New Insights on the Gospels

March for Life 2012

Evil triumphs when good men do nothing - Edmund Burke

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

St. Joseph of Leonissa - 4th February 2009


The third of eight children, He was born to John Desideri and Serafina Paolini at Leonessa on January 8, 1556. At baptism he was given the name Eufranio. His father, a wool merchant, and his mother, who came from a family of distinction, were esteemed throughout the area for their virtue. Both parents died when Eufranio was about 12 years old.

Eufranio's uncle, Battista Desideri, a teacher at Viterbo, provided for Eufranio's upbringing and education. His uncle arranged a marriage between Eufranio and the daughter of a noble Viterban family. Feeling inclined toward religious life, the prospect of marriage caused Eufranio a great deal of stress. He fell ill, and doctors suggested that he return to Leonessa. After a few days removed from the pressure, Eufranio's health improved. While recuperating at Leonessa, Eufranio was introduced to the Capuchins who were building a friary outside the Spoletine gate. Impressed by the example of Matthew Silvestri, who had left the medical profession to embrace the Capuchin life and whose holiness was evident, Eufranio was inspired to become a Capuchin.

When his uncle found this out, he demanded that Eufranio move to Spoleto to continue his studies. The young Eufranio obeyed, but arranged to keep in contact with the Capuchins at the hermitage of St. Ann, hidden in the woods of Monte Patrico. There, far from his family, Eufranio managed to meet the provincial minister of the Umbrian province to whom he manifested his desire to become a Capuchin. He was admitted to the novitiate. Without telling anyone his plans, Eufranio left everything and traveled to Assisi to the place known as the Carcerelle where he received the habit and the name Joseph.

Once his family discovered what had transpired, they went to the friary and used every means at their disposal to convince Joseph to abandon religious life. Their attempts proved futile. Having completed his year of probation, Joseph made profession on January 8, 1573, after which he applied himself assiduously to his studies, delving especially into the writings of Bonaventure whose insights the Capuchins had espoused from their earliest days. Joseph was ordained presbyter at Amelia on September 24, 1580. After ordination, he continued his studies at Lugnano in Teverina. Although drawn to contemplation, Joseph 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."

On May 21, 1581, the Capuchin general vicar issued patents for preaching, the ministry in which Joseph would be engaged for the remainder of his life.

Relying solely on grace and with a mission crucifix always tucked in his cincture, Joseph negotiated the most obscure, mountainous regions of Umbria, Lazio and the Abruzzi in an intense and extensive mission of evangelization among those who were poor. On one occasion the legend of the wolf of Gubbio was apparently repeated when Joseph played the dual role of reconciler and evangelizer. In 1572, a law had been passed which granted amnesty to certain prisoners who had fought the Turks. In the vicinity of Arquata del Tronto, a group of about 50 of these former prisoners banded together and were terrorizing the local populace. All else having failed, Joseph was asked to find some solution. He boldly went in search of the band, found their hiding place, gathered them together and invited them into the church of St. Mary Camertina. Once inside, with his preaching cross in hand, Joseph began to speak to them about the need for conversion. As a result of his very moving appeal, all without exceptionresolved to change their lives. When leaving the church, each was given a rosary. The following year, Joseph was invited back to that town to preach a Lenten series. The reformed bandits were among the first to fill the pews.

Joseph enjoyed such great success in preaching because of his intimate union with God which was cultivated by incessant prayer. He would pray and meditate on the road, while holding his crucifix. In 1583, five Jesuit missionaries were murdered in Constantinople. Thereupon, the ambassadors of Paris and Venice asked the pope to send some Capuchins as their replacements. Joseph was among those who volunteered for the mission. On June 20, 1587, the Capuchin general vicar, Jerome of Polizzi Generosa, sent letters of obedience to those who had been chosen. Joseph was not among them. Though disappointed, Joseph accepted the decision. One of the chosen missionaries, Giles of Santa Maria, was prevented from leaving for reasons of health. In his stead, Joseph and Gregory of Leonessa received letters of obedience to join the Constantinople mission on August 1, 1587. After a few days, the two departed for Venice where they embarked on a boat headed for the Bosporus. After a long and harrowing journey, they arrived safely in Constantinople where they joined the other Capuchins who had taken up residence in the Galatan quarter of the city. Joseph was assigned as chaplain to some 4,000 Christian slaves who worked in the penal colony of Qaasim-pacha. He immediately went to work bringing the gospel and charitable relief to those who were languishing in inhumane conditions.

Many times he offered himself as a substitute in order to obtain the release of a slave who was near death. His offer was never accepted. One day Joseph wanted to visit the penal colonies at Top-Hane and Besik-Tas. He remained with those condemned to forced labor until late afternoon. Obliged to leave, he headed back for the friary but found the gates to the Galatan quarter already bolted. Exhausted, he fell asleep near a military guardhouse. In the morning, he was discovered by soldiers, arrested as a spy and thrown into prison. He remained there for over a month before being released in response to an appeal made by the Venetian ambassador on his behalf.

