God’s providential guidance is more evident in the life stories of some than others. The career of Blessed John Juvenal Ancina is so unusual that one can almost see in it God’s hand at work from moment to moment.
John Juvenal, although the son of a distinguished Spaniard, was born in Fossano, Italy, in subalpine Piedmont, close to the French border. He was a bright boy and a good boy, but had no early thoughts of other than a secular career. Durando Ancina’s proposal that his son study medicine was therefore quite acceptable. John began his studies at 14 in the University of Montpellier, southern France; continued at Mondovi and Padua in Italy, and when about 24, took brilliant doctorates at Turin in both philosophy and medicine. In 1569 he was named professor of medicine at the University of Turin, but he also had a private medical practice and did much gratis for the sick poor. Thus Dr. Ancina, medic, poet, and commentator on political events, seemed to be deeply rooted in a respectable academic vocation.
Around 1572, however, when listening at a funeral to the great hymn Dies Irae, whose theme is the Last Judgment, he suddenly realized, by God’s grace, that his spiritual life was not so intensive as it might be. Offered an opportunity soon afterward to be the personal physician of the Duke of Savoy’s ambassador to the Holy See, he resigned his university chair and went with him to Rome.
In the Eternal City, Dr. John soon saw many opportunities to serve God. Since his job as personal physician was not demanding, he was able not only to assist the poor and the imprisoned of Rome, but to undertake a serious study of theology under none other than St. Robert Bellarmine, and to learn the ways of the spiritual life from none other than St. Philip Neri. The upshot of it was that he joined St. Philip’s Congregation of the Oratory, and was ordained a priest in 1582.
Four years later, Father Juvenal was sent to the Oratory’s new house in Naples. Here he quickly established a reputation as a preacher (among his many conversions was a “pop” singer named “The Siren”); as a pastor (he wrote spiritual lyrics for many current street songs); and as an organizer of charities.
Acclaimed though he was by the Neapolitans, after ten years he still felt himself woefully inadequate in the face of the city’s spiritual and economic needs. He was thinking of joining a cloistered order when his superiors called him back to Rome. After he had worked there quietly for a year, three dioceses in Italy fell vacant. Because of his prominence, Father Juvenal rightly feared that he might be named bishop of one of them, so he took flight. Wandering about Italy for the next five months, he helped out wherever he could, but did not disclose his whereabouts to Rome. Finally, however, his superiors caught up with him and ordered him back. By that time the “threat” of a miter was reduced. He spent the next four years working for the people of Piedmont in collaboration with St. Francis de Sales.
In 1602, however, the “blow” fell. Pope Clement VIII insisted that Ancina accept the small bishopric of Saluzzo near his home town of Fossano. John Juvenal could hide no longer.
Once enthroned in Saluzzo, Ancina showed himself an ideal bishop. He established the Forty Hours devotion, the first to be inaugurated in Piedmont. In fall 1603 he began a visitation of all the parishes in his diocese. Supernatural gifts attended his journey, including healings and prophecies, particularly exact prophecies of the dates of people’s deaths.
One of those prophecies was of his own early death. A certain friar in Saluzzo and a local nun had become attached to each other. The Bishop talked to them gently about this scandal, but warned them that if they did not break off, he would have to take strong measures. Now, on August 20, 1604, Bishop Ancina was guest of honor at dinner in the monastery where the culprit friar lived. This hardened sinner put poison in John Juvenal’s wine. The Bishop took ill that evening, and died early on August 31. As a Carthusian monk observed, this was a martyr’s death. Like St. John the Baptist, he “received martyrdom as the reward of fearless speech.”
Marvels attended the burial services of John Juvenal Ancina, and his priests, instead of celebrating requiem Masses, offered Masses in honor of the Holy Spirit.
The cause for the beatification of this holy “Renaissance man” was introduced as early as 1624, although he was officially declared “blessed” only at the First Vatican Council. Pope Pius IX, who beatified him, declared him “a model bishop”.
--Father Robert F. McNamara