Blessed Juvenal Ancina
Of all the saints and beati of the Oratory, it is John Juvenal Ancina who had the privilege of a personal acquaintance with our 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 John Matthew, who also became an Oratorian, were conspicuous for their delight in religion — none of St Philip’s reticence about ‘building little altars’ here.
Youthful piety blossomed into religious vocation in an unusually definite manner — he was attending a high Mass at which the Dies Irae was sung: when he heard it, he determined to seek a greater perfection of life, and went to Rome in search of this. Once there, he discovered the Oratory, becoming friendly in particular with Baronius, later Cardinal, Church historian, and St Philip’s successor as superior in the Oratory. St Philip dissuaded him from joining a religious order, and he entered the Oratory on 1st October 1578, being ordained priest in June 1582.
His reputation for holiness of life was such that he was asked to go to the Oratory in Naples in 1586, where he was regarded as something of a ‘second St Philip’. Such acclaim was not without its risks, however, and his abilities came to the attention of the Holy See, who wanted to make him a bishop. Appalled, Juvenal tried to evade the summons to Rome, ironically further enhancing his reputation by his notable preaching in the various places (Loreto, Cingoli, Fermo etc.) which he visited while perpetrating this evasion.
In the end, obedience was stronger than personal taste: he bowed to the wishes of the Pope, and became Bishop of Saluzzo on August 26th 1602, turning down a richer and more prominent See in favour of this area where there were more opportunities for pastoral charity. As a bishop, he showed a great zeal for souls, bringing something of that renewal of the Church in which St Philip played so important a part in Rome to the Italian provinces.
It was his zeal which eventually led to his death — he was poisoned by a man whom he had felt obliged to discipline for visiting a convent with less than holy intent. Juvenal knew quite well who his poisoner was, but refused to testify against him, and died on 31st August 1604, aged 59.
Other beati, such as Antony Grassi, inspire us by a life marked by faithful regularity, and humble search for Christ through decades of outwardly unremarkable existence. In John Juvenal we find someone whose life was more varied, but was, in all its stages, marked out by a desire for virtue, a special awareness of the value and grace of the confessional, and, in the end, by obedience. This obedience was not won without struggle, but led to a fruitful ministry, as Oratorian and bishop.
O God, who made your Bishop, Blessed John Juvenal, an outstanding herald of your word, and a pattern of pastoral care, grant us by his intercession, both to keep the faith which he taught by word, and to follow the way which he showed by his example. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.