During his first few years as a priest, Leopold was transferred to different places in the Province of Venice. In 1906 he was sent to Padua where, except for about a year he spent imprisoned because of his refusal to renounce his nationality, he would remain for the rest of his life.
Leopold was first assigned to be director of the Capuchin students studying philosophy and theology. He also taught patristics. Here, he thought, were other Capuchins whom he could inspire to fulfill his dream, writing, “I will use every means in my power to encourage young apostles who will engage in this work of the reunion of the churches.” In his formal conferences and informal meetings with students he kept repeating his dream.
The Capuchin form of life, especially in the houses of formation, was quite austere and regimented. Nonetheless, both in his use of authority and in his style of teaching, Leopold differed from his peers. His whole approach was defined not by the law but by mercy. Consequently, this created tensions. This contributed to his abrupt removal in 1914. At the age of 48 he was assigned to be a confessor in the adjacent Church of the Holy Cross.
Leopold’s Ministry of Mercy and Reconciliation
After his removal, Leopold spent most of his time hearing the confessions of Padua’s citizens as well as many pilgrims who had heard about the merciful way he treated penitents. Luciani described a particular moment of Leopold’s mercy: “One person who went to him had not been to confession for twenty years. When he had finished, Father Leopold got up, took his hand and thanked him, ‘Thank you, thank you for coming to me; you have agreed to have me receive your repentance after so many years.”
When accused of being too merciful in assigning penances, Leopold would respond, “If the Lord wants to accuse me of showing too much leniency toward sinners, I’ll tell him that it was he who gave me this example, and I haven’t even died for the salvation of souls as he did.”
In October of 1923, it was announced that Father Leopold would be transferred to Fiume, part of Dalmatia, where he would hear confessions in the Slavic tongue. Upon hearing of his transfer he went into the church next door filled with joy. He recited the “Te Deum” in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. After more than 40 years he was returning home.
After the people of Padua heard the news of his transfer, however, they besieged his superiors with requests for his return. Among these was Monsignor Elia dalla Costa, who later became Cardinal of Florence. The superiors relented. Within a week of his transfer Leopold was told to return to Holy Cross Church. Although deeply disappointed, Father Leopold made another offering of himself for the unity of the churches under the patronage of Our Lady whom he called his “parona benedeta” (blessed patron). He wrote:
Most Blessed Virgin Mary:
I brother Leopold Mary Zarevich, through the grace of Our Lord and according to the wish of our Seraphic Father, St. Francis, within the limits and in order that I might accomplish the mission you have entrusted to me concerning the Oriental people, make a vow to labor for the eternal welfare of this people.
You can see in what circumstances my life has developed and with what anxiety I am oppressed. Please, I beg of you, take this cause into your hands. Your most humble servant.
Back at Holy Cross Church, beginning with daily Mass the people of the East were on Leopold’s mind. There he presented himself “as a victim for the Redemption of my brethren though the unbloody Sacrifice of Christ which I offer daily on the holy altar.” After that he would sit each day for 12 to 15 hours in his old rough chair hearing people’s confessions, offering them the mercy of the God of both the East and the West. As he sat there patiently, he found a way to realize his larger mission of reunion in the sacrament. “Each soul who needs my ministry will, in a way, be the Orient for me,” Leopold said.
Near the end of his life Leopold contracted a form of esophageal cancer. On July 30, 1942, while preparing for the liturgy, he collapsed on the floor. The friars took him to his cell where he received the sacrament of the sick. While they sang the “Salve Regina” to the Mother of Mercy, as they prayed the words, “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary,” Leopold died.
During the bombing of World War II the church and part of the friary where Leopold lived were demolished, but Leopold’s cell and confessional were left unharmed. Leopold had predicted, “The church and the friary will be hit by the bombs, but not this little cell. Here God exercised so much mercy for people, it must remain as a monument to God’s goodness.” Pope John Paul II ended his 1976 sermon about Father Leopold Mandić with these words: “above all we should try to imitate his great example of a good and holy life.”