Thursday, February 4, 2010


St. Joseph of Leonessa
Happy birthday!
On his 17th birthday, 8th January 1573, Euphronio Desideri made his profession in his home town of Leonessa as a Capuchin Franciscan friar. He took on the simpler name of Joseph. His vocation had survived serious obstacles and he persisted with a single-minded resolve to reach what he called "the inexpressible joy of being a son of St. Francis."
Some obstacles
Joseph was born third in a family of eight children but was doubly orphaned by the age of twelve. An uncle, a teacher at Viterbo, accepted the care of the children and foresaw an excellent future for Joseph who was a bright student. A local gentleman cast a critical eye over him also for Joseph would be an ideal spouse for his only but richly endowed daughter. Both guardians were keen on such an arrangement but not so Joseph. His heart was set on other matters and the tension generated by adult insistence on their future plans for him affected his health. He was relieved to be sent back to Leonessa where he quickly recovered.
An unwelcome attraction
The Franciscans were a long established Order at this time. They had a three hundred and fifty year history but the Capuchin reform were not fifty years established. They were newly arrived in Leonessa. A local doctor had just joined them and Joseph would follow his example. Uncle Battista was not pleased and so to avoid this temptation Joseph was sent off to school at Spoleto. But the Lord was providing. There was a Capuchin hermitage in the hills nearby. Joseph made contact and then made his application to the Provincial Superior. He was accepted. He renounced his goods and family just as St. Francis had done. Of course, Battista was not happy. The family came and tried to force him to return home. Joseph would not budge.
Christ the power and the wisdom of God
Joseph was ordained priest on 24th September 1580. He had been formed in the thought of St. Bonaventure and we get an insight into his heart in a "Prayer of Commitment" in which he thanks the Lord for his vocation, pledges to be faithful to the Church even unto death, under the protection of Our Lady and St. Francis. The reforms and programmes of the Council of Trent had just begun. He would implement them, for he knew and preached Christ alone, the power and the Wisdom of God." As in the famous exhortation of St. Ambrose, Christ was for him, the answer to all problems.
In union with God
Intimate union with God was the secret of his life. In the canonical process we read, "With the greatest care he gathered together all the powers of his soul, the better to relish God. He did this not only at the assigned periods of prayer, but at all times. As he walked along the road he would grasp his crucifix and contemplate the wounds of Christ. While he meditated life the expression of his face would change according to the various mysteries. At times he would look drawn and haggard, then flushed as if he harboured a burning fire within. The same reactions occurred when he was preaching." As lie lived Christ, so he preached him.
His nephew Francis, also a Capuchin, testifies, "Wherever he found hatred and quarrels he went there in hope of restoring peace. He paid no heed to storms, snow, impossible roads." "Lord make me an instrument of your peace!" Clutching the crucifix to his heart or raising it to the heavens, no one could resist him. An early story tells of the fifty bandits who terrorised Central Italy like the wolf of Gubbio. He went to their hide-out, led them to the local church, and with the crucifix raised above them spoke of the mercy of God. They responded fully. Gratefully each accepted a rosary as they left the church, and became his most faithful listeners as he preached the Lenten course shortly afterwards in that same church.
Prepared to go among the infidels
Five Jesuits had died serving Christian slaves in Turkey and France and Venice requested Capuchin help. Joseph was among the volunteers. He prepared well, studing the culture, language and beliefs of the people. He learned that the best way to dialogue with them was to listen long and well and allow their weak points to surface. Alas he was not chosen, and he humbly wrote, "Anyone who without qualms thinks himself fit to be a missionary among the Turks is guilty of pride."
Labouring among the infidels
One of those originally selected became ill and to his own great joy Joseph was chosen in his place. In August 1587 the group set out. Joseph was given care of four thousand Christian slaves. More than once he offered to take the place of a slave. Once he overstayed his time consoling those sentenced to hard labour. At the prison gates he found himself locked in for the night. He lay down and slept. Next morning he was thrown into prison as a spy. There he remained for a month until the Venetian Ambassador obtained his release. Plague killed many prisoners and only Joseph and Gregory survived among the Capuchins. Joseph reconverted a Greek bishop to union with Rome and emboldened by this sought an audience with the Sultan asking for "human rights and freedom of conscience." Several requests were in vain, so, like Francis, he decided to drop in on the Sultan uninvited. He reached the inner private rooms before being caught.
For his rashness Joseph was condemned to the "hook." This was an unusually cruel form of torture. The victim is hung from a high scaffold by means of a meat-hook through one hand and one leg. A slow smoking fire is lit underneath. So Joseph hung suffering great pain, dying slowly, burning with thirst and fever. His whole body shook convulsively while guards mocked him and added wet rags to the fire to suffocate him with smoke. After three days they left him expecting he would not survive the night.
Rescue and new mission
