The Year of the Priest will begin on Friday, June 19th, Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It may well spark a greater interest in models of priestly holiness. Today, for example, is the dies natalis of Father Leopoldo Pastori (1939-1996), an Italian missionary monk in Guinea-Bissau.
The Will of the Father
Born in Lodi, Italy on February 9, 1939, Leopoldo entered the PIME Fathers (Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions) in September 1957. On May 1, 1961, he received the clerical habit. In his photo album of pictures taken that day, Leopoldo wrote:
Come Gesù giovinetto, mi porto all’ altare del Padre e con Gesù offro la mia giovinezza per fare la volontà del Padre. Non c’è cosa più bella al mondo che fare sempre e ovunque la volontà di Dio: fonte di pace e di consolazione.
“Like the young lad Jesus, I bring myself to the altar of the Father and with Jesus I offer my youth to do the will of the Father. There is nothing more beautiful in the world than always and everywhere to do the will of God: the wellspring of peace and of consolation.”
To Love the Madonna and Make Her Loved
Maria! Ecco un tesoro che vengo a scoprire continuamente. La mia vestizione è stata tanto bella e felice perché mi ero preparato con la Madonna. Maria ! Se ho un desiderio forte, è quello di amare tanto e di far amare la Madonna.
“Mary! Behold a treasure that I am coming to discover continually. My vestition was so beautiful and happy because I prepared myself with the Madonna. Mary! If I have one strong desire it is this one: to love the Madonna so much, and to make her loved.”
Leopoldo was ordained a priest on June 29, 1969. Instead of being sent straightaway to the foreign missions, he was assigned to the PIME Minor Seminary built by Blessed John XXIII in Sotto Il Monte. The ideological climate was marked by May 1968. A popular slogan among confused young clerics was, “Obedience is no longer a virtue.” Leopoldo remained constant, faithful to his life of prayer and to the ascetical disciplines he had chosen for himself.
To the Missions
In 1972, Father Leopoldo went for the first time to visit the PIME missions in Guinea-Bissau. In 1974, at thirty-five years of age, he was assigned to those same missions. To his friends he wrote, “I am leaving in the name of Jesus and for love of Him; only in this why can I feel that my life is right.” He devotes himself to the poor, visits the sick, and forms a local orchestra for young people. His afternoons are given to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and to reading. Father Leopoldo wrote:
Il lavoro è importantissimo, l’impegno e le attività importantissimi, necessari, ma se non c’è un’unione insistente, profonda e frequente con Gesù, soprattutto nell’Eucarestia, tutto il resto non serve a niente, finisce solo in una delusione, in mani vuote, nel cercare continuamente di seminare ma seminare a vuoto.
“Work is most important, duties and activity are most important and necessary, but if there is not an insistant, profound, and frequent union with Jesus, above all in the Eucharist, all the rest is worth nothing, it ends only in a delusion, in empty hands, trying continually to sow the seed, but sowing in a void.”
In July 1977 Father Leopoldo is found to be suffering from hepatitis. He is hospitalized in the international clinic in Dakar. He accepts the solitude of his hospitalization, prays constantly, and seeks union with Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament. He goes to the Benedictines in Cap-des-Biches for a month of convalescence. In March 1978 he returns to Italy to serve as rector of the seminary at Sotto Il Monte. He remains there until 1996.
Prego sempre che il Signore, dopo questo forzato “esilio”, mi dia la grazia di ritornare ancora in Guinea. Il vescovo mi aspetta.
“I am always praying that the Lord, after this forced exile, will give me the grace to return again to Guinea. The bishop is waiting for me.”
On September 23, 1990, Father Leopoldo receives his missionary crucifix for the second time. He returns to Guinea on December 16, 1990. He will remain there for five and a half years: the most fruitful years of his life.
Sto acclimatandomi bene in questa nuova casa, con una bellissima chiesa. Mi trovo bene. Per ora faccio la vita del missionario-monaco, attorniato da un silenzio profondo, cadenzato dal richiamo di tanti uccelli, cicale, grilli, e dai canti notturni dei villaggi vicini. . . . A poco a poco mi inserisco nel lavoro, che è soprattutto di animazione spirituale, approfondimento dei contenuti missionari alla gente.
“I am acclimatizing myself well in this new house with a most beautiful church. I am well here. For the moment I am leading the life of a missionary-monk, surrounded by a profound silence, marked by the calls of so many birds, cicadas, crickets, and by the nocturnal songs of the villages . . . . Little by little I insert myself into the work: mostly spiritual direction, the deepening of the missionary message to the people.”
