2. THE SAINT OF RECONCILIATION AND OF SPIRITUAL ECUMENISM
When he embraced the religious life of the Franciscan family of the Capuchins, the young friar Leopold da Castelnuovo had two clear aims, two aspirations that had matured during his childhood experiences in his native land, on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic. One was to become a missionary in the East, and to bring closer to the Catholic Church her Orthodox brothers and sisters and thus contribute to the unity of the Church. The other was to become a confessor, showing goodness and mercy to the souls of sinners. Various factors, including his poor health and his vow of obedience, meant that he realised only the second aspiration.
Fr. Leopold passed almost half his life in the friary of the Capuchins at Padua, shut away in his little confessional room measuring two by three metres, where he dedicated his entire energy to welcoming the faithful, above all the poor and sinners, to the sacrament of Confession.
Thus it was that the East where he wanted to go as a missionary was transformed into every soul who asked his spiritual help. He himself wrote on 31st January 1941: “In every moment and with every care possible, aware of my weaknesses, I commit myself through my vows to dedicate all the energy I have in life to the return of our brothers and sisters separated from us in the East to Catholic union. For now, every soul who has need of my ministry is for me the East”.
On the occasion of his beatification Pope Paul VI recognised in Fr. Leopold a precursor of so-called “spiritual ecumenism”. “Fr. Leopold was ‘ecumenical’ ante litteram, that is to say he dreamed of, foresaw, promoted, even without working in that field, the coming together again in perfect unity of the Church, even while she herself jealously guards the many differences in her ethnic make-up” (Homily for the Beatification, 2nd May 1976).
He was a sought-after confessor, including by diverse professional people and lecturers at the University of Padua, thanks to his gifts of wisdom and his ability to look into men’s hearts, due also to his study of Patristics and Holy Scripture. He was also distinguished by his life of prayer, his intense devotion to Our Lady (known in Venetian dialect as “Parona benedeta”, Blessed Patroness), and above all for the loving welcome he gave to penitents. “Don’t be anxious” – he would say to so many – “lay it all on my shoulders, I will take care of it”, as he took on prayer, night vigils, fasting and other voluntary privations.
Prof. Ezio Franceschini, lecturer at the University of Padua and subsequently rector at the Catholic University of Milan, who was one of his penitents, remembered Fr. Leopold’s sorrow when he was accused of being too lax. The friar confided to him: “They say I grant absolution too easily, including to those who do not have the necessary state of mind to receive it”. Stretching out his arms he added: “Look at me, Sir. Do you think if a sinner kneels before me he does this for me or for God our Father?”
Pope John Paul II, recalling some of Fr. Leopold’s sayings, also pointed out his exemplary work as a confessor: “It is here that we see his greatness, in the way that he would hide himself to make way for the true Shepherd of souls. He carried out his duty in this way: “Let us hide everything, even that which might appear to be a gift of God, so that we do not trade on it. To God alone is due honour and glory! If it were possible, we should pass over the earth as no more than a shadow, without leaving a trace of ourselves.” And when anyone asked him how he managed to live like that, he would answer: ‘It is my life!’” (Homily for the canonisation, 16th October 1983).