The Catholic Defender: Saint Joseph of Leonissa
Joseph was born at Leonissa in the Kingdom of Naples. As a boy and as a student in early adulthood, Joseph drew attention for his energy and virtue. Offered a nobleman’s daughter in marriage, Joseph refused and joined the Capuchins in his hometown in 1573 instead.
Under their faithful guidance the little boy made such progress in piety that at a very tender age he resolved upon certain feast days, and took the greatest pleasure in practices of piety.
Whilst yet a boy he used to take the discipline on Fridays in company with the Confraternity of the Holy Savior. He was educated by his uncle, who had planned a suitable marriage for him, but in his sixteenth year he fell sick of a fever, and upon his recovery, without consulting his guardian, he joined the Capuchin reform of the Franciscan Order.
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. After overcoming family opposition, he was admitted to the novitiate and received the habit and the name Joseph and made profession on January 8, 1573.
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.
His dwelling was a poor cell, so small and narrow that Saint Joseph of Leonesse could hardly stand, sit, or lie down in it. His bed was the bare earth, a block of wood was his pillow. He ate by preference food which the others could not or would not eat, such as stale beans and moldy bread. In spite of the great strain associated with a life of preaching, he persevered in doing such penance even after he had been entrusted with the task. With works of penance he strove to win over those souls to God that he could not move with words.
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.
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.
It is said that from a young age he showed a remarkably religious bent of mind; he used to erect little altars and spend much time in prayer before them, and often he would gather his companions and induce them to pray with him.
Avoiding the safe compromises by which people sometimes undercut the gospel, Joseph denied himself hearty meals and comfortable quarters as he prepared for ordination and a life of preaching.
He usually preached with a crucifix in his hands, and the fire of his words kindled a flame in the hearts of his hearers and penitents. In 1587 he was sent by his superiors into Turkey, to labor as a missioner among the Christians at Pera, a suburb of Constantinople, He there encouraged and served the Christian galley-slaves with wonderful charity and fruit, especially during a violent pestilence, with which he himself was seized, but recovered. He converted many apostates,
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.
In 1587, he went to Constantinople to take care of the Christian galley slaves working under Turkish masters. Imprisoned for this work, he was warned not to resume it on his release. He did and was again imprisoned and then condemned to death. Miraculously freed, he returned to Italy where he preached to the poor and reconciled feuding families as well as warring cities which had been at odds for years. He was canonized in 1745.
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.
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.
Near death, on the evening of the third day, the guards cut him down.
Urged on by zeal he at last sought to enter the palace to preach before Sultan Murad III and tried to convert Muslims, but he was seized and condemned to death.
Eventually set free, he returned to Italy and died there of cancer.
When he became deathly ill, Joseph asked to be taken to Leonessa in order to pay his last respects to his relatives and friends. 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." Joseph was beatified by Clement XII in 1737 and canonized by Benedict XIV in 1746.
Saint Joseph of Leonissa