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SERVING THE HIDDEN AND NEGLECTED POOR

Father Francis's picture
Saint Joseph of Leonissa

Jesus came to seek the lost sheep of His fold and the Capuchin friar Joseph of Leonissa spent his life serving the hidden and neglected poor.

He was born in 1556 in the kingdom of Naples. His father, a well-respected wool merchant, named him Eufranio but when he was 12 his parents died and his uncle paid for his education. He was expected to be successful in the world and a marriage was arranged with a wealthy nobleman’s daughter. But Eufranio felt drawn to the religious life about the time that a new Capuchin friary was being built close to his home. Impressed by what he saw Eufranio decided to join the Order but because of his uncle's disapproval he had to pursue his vocation secretly. At a Capuchin hermitage, 17 year old Eufranio was admitted to the novitiate. He then travelled to Assisi where he received his habit and his new name. Having discovered what he had done his family tried but could not shake his determination.

With the Capuchins Joseph found what he wanted - a life of poverty and penance. He slept on the floor of his cramped cell and at meal times he ate only the left over scraps, such as stale bread and mouldy beans.

In 1580 at the age of 24 Joseph was ordained. Although he loved solitude and meditation, he said, "Whoever loves a life of contemplation has a serious obligation to go out into the world and preach." His mission took him to the obscure mountainous region of central Italy where the inhabitants were desperately poor and neglected. They must have welcomed this hard working friar who brought them the Gospel and the sacraments. He gave practical help where it was needed and reconciled long standing enemies.

Within a few years Joseph faced a new challenge. In Constantinople five Jesuit missionaries were murdered by the Turks. Joseph was one of the Capuchins who volunteered to replace them. Arriving in 1587 he again found hidden misery among the Christian slaves who lived in appalling conditions in the Turkish ships. Joseph did all he could to bring them material and spiritual comfort. He tried to plead for better conditions for the Christians but when he boldly entered the Sultan’s palace in his Capuchin habit he was arrested and tortured for three days, suspended over a fire by hooks through his right hand and foot. When he was released a young man - some say he was an angel - came to dress his wounds. He gave Joseph food and helped him escape to Italy.

Joseph went back to Assisi where he preached in the cathedral so successfully that the bishop asked him to stay but he begged to be allowed to return to his mountain people. He travelled tirelessly to the most remote and inaccessible villages. Where he could not go on foot he scrambled on hands and knees. Among these poor peasants who had very little knowledge of, the faith, Joseph preached, catechized the children, tended the sick and set up welfare schemes so that people could help themselves and each other. He established food cooperatives and grain stores, founded hospitals and shelters for the sick and homeless, and found time to visit prisoners.

This taxing life style could not be continued indefinitely and in 1612 Joseph fell ill. He knew he was dying and asked to be taken to say goodbye to his family and friends. He died on the day he had foretold, 4 February 1612 at the age of 56.

Joseph’s life could be summed up in his own words, “The good news of the coming of the Lord is not to be written on parchment but on hearts.” In each needy and forgotten person he saw Christ, waiting to be loved and comforted, and his heart went out to them. Let us ask Joseph to help us to love our brothers and sisters, especially the most neglected of them.