When the plague broke out in the penal colonies, the Capuchins immediately took up the ministry of assisting those who were sick and dying. Two Capuchins, Peter and Dennis, died doing so. Although Joseph became ill, he and Brother Gregory alone survived to remain at the mission. After converting a Greek bishop who had renounced the faith, Joseph devised a plan which entailed approaching the sultan, Murad 111, to seek the recognition of the right of freedom of conscience for anyone who was converted or returned to the Christian faith.

His first unsuccessful attempt at approaching the sultan took place as the sultan was passing by on the street. A second failed attempt was made while the sultan was at prayer in the mosque. Joseph was restrained by the sultan's bodyguards. Finally, a court physician and friend offered to obtain an audience for him on condition that he would put aside his religious habit and dress as a prestigious person might. Joseph preferred to witness to evangelical poverty and to present himself as a Catholic missioner seeking the recognition of a fundamental human right. He went to court early one morning and, unhindered, entered into the sultan's antechamber. When Joseph attempted to enter the sultan's chambers, he was arrested and bound in chains. He was condemned to an immediate death by being hung on hooks. He was hung from the gallows with one hook through the tendons of his right hand and another through his right foot. Tortured in such an atrocious position, parched by thirst and thrown into convulsions, death by a slow and spasmodic agony seemed to be his only release. He suffered there for three days, soldiers having built a slow fire under him so as to suffocate him with the fumes. Near death, on the evening of the third day, the guards cut him down. A young man (who some say was an angel) carefully freed him from the hooks and gave him medical attention, bread and wine. Joseph quickly recovered.

The young man said to him, "Return quickly to Italy and continue to preach the gospel there; your mission here is finished.'! Joseph quickly left Turkey and arrived at Rome where he and the converted Greek bishop presented themselves to Pope Sixtus V. Following Joseph's return to Italy, in the autumn of 1589, he took up residence at the Carcerelle in Assisi. The local bishop had requested that a Capuchin preach the Advent series in the cathedral that year. Joseph was chosen and met with great success, partly because he was already venerated as something of a martyr for the faith. Despite the local minister's hope that the Capuchins would gain prestige by having Joseph remain at Assisi, Joseph asked to resume his itinerant preaching ministry in the small villages and mountain towns of central Italy. Joseph ignored danger and inconvenience. When he couldn't reach a place by foot, he would crawl on hands and knees to get there. He would go anywhere to preach, especially to poor, rundown places where no one else was inclined to go. He would think nothing of plunging into a river or fording a stream in order to reach his destination, or of traveling barefoot through forest and thorn thickets.

Among the Capuchins who travelled with him, he was known as the "preacher of the thickets," and the "companion-killer." No one could keep up with his stamina and resolve. Joseph would forego food and sleep for the sake of reaching yet another small village where he could preach. No sooner would he finish in one town than already be on his way to the next. When farmers heard that Joseph was in town, they would leave the sowing of their crops half finished in order to hear him, even if it meant that the seed already sown would be lost to the birds and other animals.

In the aftermath of the Council of Trent, Joseph spent much time and energy catechizing. He began a ministry of evangelization among shepherds who lacked even rudimentary knowledge of the faith, prayer and the commandments. He would walk through the streets ringing a bell, reminding parents to send their children to catechism class. He used his preaching as a form of advocacy on behalf of those who were in need. He preached to the poor and addressed the social injustices which adversely affected them. For the benefit of all those who were poor and hungry, and especially women, Joseph was instrumental in establishing food cooperatives where anyone who was hungry could find food. Joseph would preach and beg for grain or other items which could be bartered for grain. Women who had themselves experienced poverty and hunger were placed in charge. Convinced that it was Christ reaching out to him in those who experienced want, Joseph sought them out. He recognized not only his personal call to help others, but also the need to create stable social programs for helping those who lacked the necessities of life. He also was instrumental in establishing hospitals and shelters to accommodate pilgrims, the sick and the homeless. His charity knew no limits. He ministered in prisons, visiting and helping the detainees in a variety of ways, and assisting those condemned to death. During epidemics, he did not hesitate to carry cadavers on his own shoulders to bring them to the cemetery. He never hesitated to offer himself, even at the cost of his own life.

One day while traveling from Leonessa to Montereale, he found himself in the middle of a brawl between two rival gangs. With incredible boldness he walked into their midst, raised his crucifix, prayed and spoke about the need to find alternatives to violence.

Two towns along the ancient Roman via Salaria, Bornona and Posta, had for some time been involved in a territorial dispute. Joseph preached in both towns and succeeded in doing what no one else could.

When he became deathly ill, Joseph asked to be taken to Leonessa in order to pay his last respects to his relativesand friends. The doctors then suggested that he go to Amatrice. His local minister and nephew, Francis of Leonessa, was at his deathbed. On Saturday evening, February 4, 1612, after beginning the divine office,which proved too difficult to continue, Joseph repeated his favorite prayer: "Sancta Maria, succurre miseris." Quietly and peacefully he slipped into death's embrace. Joseph was beatified by Clement XII in 1737 and canonized by Benedict XIV in 1746.

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