversion. John thus sought to mirror every virtue, to be a lighthouse on the rugged cliff, drawing all people safely into the harbor of Christ.

John’s small band of brothers were eventually recognized as a Congregation by successive popes, but due to local resistance, John had to move his work to Rome. He befriended Saint Philip Neri, was entrusted with reforming several monasteries, and was instrumental in founding the seminary for the future Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, a successful Vatican entity which formed priests for service in the foreign missions. John advocated the Forty Hours Devotion, frequent reception of Holy Communion, and the Christian formation of children at as early an age as possible. By 1600 Father John Leonardi was a well-known Counter-Reformation force in Italy not due to his books, new ideas, or charisma, but due to his virtue and zeal for the house of the Lord. In 1609 our saint died well but too soon. He was infected with the plague while visiting the sick. The small Congregation he founded, the Clerks Regular of the Mother of God of Lucca, continues until today, purposely small and focused on their important work. Father John Leonardo was canonized in 1938 and is buried in a handsome baroque church near the Roman Forum. 

Saint John Leonardi, may your generous example of priestly service inspire a holy jealousy among priests so that they burn with the same desire that consumed you in service to Christ and Mary in the heart of the Church.

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