St. Joseph of Leonissa was a Capuchin priest, missionary, and peacemaker. Eufranio Desiderio was born to John Desiderio and his wife Frances in 1556, the fifth of eight children. The pious Catholic family lived at Leonissa, a hillside town in the Kingdom of Naples in present day central Italy. Eufranio was known to be an unusually devout child, praying frequently on his own and with friends, and he created several home shrines for prayer. By the time he was twelve, both of his parents had died, and he was placed in the care of an uncle. He studied at Viterbo as a teen, where the townspeople appreciated his virtue and diligence. He was inspired by the story of a Capuchin friar who had been a respected doctor, and he decided to become a Capuchin himself. He entered as a novice at Carcerelle near Assisi at the age of sixteen, and made his profession at age 18 at Leonissa, receiving the name Joseph.
PENITENTIAL FROM THE START
From the outset, Brother Joseph lived a penitential life, referring to his body as “Brother Ass,” following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who did likewise. His cell was so small that he could barely stand in it, and he slept on the bare ground. He undertook these disciplines not only to join with Our Lord’s penitential life in reparation, but also to reach the hearts of those who refused to conform their lives to the Gospel. He was ordained a priest in 1580 and was assigned to preach. He went about, carrying only his mission crucifix, reaching out to the residents of remote and mountainous areas of the Abruzzo and Umbria regions, especially focusing his attention on the poor. He was often seen pausing for a while on the roadsides for prayer, and because of his great devotion to contemplative prayer, his efforts at preaching bore much fruit. He had a great love for the Eucharist and for the practice of Forty Hours of Adoration, which had begun in Milan some fifty years previously.
A CHALLENGING NEW ASSIGNMENT
In 1587, Joseph was assigned to go with three others to Constantinople, where many Christians were being held captive. He served as a chaplain to four thousand slaves working in a penal colony. He served these unfortunates well, bringing them the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as he was able. He also ministered to the Ottoman Empire’s galley slaves. He offered several times to take the place of an ailing slave, but was never allowed to do so. When a plague occurred, the friars went to work to help the sick. Two of the friars died of the illness and Joseph became ill also, but recovered. He was able to restore to the Faith a Greek bishop who had apostatized. This success inspired him to attempt to convert Sultan Murad III, and plead on behalf of the Turks who were becoming Christian and being mistreated for it. He was arrested at the palace entry, imprisoned in chains, and received a death sentence. He was hung from the gallows with two sharp hooks through his right hand and his right foot, and left hanging thus for three days. A small fire was placed below him to induce suffocation. Some sources say that he was miraculously released by angels, others that the guards cut him down when he was near death.
RETURN TO ITALY
Undaunted after this ordeal, Joseph returned to Italy with the repentant Greek bishop. They went to Rome, and the bishop was officially reconciled with the Church by Pope Sixtus VI. Joseph returned to the Umbria region in 1589, and used the Carcerelle as a home base. He spent most of his time out on preaching and mercy missions throughout central Italy. He lived as a mendicant, begging food for himself and for the poor he served. He often visited people’s homes in remote areas, bringing them spiritual and material help. He was known to wash clothes and cut hair, and he taught them the essential prayers of the Faith. He spared no effort to reach the most neglected people, including swimming across rivers and climbing mountainous terrain in bare feet, earning him the nickname “the preacher of the thickets” among the Capuchins. He gave practical help, setting up food cooperatives, especially to help women. He was fearless in his preaching, condemning sins and encouraging the pursuit of virtue. He possessed the gift of bringing reconciliation to individuals, families, and even cities who were alienated toward each other. At Amatrice he died February 4, 1612, at age fifty-six. The last words he spoke were his favorite prayer, “Holy Mary, help those in misery.”
St. Joseph of Leonissa devoted his entire life to winning souls for Christ, whether they were a Turkish sultan or impoverished mountain people. He could be as meek as a lamb when tending to the poor and as strong as a lion when it came to preaching the truths of the Faith. He would let no humiliation or difficulty prevent him from his mission. He was canonized in 1746 by Pope Benedict XIV. In Leonissa, there is a church and shrine named after him, and his mission crucifix is still there. He is especially remembered on February 4 in central Italy and on the Franciscan calendar.