Father Leopoldo has deep spiritual affinities with Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, and with Blessed Charles de Jésus (de Foucauld), whom he calls, quoting Pope Paul VI, “one of the greatest missionaries of the century.”
Five Hours of Prayer Daily
Prayer holds the first place in Father Leopoldo’s missionary life:
Sto cercando di vivere il mio ideale: essere missionario-contemplativo per annunziare Cristo in modo credibile (“Redemptoris Missio”, n. 91). Do molto tempo alla preghiera davanti all’Eucarestia, almeno cinque ore al giorno, come facevano i primi missionari del Pime. E sto provando, dato che Gesù vuole crescere e io diminuire, che la preghiera sta diventando continua, di giorno e, quando mi sveglio, di notte!
“I am seeking to live my ideal: to be a missionary-contemplative so as to announce Christ in a credible manner (“Redemptoris Missio,” n. 91). I give much time to prayer before the Eucharist, at least five hours a day, as did the first PIME missionaries. And I am experiencing, given that Jesus wants to increase and wants me to decrease, that prayer is becoming continual, by day, and when I wake up, by night.”
Fatima and Death
In February 1996 Father Leopoldo participates in a pilgrimage of Portuguese priests to Fatima. At Fatima he makes a retreat in preparation for Lent. It will be the last Lent of his life. Diagnosed with acute hepatitis, he returns to Italy accompanied by a missionary Sister, on May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. He is immediately hospitalized in Piacenza. Father Leopoldo impresses the hospital personnel by his simplicity and peace in the face of death. One of his nurses remarked, “I don’t know how he manages never to complain.” He dies on May 26th.
The Care of Souls and Bodies
A few months after his death the city of Lodi awards Father Leopoldo posthumously the Gold Medal for Civic Achievement. The award is motivated by:
Mirabile esempio di dedizione incondizionata alla Chiesa e a Cristo, totalmente dedito alla cura e al servizio degli altri.
Questo amore incondizionato per il suo prossimo lo porta a donare la sua vita per le missioni, lavorando instancabilmente per lo spirito e la promozione umana di quelle popolazioni.
La sua cristianità era un perfetto connubio tra la cura dell’ anima alimentata quotidianamente da lunghe ore di preghiera – e quella del corpo, passata nei villaggi ad ascoltare, consigliare, dare conforto a quanti si rivolgevano a lui, con la sua abituale serenità e cordialità.
“His wonderful example of unconditional dedication to the Church and to Christ, totally given to the care and service of others.
This unconditional love for his neighbour compels him to give his life for the missions, working tirelessly for the spirit and human advancement of these populations.
His Christianity was a perfect marriage between the care of souls nourished daily by long hours of prayer, and the care of the body, passing in the villages to listen, to counsel, and to give comfort to those who turned to him, with his habitual serenity and cordiality.”
The Man of God
What was the priestly spirituality of Father Leopoldo Pastori? Its outstanding characteristic was the desire for God expressed, above all, in silence and in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. His ideal of missionary life was to be a man of God, a man of prayer, a man who ceaseless sought God so as to know Him, love Him, experience Him, and thus be able to transmit this experience to others. He was, at the same time, a resolutely active missionary, making the best use of the scant energy left him by the hepatitis that so weakened him.
The Face of God
Father Leopoldo was known never to have spoken ill of others. There was no evidence in his life of discouragement, melancholy, or pessimism. He came to cherish illness as a privileged means of union with Christ. He referred to the sick as, “the beloved of Jesus.” His diary reveals a burning desire to encounter God, and a tender love for Jesus and Mary. The leit-motif of his diary is “to do the Will of God” — to this Father Leopoldo joined the prayer of the apostles, “Teach me how to pray,” and the cry of the psalmist, “Let me see your Face.”
Pray For Us
The holiness of Father Leopoldo is best seen against the background of his chronic illness. Hepatitis drained away his strength, kept him from working, and weakened him at every level. His brand of holiness was not to be that of the enterprising missionary going from one pastoral accomplishment to another. It was that of the missionary-monk, of the priest-adorer of the Blessed Sacrament, of the loving son of the Virgin Mary, the brother of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, and the spiritual father of souls sent to him by God. I ask his intercession for myself and for all priests.