Blessed Juvenal Ancina

The diocese of Saluzzo, at the foot of the Alps, fell vacant in 1597 following years of political turmoil. Finally on 26th August 1602 Pope Clement VIII nominated the Oratorian priest Giovanni Juvenal Ancina as bishop. Juvenal, as he was known, was born in Fossano on 19th October 1545, and after attending the schools of the city for about 15 years he was sent to study in Montpellier. Returning home, he continued his studies at the new university at Mondovi, sponsored by Duke Emanuele Filiberto, where he was distinguished in his examinations. On his academic career went, now turning to the study of medicine in Padua, where he awarded the degree of Doctor.

He began the practice of medicine with vigour, seeing it not only as a skill but as a way to serve his neighbour in charity. As it happened some friends of his were going to attend the general Chapter of the Augustinian friars at Savigliano where many distinguished academics would be present, and Juvenal went along to net-work. At the conference, in addition to the humanities conference for which he was present, a Requiem Mass happened to be celebrated which had a very fine musical setting. As he was fond of music, and throughout his life he would compose hymns of praise, he thought he would attend. To his great surprise he came out of the church a changed man. He had been so affected by the Dies Irae about the end of the world and the judgement of humanity that he proposed from that moment to seek God in all things.

In 1574, the Duke of Mondovi sent Count Mandrucci Ancina to Rome as ambassador, and Juvenal accompanied his kinsman as his personal physician. Whilst in Rome he attended courses in theology by the great Jesuit Robert Bellarmine, so as to increase his new desire for knowledge of the things of God. At this time also he began to attend the sermons of St Philip at the Florentine church, San Giovanni. Here he heard the rigorous science of God spoken of so gently and simply that he was captivated. It was not long after that he took Philip as his confessor.

These moments of coincidence, perhaps we should say Providence, brought Juvenal to ask Philip to admit him, along with his brother Matthew, in the Congregation of the Oratory.

Two years after, Juvenal was ordained in October of 1586, and Philip sent him to Naples as Rector of the newly founded Oratory there. He remained in this post for about 10 years. His preaching was purely pastoral, as he had learnt from Philip, far from subtleties and posing of the ‘great preachers’ of the day. In Naples he was heard by all, and was available for all. He knew, like the other Fathers of the Oratory, that many souls are won for God by providing uplifting sacred music and gentle preaching. This success brought him to the attention of the Roman court, where the Oratorian, Cardinal Baronius spoke of him to the pope as a priest of great spiritual life and doctrine. And so his troubles began. He was called back to Rome, and had a suspicion that he was to be elevated to an Episcopal See, but he was spared this ‘calamity’ for a few years. During this time he was rightly terrified of idleness, which is a curse for an Oratorian who must, for the most part, make his daily timetable to suit himself.

Then things got hotter for him, as he saw that the inevitable was soon to come upon him, and he ran away from Rome. He spent five months hiding in various Oratories on the east coast, preaching and helping-out, and avoiding idleness by using his talent for composing music and writing hymns.

Pope Clement VIII heard of his flight from Rome, and sent his Cardinal nephew to the Roman Oratory at Chiesa Nuova to find out where Juvenal had gone. The fathers there did not know, but implored, in vain, that such a valuable priest not be taken from them after Fathers Baronius and Tarugi had been made Cardinals. Still the Pope was determined, especially after he had heard of the great work to be done in the Alpine dioceses where the Calvinists were active. The Oratory fathers eventually heard where he was hiding, and they sent a letter commanding him to return home. He obeyed, renouncing his own way and seeing the will of God manifest in the desire of his community.

Back in Rome he continued his usual round, trying to keep his head down. Still, his charity could not be hidden for long, and he worked to establish a house for poor and destitute converts from Protestantism who had come in exile to Rome. He even converted the nephew of John Calvin, who became a discalced Carmelite friar. Perhaps most importantly he became a great friend of St Francis de Sales, who was to take the Oratory into his own region, not far from where Fr Juvenal was soon to be labouring as a bishop.

The Episcopal appointment came in 1602, and after one more attempt to be free of the burden he finally went to the Pope and knelt before him.
“Now, indeed, Father Juvenal, you can no longer fly,” the Pope remarked.
Juvenal answered, “There was a time to fly when I know not the precise will of your Holiness; but now that I know it also! too well: it is time to obey, and not to fly.”
After that he prostrated himself before the Pope, took his feet and placed them on his head, saying to himself, “Learn to obey the Vicar of Christ.”

For some time he spent outside his new diocese, awaiting the end of political quarrels between the Church and state concerning the bishop’s authority, so busied himself in pastoral work nearby. When he did enter his Episcopal city of Saluzzo it was on foot, even though the nobility had come out several miles to meet him on horseback. He walked in their midst to be greeted by cheering crowds who had heard of his reputation. Quickly he set to work to reverse the deplorable and neglected condition of the diocese, caught for so long between internal political rivalries and the march of heresy from the north.

Public prayers were offered for the work of renewal, the Forty Hours devotion introduced, examinations for the clergy mandated, and new appointments to neglected parishes in the mountains were made. He encouraged


popular preaching and devotions, as were found in the Oratories, as well as beautiful liturgical celebrations to fill the heart and mind. And in all this public activity and busy, joyous devotion, his private life was one of prayer and penance. He clothes were simple and clean, like those of the Oratorian Fathers at Rome and Naples, and made just as thin even in the bitter cold of the Alps. All this was the support he needed for his great work of pastoral visitation of his diocese, even by foot into the most neglected parts of the Alpine valleys.

It was soon into this great pastoral work that he was to die, probably poisoned by a friar whose convent he was visiting. The bishop reprimanded the friar because of his lax way of life, but he was so roused by hatred at this intervention that he was determined to do away with the interfering holy man. As the bishop ate with the community that evening, the friar offered him a gesture of reconciliation by way of a glass of wine.

Vomiting started a few hours later, but he tried to carry on the visitation. Eventually he lay on a bed exhausted, and ready to die. The doctors who were called could all see the effects of poisoning, but the bishop made no accusations. He received the Last Rites, and asked to be laid on the floor. There he lay, calling on the names of Jesus and Mary, and St Januarius the patron of Naples. The canons of the cathedral were summoned, and he spoke to them fondly, asking them to care for the diocese. His last words shortly before dawn on the 31st August were, “Gesù, Gesù dolce con Maria, date pace all’ anima mia” (Jesus, sweet Jesus, with Mary give peace to my soul).

This holy bishop was declared Venerable by Pius IX in the old church of the North American College in 1870 on the feast of his friend, St Francis de Sales. The decree approving the miracles wrought at his intercession was published in the octave of the Feast of St Philip in 1889. Finally the beatification took place in the large hall above the balcony over the main doors of the Vatican basilica on 9th February 1890 by Leo XIII.

The relics of Blessed Juvenal lie in his cathedral, under the altar dedicated to him in his cathedral at Saluzzo.