October 8, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Wisdom of the saints: St. John Leonardi

John F. FinkIt’s not everyone who feels free to give advice to the pope, but St. John Leonardi did. The pope he advised was Paul V, who was pope from 1605 to 1621.

John Leonardi, whose feast is on Oct. 9, was well known to the papacy by 1605.

In 1574, he founded the Order of Clerics Regular of the Mother of God to instruct boys in Christian doctrine. Since it was a new congregation of diocesan priests, it met with considerable opposition. He also helped found a society of priests dedicated to working in foreign missions, which eventually became the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

And, in 1579, he formed the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and published a compendium of Christian doctrine that remained in use until the 19th century. He died in Rome in 1609 at age 68.

The period after the Council of Trent, which ended in 1563, was a time of reform and that is what Leonardi wrote about to Pope Paul. By the time he wrote his letter, the Church was not nearly as in need of reform as it was a century before under Pope Julius II or his successor, Pope Leo X, whose policies provoked Martin Luther to post his 95 theses, thus starting the Protestant Reformation. But not all of the reforms promulgated by the Council of Trent had yet been achieved.

Leonardi began his advice by stressing the necessity of prayer because, he said, “Those who want to work for moral reform in the world must seek the glory of God before all else.”

They must wait for God’s help. Therefore, they must pray for it.

Next, he said, they must give good example, “as mirrors of every virtue and as lamps on a lampstand.” Their upright lives will, he said, gently entice the members of the Church to reform instead of forcing them. He compared them to skilled physicians who would “dispose of all the diseases that afflict the Church and require a cure.”

Leonardi then emphasized that reform must begin with those who are set over the rest. He specifically mentioned the cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and priests, whose particular duty, he said, is the care of souls.

“So let us work down from the highest to the lowest, from superiors to inferiors,” he wrote, obviously involving himself with that little word “us.”

Since he had devoted his life to the education of children, Leonardi then wrote that “nothing should be left 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 instruction in Christian doctrine.” Therefore, he advised, children should be entrusted only to good and God-fearing teachers.

He acknowledged that, at first glance, what he had written might appear difficult, but asked Pope Paul only to compare them with the magnitude of the situation and then they would appear easy.

He concluded his letter with, “Great works are accomplished only by great men, and great men should be involved in great works.” †

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