Peter and Paul had escaped prison and chains with angelic help. "A young man came that night, released the hook and bound up my wounds. He said, "Your mission here is over. Go back to Italy and preach the gospel there!" Was it an angel? Or was the half-conscious Joseph rescued by a messenger of the Sultana Bofa? 'She was a Venetian by birth. Either way it was "the hand of God."
Preach good news to the poor
To whom should he preach? Back in Assisi huge crowds attended his Advent sermons. They had heard of the "attempted martyrdom." He might have preached to such crowds in urban comfort for the next thirty years. Instead he pleaded to be allowed go to the impoverished villages in the mountains. He became their wandering visitor teaching the catechism and simple prayers and the Mercy of God in the Cross and the Eucharist. He would speak to every gathering and then forge ahead to where his messengers had gone before him. Indeed the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach the good news to the poor! Unjust judges and moneylenders heard the sharp clear words of Scripture. He founded Credit Unions and grain stores for food security. The first store was for "poor ladies who administered it themselves." He promoted hospitals, guest-houses and always peace! Christian charity embraces both body and soul.
Anchored in the Eucharist and the Mass
Joseph drew strength and inspiration for his many apostolic and charitable activities from the sacrament of love. As for so many Capuchin preachers the Forty Hours devotion was a special experience. His was a faith that lived in continual Union with Jesus present in the Tabernacle and expressing itself in good works. A companion asked why he went into church so often. He replied, "I go to visit my Lord, to see how he is doing and if he needs anything. Courtiers are at the beck and call of their prince day and night. As sons, servants and ministers we should always be close to Our Lord, called as we are to be mediators between God and man. Many graces come from such visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament."
Suffering as a proof of love
The Eucharist, Sacrament and Sacrifice as memorials of the Passion are inseparable from the Cross. Joseph was always willing to suffer in order to advance God's work. "When we suffer anything we give proof of our love." Towards the end of his life he had to undergo surgery. Doctors prepared to tie him down. "No! No!" he said. "Just give me my crucifix and then go ahead. Cut and burn as you need." Surgery was no gentle art in those days. The surgeons worked away as Joseph murmured his favourite prayer, "Holy Mary, help the suffering." But all was in vain. His illness was incurable.
Dying like St. Francis
Joseph asked to be taken to Leonessa. In tears he bade goodbye to his family and friends until they should meet in heaven. He went out to a nearby hill, and raised the crucifix to bless his home town. He was taken to Amatrice where his nephew was guardian. It had been their mutual prayer that which ever of them died first would be ministered to by the other. "Today is a Saturday dedicated to Mary. Like Francis, I will be happy to die on this day." Too weak to continue with the Divine Office he simply repeated, "Holy Mary, help the suffering." He passed away quietly on the 4th February 1612. He was beatified by Pope Clement XII in 1737 and nine years later he was canonised by Pope Benedict XIV together with St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen - the attempted martyr and the Proto-martyr together.
Simple profound teaching
Joseph could express his message with beautiful simplicity as we see from his homilies. "The Good News is written not on parchment but in our hearts. The written law was engraved on stone. The law of grace is imprinted on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Every Christian should be a living book in which the gospel can be read. So Paul wrote, "You are our letter of recommendation written not by ink but by the Spirit of the living God." Would that the Holy Spirit enable my tongue, dipped in the blood of the spotless Lamb, to write in your hearts today. But how can one script be imposed on another? First remove the old so that the new may be written. Out with avarice, lust, pride.... , so that humility, honesty…may be inscribed."
Exhortation of St. Ambrose
“Out of love for us Christ became all things. Christ is everything for us. If you wish to have your wounds healed, he is the doctor.
If you are living with fever, he is the water of refreshment.
If you are burdened with faults, he is your justification.
If you have need of help, he is your resource.
If you fear death, he is your life.
If you are longing for heaven, he is the way.
If you wish to escape from darkness, he is the light.
If you are looking for nourishment , he is your food.
Taste and see that the Lord is sweet.
Blessed is the one that trusts in him.”

From Saints and Blesseds of the Capuchin Franciscan Order by my confrere and member of my community Br. Donatus McNamara.

The above image shows the remains of St. Joseph. They're in the town in a church near the town square.

Above: Relics of St. Joseph including his breviary, cord, sandals, celice, and the chains and collar he wore.

Donatus fails to mention that Joseph was known as the 'companion killer' by his fellow friars. In those days the friars travelled in twos. So energetic and unstinting was Joseph in his evangelizing that he wore not a few friars into the ground. I have visited Leonessa (his remains are on display there) and can confirm that the surrounding hills are very steep so it's no wonder his companions found it hard to keep up.

I also offer this video of the inside of the Capuchin chapel just outside the town of Leonessa. It shows sgraffito work and tells of some of Joseph's more well-known miracles.

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