Saint Leonard of Port Maurice deserves to be commemorated by the Passionist family. A contemporary of St. Paul of the Cross (1693-1775), he lived his Franciscan life in a fashion parallel to the founder of the Passionists. Born on the Italian Riviera, he was originally oriented by his family to medical studies; he stoutly resisted the promptings of his uncles and his father to a worldly life. Despite his Jesuit education, he chose to be a Franciscan of the Riformella Branch of the Reformed (Reformati) Franciscans. The Riformella sought to combine an active preaching apostolate with a solitary and quasi-monastic life. The principal house of this branch of the Franciscan family was St. Bonaventure in Rome, located on the Palatine Hill. The Passionist living at their motherhouse of Sts. John and Paul can view this convent from almost every window. At night, at 9:00 p.m., its bell tolls softly the beginning of the Grand Silence for this part of ancient Rome.
His preaching skills endeared him to the popes of the eighteenth century and they mandated him to travel to remote areas of Italy where the Church encountered great difficulty. He was often met with distain and indifference. Still he persisted and it is said of him that his skill compelled “all the nearby parish priests to work harder as confessors.” In his own time, he was innovative. He was among the few to insist that the concept of the Immaculate Conception of Mary be defined as a dogma of the faith. He also preached popular parish exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and he introduced prayers in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which he had obtained from the writings of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Claude de la Colombiere. Most of all, he insisted that the devotion to the Stations of the Cross be a part of the ordinary parish mission.
Pope Benedict XIV appointed him to several complex diplomatic assignments where his power came from his poverty. In Genoa and Corsica, in Lucca and Spoleto the citizens expected a jeweled cardinal to represent the intentions of the pope. Instead, they were confronted by a humble, shoeless, muddy friar to counter their pride and hostility with meekness. Wherever he went, he was seen to publicly make the Stations of the Cross. It was his greatest fulfillment to introduce the recitation of the Stations at the Coliseum for the Jubilee Year of 1750. This practice continues until the present day and on every Good Friday, the members of the Passionist Community at Sts. John and Paul in Rome gather at 8:00 p.m. in their own garden to observe the pope pray the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum.
For many years, antipathy arose and continued between Leonard of Port Maurice and Paul of the Cross. The issue was over poverty. The major superior of the Frati compelled Leonard to misrepresent the intentions of Paul of the Cross. In his own mode of life, Paul ignored those accusations and paid no attention to any attempt to keep him from persistence in his mission. Eventually, the two reconciled and Leonard revealed that he was not speaking his own mind in the Papal Court but was acting in obedience. He admitted he was misguided. The devotion to the Passion unites the two saints both of whom expressed a fervent zeal that the suffering and death of Jesus be known and recognized as the Church’s special treasure of grace. St. Paul of the Cross and St. Leonard used similar techniques within the exercise of the parish mission and did not hesitate to dramatize the evil of sin and God’s desire to take every child to His heart. They were canonized together in 1867 by Pope Pius IX. The dynamic of the Stations of the Cross, as we presently know it, is part of the legacy of this Franciscan saint. Upon his death, the devotion was taken up with renewed zeal and promulgated by St. Alphonsus Ligori, who is another contemporary. All three saints are among the greatest mystics of the Cross of the eighteenth century.
- Jerome M. Vereb, C.P.