The Word Among Us

July/August 2016 Issue

Put Everything on My Shoulders

Saint Leopold Mandić turned the confessional into a refuge of mercy.

By: Federica Paparelli Thistle

Put Everything on My Shoulders: Saint Leopold Mandić turned the confessional into a refuge of mercy. by Federica Paparelli Thistle

At age eight, little Bogdan Mandić knelt miserably in the center of his Catholic parish.

After committing what he considered a slight fault, he had been scolded by his sister. To make matters worse, she hauled him over to the pastor, who suggested a humble posture as penance. It was then that the boy decided that when he grew up, he would become a friar—a confessor, specifically—but one who would treat sinners with goodness and mercy.

Bogdan did go on to become a Capuchin friar, taking the name Leopold. And he spent a majority of his life inside a tiny room in Padua, Italy, hearing confessions twelve hours a day. It’s this dedication to the ministry of Reconciliation that caused Pope Francis to choose the relatively obscure St. Leopold Mandić, along with household names like Pope St. John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, as representatives of the Year of Mercy. Along with that honor, he requested that Leopold’s body—still intact seventy-four years after his death—be displayed in Rome this past February.

When I visited Leopold’s cell in Padua, almost by chance, it still had the sparse feel of a confessional. But what dropped my jaw was the room next to it filled with gifts and offerings. They are all tokens of thanksgiving brought by people who have turned to Leopold for help and believe they have been healed through his prayers. It got me wondering, “Who is this man?”

A Largely Uneventful Life. As I looked into Mandić’s life, I realized that there really isn’t much to say. He didn’t travel much. He didn’t found a new religious order or perform dramatic miracles. He never wrote a book. But what did strike me was his profound understanding of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and his creative, but deeply faithful, grasp of God’s mercy. No wonder he got my attention! No wonder too that two of our greatest modern-day popes have felt drawn to him.

Leopold Mandić was born in 1866 on the Adriatic coast of what is now Montenegro. He was the youngest of twelve children in a Catholic family of Croatian origin. His parents, Petar and Dragica Mandić, made a living with their fishing fleet.

He was baptized Bogdan, a name that means “given by God.” From an early age, Leopold dealt with poor health. It stunted his development so that when he was fully grown, he stood four foot six. A form of arthritis gave him a slow lurching stride, and stuttering made it difficult for him to read aloud. But what he lacked in health, he made up for in studiousness and prayer. By age sixteen, he was ready to enter the seminary, and by twenty-four, he was ordained a priest.

Mandić’s superiors quickly assigned to him the task that would define his life: hearing confessions. Pope John Paul II noted the importance of this vocation at St. Leopold’s canonization in 1983, saying, “His was a largely uneventful life. . . . Then came his assignment to the friary in Padua.” This was where he would spend almost fifty years listening to sinners cast off their burdens.

A Calming Confessor. On a regular day, the hall outside Fr. Leopold’s room was besieged. People of all kinds, from all over Italy, lined up to confess their sins. Every penitent was different to Leopold, and each needed his attention and tact. But Leopold’s main principle as a confessor was his confidence in God’s mercy. There was no sin too big for God to forgive. And it was his job to share that message with sinners.

Even after long hours in the confessional, he continued to make himself available. One doctor who often visited Leopold after grueling hours on the late shift recalled, “Not once did he tell me to come the next day; not once did he show signs of tiredness.” Just the opposite, Leopold welcomed anyone coming for Confession with smiling kindness. He regularly sought the friendship of his penitents, knowing that one can accept everything from a friend, even an occasional admonishing.

Leopold’s welcoming nature disarmed one nervous man who had come far to see him. Heart racing, the man stood a ways off, afraid to enter the confessional. Leopold opened his door and, seeing him, called out, “That man over there! Come on in! Come on in!” The man followed him and introduced himself with these words: “Father, I’m a wicked man.” Leopold replied, “Here you are not anymore. You and I are brothers, and we will become very good friends. Let’s start off with a sign of the cross.” He listened to the long confession, offering a kind word here and there. By the end, tears of joy glistened in place of the man’s tears of shame.

“Put Everything on My Shoulders.” Leopold’s fellow friars sometimes thought he was too lenient. He replied that if that was the case, the first to give a light pardon was Jesus himself, dying on the cross to erase sins. He asked them what was the point of further humbling the souls who came for Confession. “Aren’t they humiliated enough?” he asked. “Did Jesus humiliate the tax collector, the adulterous woman, and Mary Magdalene?”

And he meant it, so Fr. Leopold would never give harsh penances. If more reparation for sin was necessary, he offered to take on a share of the penance himself. When people were distressed by the weight of their sins, he reassured them. “Don’t worry; put everything on my shoulders. I will take care of it.” Taking care of it meant extra time in prayer at night.

Despite his defense of sinners, Leopold took pains to make sure penitents were not abusing the sacrament. On rare occasions when people refused to reject sinful ways, they left his confessional without absolution. This was mercy too, he believed.

His Own Path to Sainthood. Although Leopold’s gifts as a confessor were renowned across Italy, serving in this capacity could be a struggle as well. He was reclusive by nature, but his work meant hours of conversation every day. He was known to be touchy and irritable around the friary. In the confessional, those who tried to justify their sins risked provoking his short temper.

Because of his physical ailments, Leopold was sensitive to embarrassment. If he thought someone was eyeing him with too much pity, he would defend himself proudly. But there were some humiliations he could not protest. Because of his speech impediment, for example, he was passed over in the friary for the reading of the daily liturgy and preaching.

Leopold’s solution was to nourish his relationship with God—whom he said was both doctor and medication. Through their close friendship, he learned to accept his lot and forgive trespasses against himself generously.

A Dream Redefined. Part of accepting his duties involved rethinking a dear wish: to be sent as a missionary to Eastern Europe. The desire had originated from his earliest days growing up in an area of cultural and religious crossroads. The thought of uniting Catholic and Orthodox factions there remained with Leopold long after it became clear that his superiors would keep him in Padua. But rather than giving up the dream, Leopold decided to shorten the distance and adjust his method.

Creatively, he offered up his ministry as a confessor in Padua for the reconciliation of the Eastern Church with Rome. Leopold wrote repeatedly in his personal diary, “Every person who will ask for my ministry will be my East.” Although he did not accomplish reconciliation on such a large scale, he devoted his life to individuals’ reconciliation with God, for the sake of unity. Because of this, Leopold is seen as a forerunner of ecumenism and an intercessor for all who work to bring Christians together.

Humble Calling. You may find you relate to St. Leopold in unexpected ways. He was a man who slept only five hours a day and spent an enormous amount of time in one room. He had unrealized dreams of traveling the world and preaching. He found his vocation in listening to other people’s miseries and speaking God’s forgiveness. Some might call this drudgery, but Leopold looked upon it as a high privilege.

Leopold Mandić was a tremendous gift to the Church. His ability to practice the mercy of God serves as an inspiration to many confessors today. His determination to be an instrument for God despite his limitations is a lesson in humility. And he is one of us, reminding all Christians that God’s will is in the smallest of jobs. To me he is a personal friend, whom I can turn to for any kind of need. Go talk to him, and find out yourself; his door is always open.

Federica Paparelli Thistle writes for La Croce magazine and lives in Maryland with her husband.