Saint of the Day – 30 August – Blessed Giovanni Giovenale Ancina CO (1545–1604) Bishop of Saluzzo, member of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Scholar, Musician and Composer, renowned Preacher Doctor of Medicine. Commonly known as Blessed Juvenal Ancina. He served in the Oratorians as a simple priest for around two decades prior to his Episcopal appointment which he attempted to elude for five months before submitting to Pope Clement VIII and accepting the Papal appointment. He entered his Diocese several months later where he became noted for his charitable work with the poor and his efforts to better implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. He was born on 19 October 1545 at Fossano, Piedmont, Italy and died by poisoning on 30 August 1604 aged 59. Patronages – Fossano and the Diocese of Saluzzo.
Of all the saints and beati of the Oratory, it is Giovanni Juvenal Ancina who had the privilege of a personal acquaintance with the Founder and Patron, St Philip Neri. He was born in Fossano in late 1545, the eldest of four children. His early years were devoted to study and especially study of medicine, which became his chosen profession after the death of his father. Throughout his early life he and his brother Giovanni Matteo, who also became an Oratorian, were conspicuous for their delight in religion — none of St Philip’s reticence about ‘building little altars’ here.
He became an accomplished musician and man of letters. His talents and interests coupled with his various connections led him to a wide range of career options which included a stint as a Professor of medicine at the Turin college. After his father died he attended a Padua college where he wrote the Latin poem “The Naval Battle of the Christian Princes” in 1566 and dedicated this to the Doge of Venice Girolamo Priuli. The death of Pope Pius V in mid-1572 saw him recite an ode in public in the late Pontiff’s honour while making the accurate prediction that the next pope would title himself as “Gregory.” His mother died while he was in Turin in 1569 and in 1572 the Order of Saint Augustine invited him to attend their provincial chapter at Savigliano
He first became a Doctor and then in 1574 accompanied Count Federigo Madrucci to Rome as the count’s personal Doctor. It was there in Rome that Ancina attended the theological lectures that Cardinal Robert Bellarmine gave and the two became quick friends and soon Juvenal began his studies in theology under St Robert Bellarmine at the Roman College. When he took the theological examination required of candidates for the episcopacy, Pope Clement VIII called him the best prepared candidate he had ever heard of. Even Baronius, an intellectual heavyweight in his own right, called Ancina “a new St Basil.”
Once in Rome, Ancina’s search to deepen his faith and to discern his vocation brought him to St Philip’s Oratory in 1576. He wrote to his brother Giovanni Matteo that he “felt urged
above all to humility.” Philip was a great discerner of souls and he took his time nurturing Ancina’s vocation to the Oratory. In 1578 both Ancina brothers entered the Oratory; on 9May 1582, Giovenale was Ordained Priest and Matteo Deacon.
Juvenale Ancina became known for his preaching and teaching in the Oratory; his impressive handwritten theology lessons are still largely preserved. Of all of St Philip’s disciples, Ancina is said to have most closely imitated his spiritual master; his devotion to Philip is illustrated by the affection expressed in his many letters from Naples. Philip had sent him to Naples at the request of Tarugi, who was establishing a new Oratory there. Ancina served in Naples for a decade with great apostolic zeal and tireless dedication. About 1595, the year of Philip’s death, Ancina was recalled to Rome to replace Baronius as provost. The following year, Pope Clement VIII had to fill three vacant Episcopal sees and Ancina was on the short list. He literally fled into the hills for five months, seeking to remain a simple Oratorian Priest but he could not avoid the assignment forever. In 1602, the Pope ordered him to accept assignment as Bishop of Saluzzo. At least he had the consolation of being ordained Bishop in the Chiesa Nuova by Cardinal Tarugi himself.
Once he arrived in Saluzzo, Ancina instituted a Diocesan Seminary, made a pastoral visit of his Diocese and reached out to heretics; he is credited for the conversion of a grandson of Calvin, who became a Carmelite. His tenure as Bishop of Saluzzo is noted for the breadth and depth of it’s accomplishments in spite of its brevity and especially for his holiness and simplicity of life. He was content with three to four hours’ sleep and often slept on the bare floor; he wore a hair shirt and girdle and wore a coarse linen shirt over his cassock while choosing coarse food. Ancina was known to sometimes spend several hours in ecstatic Adoration, unaware of others around him. He lived a very austere life for a Bishop, retaining only the luxury of his extensive library.
Ancina made a major goal of his episcopate the implementation of the directives of the recent Council of Trent. In line with this he convened a gathering of the episcopate where he laid out the methods of reform for both those in the priesthood and for the faithful. He made arrangements to set up a religious educational institute to provide a higher level of knowledge and dedication in new Priests. He gave a large emphasis to the instruction of the faithful in the teachings and beliefs of the faith for which he introduced the use of the new Catechism that the Council of Trent had drawn up. He encouraged the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Bishop St Francis de Sales had a great admiration for Ancina and St Francis was later to establish and join an Oratorian house in his own Diocese. The two often corresponded with each other and Ancina received a letter from his friend on 17 May 1599 who sent it from Turin at the time. On 3 May 1603 the Bishop de Sales had invited him to attend a sermon that he was to give.
Unfortunately, this remarkable Oratorian’s life and work was cut short when he was murdered by poisoning and died on 30 August 1604. It was his zeal which eventually led to his death — he was poisoned by a Monk whom he had felt obliged to discipline for visiting a convent with less than holy intent. On 20 August the Monk gave him wine laced with poison under the guise of reconciliation; the Bishop was surprised at the gesture but drank the contents. The Monk then fled to Genoa under the false pretence of going to Savona for a pilgrimage. The Bishop began vomiting and was confined to his bed as his condition worsened and when suffering overcame him he murmured to himself: “Oh! What poison! What terrible poison this is!” The Duke of Savoy heard of this and sent his private Doctor to help Ancina, though nothing could be done at that stage. He summoned his brother to him and then asked for his confession to be heard before receiving the Extreme Unction. The ailing Bishop asked to be laid on the bare floor to die and he invoked Saint Januarius- whom he fostered a devotion to. His final words were: “Jesus, sweet Jesus, with Mary give peace to my soul.” He was buried in the Diocesan Cathedral. In 1620 his remains were exhumed and found well-preserved but turned into dust upon contact with the air except for the skull and several bones. Juvenal had known quite well who his poisoner was but refused to testify against him and died on 30 August 1604, aged 59.
St Francis de Sales attested to Ancina’s saintliness sometime in the 1660s and the Congregation for Rites later validated the informative and apostolic processes in 1716. The confirmation of Ancina’s life of heroic virtue allowed for Pope Pius IX to title him as Venerable on 29 January 1870. Pope Leo XIII later approved two miracles attributed to Ancina’s intercession on 30 May 1889 and so this great disciple of St Philip, close friend of St Francis de Sales and a holy Bishop was Beatified in Saint Peter’s Basilica on 9 February 1890.