St John Leonardi
(Patron Saint of Pharmacists)
Five days later the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and an attorney, a certain Tertullus, and they reported their case against Paul to the governor. When Paul had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying:
‘Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight. We welcome this in every way and everywhere with utmost gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you to hear us briefly with your customary graciousness. We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, and so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn from him concerning everything of which we accuse him.’
The Jews also joined in the charge by asserting that all this was true. When the governor motioned to him to speak, Paul replied:
‘I cheerfully make my defence, knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation. As you can find out, it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem. They did not find me disputing with anyone in the temple or stirring up a crowd either in the synagogues or throughout the city. Neither can they prove to you the charge that they now bring against me.
‘But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience towards God and all people.
‘Now after some years I came to bring alms to my nation and to offer sacrifices. While I was doing this, they found me in the temple, completing the rite of purification, without any crowd or disturbance. But there were some Jews from Asia—they ought to be here before you to make an accusation, if they have anything against me.
‘Or let these men here tell what crime they had found when I stood before the council, unless it was this one sentence that I called out while standing before them, “It is about the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.” ’
But Felix, who was rather well informed about the Way, adjourned the hearing with the comment, ‘When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.’ Then he ordered the centurion to keep him in custody, but to let him have some liberty and not to prevent any of his friends from taking care of his needs.
If I hadn’t said that St John Leonardi was the patron saint of pharmacists, you could probably be excused for saying “never heard of him”. He’s not a saint who appears in the Anglican cycle, but he’s an interesting character, and was a bit of a pioneer in his own way.
He was born in 1541 in Diecimo, in Italy’s Lucca province. At 17, he was apprenticed to an apothecary. He worked hard at his studies for more than a decade, and even opened his own shop, but there was always something else nagging away in the background.
Even as a child, he had sought out solitude for prayer and meditation, and he eventually abandoned the career path chosen for him by his family, to follow the one chosen for him by God. He was ordained at Epiphany in 1572, and immediately threw himself into the work God had placed on his heart.
John Leonardi lived in interesting times. The protestant reformation was far from over, but Luther had come to prominence a couple of decades earlier, Tyndale (see Tuesday’s reflection!) had published his English Bible in 1526, Lutheran theology was crystallised in the Augsburg Confession in 1530, the Church of England had broken away in 1534, and Calvin had published his Institutes in 1536 – all before John was born.
And on the flip-side of the coin, the Roman Catholic church itself was going through a period of turbulent change and revival (the Counter Reformation). Again, in the period around John’s birth and early life, Ignatius of Loyola had founded the Jesuit order in 1534, and the famous Council of Trent took place in 1545-1563. There were positive changes – new religious orders, renewed spirituality, and new missionary endeavour – but also negative reactions to Protestantism – the Inquisitions, the Index of Forbidden Books (1559), and the Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
Much of what was going on was about the power (and fearfulness) of popes, kings and emperors, and of the church as institution, but some was genuinely grass-roots, highly imaginative, and God-inspired. I’d have to put John Leonardi in the second category.
In his early ministry, he essentially threw himself into what we’d now call detached youthwork, and in parallel with that he raised up lay leaders around him to work in hospitals and prisons. His desire was to deepen faith, and cultivate spirituality – we’d say he was an evangelist at heart, but keen to make new disciples of real depth.
He also proposed forming a new order of ‘secular priests’ – what we would call Self-Supporting Ministers today. That led to him founding what are sometimes called the Lucca Fathers. His pioneering work caught the interest of Pope Paul V, but ironically it was opposed by the civic leaders in Lucca, and they forced John to leave and base his work in Rome.
All this time, though, his training as an apothecary was there in the background, and he often spoke of wanting people to discover “the medicine of God” which is Jesus, crucified and risen – Jesus, who is “the measure of all things”.
I really believe that the verses from our daily prayer readings today that would have resonated most with him would be Acts 24.14-16:
‘But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience towards God and all people.’
In 1605, he wrote to Pope Paul V:
“Whoever wishes to carry out a serious moral and religious reform must make first of all, like a good doctor, a careful diagnosis of the evils that beset the Church so as to be able to prescribe for each of them the most appropriate remedy. Christ first of all, Christ in the centre of the heart, in the centre of history and of the cosmos. Humanity needs Christ intensely, because he is our measure. There is no realm that cannot be touched by his strength; there is no evil that cannot find remedy in him, there is no problem that cannot be solved in him. Either Christ or nothing!”
That’s quite a ‘prescription’ from the apothecary priest – a ‘remedy’ for individuals, the church, and civil society – a prescription for genuine transformation.
John never achieved high office, and wouldn’t have wanted it. The order he founded was deliberately small and modest, even if his confidence in the transforming power of God was immense. But like St Paul, he was concerned “always to have a clear conscience towards God and all people” (Acts 24.16), and so he never pushed himself forward, only Jesus.
John Leonardi died, as he lived, in service, and administering ‘medicine’. That feels very relevant today! Rome was hit by a flu epidemic in 1609, and while tending the needs of his brothers, he became ill himself, and died – not of flu, but of plague. To paraphrase – and subvert – a quote from Trump this week “That’s what leaders do!”