On 28 May 1886, a boy was born to Pietro Mandić and Carolina Zarević in the town of Herçeg Novi in present-day Montenegro. The parents were ethnic Croats though their country was at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The boy was the last of their twelve children and was baptized with the name of Bogdan, a Croatian name meaning 'a gift of God'. He was a frail child and never enjoyed good health. He suffered from various physical deformities: his feet were misshapen, he could never speak properly and he was very short. As an adult he was only 1.35 metres.
He entered the Capuchin novitiate on 2 May 1884 and was given the name of Leopold. Having completed his studies he was ordained priest in Venice on 20 September 1890. For the first eight years after ordination he was posted to various friaries in the Capuchin Province of Venice. His work was that of confessor, although his hope was that he would be able to return to his own country. In preparation for an anticipated return, he learned Slovene and also Greek. His hope seemed close to fulfilment when he was appointed guardian of a friary at Zara near his home country but this appointment lasted only two years.
Because of his short stature, his fellow-Capuchins - not very kindly - gave him the nickname of 'The Pocket Edition' He was sensitive about his height and those jokes at his expense hurt him. He had to struggle hard to overcome the psychological problems caused by thoughtless humour. He knew he was pitied or laughed at, and his speech impediment made matters worse. He could not pronounce words properly. He would try with great effort to do so but the words would tumble out in a senseless mumble. It was only by long effort that he was able to pronounce clearly the words of the consecration at Mass or of absolution in confession. He could never preach. On the street he was made the object of practical jokes. Boys would gather round him and fill his capuce (the hood of his Capuchin habit) with stones. "Let them have their fun," he would say, "I'm not much use for anything else."
The other sore spot in his life was his nationality. He was a Croat by birth and any insult to his people or language would have him boiling with rage. Although hot-tempered by nature he worked to control his anger. In later years, during the First World War, when he was stationed in Italy, he found himself in an awkward situation. Although Croat by race, language and culture he was technically an Austrian citizen, and Austria was at war against Italy. He was given the choice of taking Italian nationality or of living in internal exile in the south of Italy, well away from the battlefront. He chose exile.
His great desire was to work among the Orthodox Christians of his country for their reconciliation with the Catholic Church. He prayed for this intention and took a vow for the purpose, promising, "I, Leopold, before God, in the presence of the Virgin his mother and of all the saints, acknowledge that I am obliged by vow to work for the return of our separated brothers of the East to Catholic unity." He renewed this vow all through his life even though he never had the opportunity of acting directly for its fulfilment. He attributed this sense of being called by God to work for Christian unity to a spiritual experience that he had had on 18 June 1887. He never explained what the experience was but fifty years later he could still recall it clearly. Gradually he came to understand that perhaps what God wanted of him was different from what he had expected. In his own words, "Some time ago I happened to meet and give Communion to a very holy person. Afterwards this person said to me, 'Jesus has told me that your East is in every soul that you help in confession.'"
In 1906 he was appointed to Padua where he was to remain for the remaining thirty-six years of his life. He passed largely unnoticed in the community. He was regarded as a good, even exemplary friar, but nothing more. Some of his confreres described him as having a happy temperament, with a good sense of humour, a man who got on well with everyone. But others could see more than that. They saw that he slept for only five hours a day and when not hearing confessions was in the church praying. He seems to have followed the dictum that the first quality of a good confessor is that he should be a good penitent, because he himself went to confession daily. When urged to rest from time to time he replied, "We are called to hard work. We should pray to God that we may die of hard work in the apostolate." His calm and his great respect for people were the qualities that people most noted in him. He was strict with himself, especially in obedience, saying, "Anyone who will not obey can give up hope." Yet he advised his provincial minister, "Try not to load the consciences of the communities with regulations that are not really necessary… You see, regulations are made to be kept, and if they are not truly necessary they are a trap for weaker brethren."
He remained a student all his life and often surprised people by how well he kept himself informed of current affairs as well as matters of philosophy and theology. They didn't see how he found time for it, but he did. He was active in promoting the reading of scripture by laypeople and wrote a series of articles for members of the Secular Franciscan Order to encourage and help them to do so. He thoroughly enjoyed a discussion in theology, especially on the works of Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Alphonsus Liguori or on papal encyclicals. He sometimes surprised his confreres with his opinions. At a time when the rights of trades unions were not well recognized he was asked if he thought it was legitimate for workers to try to improve their situation. He replied, "The fruits of the field are the fruits of capital contributed by the owner, and of work contributed by the labourer. Capital means money, but labour means blood and sweat and life. Which is more valuable, money or life? Life! Well, then, you understand me…"
One of his great burdens in life was his health. In addition to his speech defect, he suffered from arthritis and almost constant stomach trouble. Even when in his seventies he would not allow any heating in the confessional where he spent hours each day, no matter how cold the weather. His explanation was simple: "The poor can't afford heat."
The great apostolic work of Leopold's life was the confessional, and it can be stated simply. He spent about twelve hours a day for forty years hearing confessions. He never sent anyone away or complained that the time was unsuitable. At the end of a long day it sometimes happened that he would be just back in his room when the bell would ring again for confession. His answer invariably was, "Here I am, sir! Here I am!" If he had just gone to bed at night and a friar came to him for confession it was the same, "Here I am! At your service!" His confreres sometimes criticized him for giving penances that they considered too light, but his answer was that that was the reason why he spent his spare time in prayer. He was saying people's penances for them.
He had an extraordinary power of prophecy. Two remarkable instances are on record. On 23 March 1932, a man who came to his confessional found him in a depressed state. He enquired what the matter was. Leopold was reluctant to say anything but finally blurted out twice, "I saw Italy in a sea of fire and blood. Pray God that I may be wrong." Whenever the future of Italy was mentioned in conversation, he would cry and say, "God have pity on Italy." In June 1940 he told his confreres that Padua would be bombed and the church and friary destroyed. Two years after his death, on 14 May 1944, a heavy Allied air raid bombed Padua. The church and friary were destroyed - except for Leopold's confessional.
In was in this way that he climbed his Calvary carrying his cross until early in 1942. Then 78 years of age, his health steadily deteriorated and he was confined to bed, but still continued to hear confessions, especially of priests, for whom he had a life-long affection. On 29 July he heard the confessions of fifty priests in his room. At 7 a.m. on the following day, he died.
It was a measure of his popularity that, on that day, some 25,000 people streamed through the church to see his body laid out before the main altar. On 31 July, his funeral brought Padua to a standstill as almost the entire population attended.
On 2 May 1976, Pope Paul VI declared Leopold Mandić blessed. In 1983, during the Synod of Bishops on the theme of Reconciliation and Penance, Pope John Paul II declared him a saint.