Compelled to Proclaim Christ in Word and in Deed

Saturday, 04 February 2017

The first Capuchin Saint on the Church Calendar after the World Day for Consecrated Life on 2nd February is St Joseph of Leonessa. His feast day is 4th February. He was a tireless wandering preacher, teacher and missionary, who encountered hostility in his ministry to the point of death – which he narrowly survived – but we’ll get to that in a moment. I’d like to reflect a little on this awesome and very inspiring Capuchin. We share about the saints so that they can inspire us, encourage us, and rev us up to follow Christ like they did. As we come to know them, we also gain another friend and intercessor in heaven.

Born in 1556, his parents died when he was twelve. His uncle tried to arrange a marriage for him but he so eagerly desired religious life that the prospective marriage led to him falling very sick.

He went to recuperate back in his hometown of Leonessa (Italy) and it was there that he was introduced to the Capuchins who were building a friary outside the town’s gate. His family tried to dissuade him but at sixteen he ran off and joined the friars, and was later ordained a priest at the young age of 24.

He was a man of great contemplation and deep prayer – but at the same time he believed strongly that he had to go out and be missionary, to take that light from his prayer-life out and bring it to others. He wrote: “Whoever loves a life of contemplation has a serious obligation to go out into the world to preach, especially since the world’s way of thinking is very confused, and evil abounds on the earth”.

And this he did, and he did it with a passion!!!

He was inflamed with a passionate love for Jesus Christ because he spent time in intimate union with God, in prolonged prayer which fired his desire for Jesus Christ. He would pray and meditate while walking along the road too, gazing at the crucifix that he carried in his hand.

And he shared that desire for Christ through his preaching. He could’ve build up a famous name for himself through his gifted preaching – but no, he did not want to stay in any one city. Instead he wandered from place to place preaching particularly to the poor, the uneducated, shepherds, farmers, mountain folk, and children. In fact, his brother Capuchins called him “Preacher of the Thickets” and even “The Companion Killer” because there wasn’t a place he wasn’t willing to go; if he couldn’t reach a place on foot, he’d crawl through thickets on hands and knees, wade through rivers, climb mountains, foregoing food and sleep to bring the Good News to people – and since the friars always travelled in pairs, he would wear out his poor companions!

When some missionaries were murdered, he asked to go to Turkey as a replacement chaplain. There he ministered to some 4000 Christian slaves, preaching to them, binding their wounds and changing their attitude to their suffering. He sometimes offered himself in place of the dying but his offer was never accepted. One night the gates were locked while he was still on the inside and as he slept by the gate he was found and assumed to have been spying so he was arrested and thrown into prison for a month.

Another time, after trying to preach to the Sultan, he was arrested, bound in chains and condemned to death by being hung on a gibbet – one hook through his right hand, another through his left foot. He suffered, suspended in the air, for three days and they even lit a smouldering fire beneath him to suffocate him. He was left for dead but providentially released by a young man – some say an angel – who told him to return to Italy.

Once returned, he continued as a wandering preacher and peacemaker. One time there were 50 former prisoners terrorising a city. He sought them out, invited them to the church, preached to them with the cross about the need for conversion. All were converted and were then back into the church regularly, seated in the front pews.

Another time there were two rival gangs. He went into their midst with a crucifix, preached about the need for alternatives to violence and somehow won them over. When two towns were in a territorial dispute, he preached in each town and managed to succeed where no one else could.

In his love for the poor, he set up food coop’s so that the hungry could obtain food. He was convinced that it was Jesus Christ who was reaching out to him in those who experienced want. So Father Joseph was very keen to seek them out.

He also established hospitals and shelters for the sick and the homeless. He ministered in prisons, especially to those condemned to death. During epidemics, he carried the dead on his own shoulders. He spent long hours in the confessional and would preach up to six sermons a day.

In all, it was a life given completely to God, ever ready to meet Jesus in the needy whether by preaching the Good News to the poor or giving them concrete assistance.

In a famous sermon of his, he said that each of us – every Christian – is to be a living book wherein one can read the teaching of the Gospel.

Brothers and sisters, through the intercession and example of this great Capuchin saint, may our prayer drive us out to seek and reach out to others. May we dedicate ourselves totally to Christ and be that living book so that, like St Joseph of Leonessa, others can come to encounter Jesus through us as well. Pax et bonum!