- personal secretary to Bishop Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi of Bergamo (centre) from 1905-1914.
A tribute to the memory of Father Francesco Pitocchi C.SS.R. by Father Angelo Roncalli.
Rapallo, 14th December, 1922
The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
I had the good fortune to meet him first towards the end of 1902, twenty years ago. I had just returned to the Roman Seminary after my military service, to resume my theological studies, and prepare myself for holy orders.
At the conclusion of our first meeting he gave me a motto to repeat to myself calmly and frequently:-
‘God is all, and I am nothing’ – this was like a new principle that opened to my gaze new horizons, unexplored, full of mystery and spiritual beauty.
And I was satisfied.
That motto, which at once began to cut down any pretensions of personal pride, was like the first chapter of a precious book which, from that evening, Father Francesco taught me to read for my spiritual edification.
When I think now how much I owe to my dear Father’s wise teaching I blush at the small profit I derived from his loving instructions; but I also feel great satisfaction, which seems to me legitimate and holy, because those two years of immediate preparation for my priesthood were indeed, through the mercy of God and through the work of this worthy minister of his, the most fruitful and the richest in ideas and directives for the training of my spirit.
I used to go to see Fr Francesco, as did many of my companions, when he visited the Seminary, generally twice a week. He would listen with great kindness, but did not say very much, often contenting himself with a thought from Scripture sufficient to convince us that he really cared for the soul of each one of us as if the Lord had sent him for that one alone; such was the interest he showed in our weaknesses and in our puny efforts to overcome them, which he supported with fatherly kindness. When we left him, kissing the cross on his stole or his hand raised in absolution or blessing, we felt as it were, new vigour, pleasurable and powerful, an enthusiasm, a great enthusiasm, to do good, which, in spite of so many failings - I speak for myself - was the best part, the beauty and the joy of our youth as seminarists.
Sometimes Father Francesco could not come to the seminary, either because his physical sufferings prevented him or because he was prevented by other and graver responsibilities: so we were allowed to go to see him at San Gioacchino. There in his cell, so neat but so humble, our dear Father was completely at home, in his own setting; it even seemed as if his face, words and bearing became even more holy and persuasive against that background of simplicity and monastic and apostolic poverty. That poor simple bed - how poor it looked - with the small wooden cross placed on the rough coverlet, the bare desk, the few paper devotional holy pictures which hung on the white walls, and the few books of moral or ascetic theology scattered around, the general atmosphere of piety, conferred a singular and convincing authority on the loving warnings he gave us concerning detachment from wealth, honours, and all ambitions, even the ambitions of ecclesiastical life. He spoke of the wisdom of being faithful in little things as a habitual discipline of the soul, which would have the effect of training us in a holy generosity and an enthusiasm for the adventures and sacrifices of the priestly apostolate in the service of Jesus Christ, the Church, and the souls of men.
In Father Francesco’s humble cell we breathed, like the sweetest perfume, the spirit of his great heavenly patron and father, St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.
St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (1696-1787)
St Alphonsus, what a glory and what an example he is for the Italian clergy to study and venerate! We have been familiar with his life and works from the first years of our ecclesiastical training, and it is true that this great Doctor and Bishop whose spirit was to pass beyond the Alps and be miraculously spread abroad after his death, producing a wonderful flowering of apostleship and holiness, presents in his beloved person all that best corresponds to the genius of Italy, alert, shrewd, full of common sense and at the same time full of liberty, substance and poetry.
Father Francesco Pitocchi knew his St Alphonsus, loved him and led others to know and love him with a fervour which aroused admiration. From his lips there flowed with astonishing facility episodes and details of the great Saint’s life, which he knew how to produce at the right moment, as examples and encouragements for us in the various events of our lives: he would repeat to us thoughts and words taken from his writings, which he always kept by him and advised us to read frequently.
He used to say that St Alphonsus never grows old, and that his simple, modest writings contain inexhaustible treasures of doctrine, of sacred learning and that wisdom which is eternal and the very sap of holiness.
He had great respect for other religious institutes, especially the Jesuits who had been the teachers of his youth, but he always felt himself to be heart and soul, a Redemptorist, content with his vocation for which he was thankful to God; faithful to the point of scrupulous self-sacrifice to his Rule and enthusiastic about his Congregation. He loved to tell us its good works, the glories of its apostolate throughout Europe and in the foreign Missions, and the old and new fruits of its learning and its work for the sanctification of souls.
The secret of the attraction which Father Francesco exerted on everyone around him, and even on those who only met him once, lay in his truly fatherly character and the way in which he at once interested himself in everyone’s needs, as well as in his great discretion, his gentle, patient charity and his unalterable calm.
Discretion is the most important quality of a director of souls. The possession of it is a great gift of God: a gift that is granted to few.
Father Francesco had this gift in the highest degree. Without any of those searching enquiries that disconcert the penitent, but with the immediate intuition of the man of God, he knew at once how to understand the moral character of whoever came to him, and to see to the depths of his soul. After knowing him for a month or two he knew all about a young man’s past and present: even the future was apparent to his clear gaze.
We understood this: he read our eyes, he read our hearts. And our hearts opened to him spontaneously; we felt we had to tell him everything, interest him even in the smallest things; and so it happened that his advice and direction quietly and sweetly permeated the whole of our life in its various manifestations and interrelations: pious practices, studies, physical health, success and failures, happy or melancholy adventures, everything. For every problem or event he had the right word, the advice, the corrective, the comfort. He was admirable in adapting his ministry to the various characters and the variety of circumstances. Everyone seemed to draw from him all that he needed and that which was right for him.
The two years in which I was able to profit from frequent and continuous contact with Father Francesco, were difficult years for young seminarists, in so far as the wind of modernity, sometimes impetuous and at other times gentle and caressing, which was later to degenerate, in part, into so-called Modernism, was blowing almost everywhere, and was to poison the heart and soul of many; especially during the first months it was a temptation to everyone. We students were so fortunate, for so long as we stayed with Father Francesco we were in no danger of being seduced by dangerous novelties. His great spirit of discretion, averse to all extremes, knew how to withhold consent from all that was uncertain, imprudent or insufficiently examined. He was intent above all on establishing in the consciences he directed the superior and balanced judgement that would make us shun futile arguments, thus teaching us the wise art of proceeding from words to things, from learning to life, to the life of priests and apostles.
And his charity, St Paul’s ‘charity of God’, how it shone in Father Francesco’s eyes, on his smiling lips, in his whole person! To go and open one’s heart to him, and feel at once his response, warm with fatherly tenderness, took but a moment. And his kindness was expressed in patience, the long-suffering of Christ, an endless bearing of our troubles and indiscretions, a sweetness which was not sentimental but sober and dignified, which tempered correction, rendering it more acceptable. His words were serious and stern when necessary, and in days of gladness as in days of uncertainty and trouble, he found refinements and a warmth of speech the memory of which still moves me.
What memories I have of August 11, 1904, when as a newly ordained priest I returned from Rome to say my second Mass: the whole villa lit up, the seminarists waiting to meet me, the welcome from my Superiors, always too kind and indulgent towards me, but most of all I remember the first priestly embrace of Father Francesco.
In December that year he insisted that I make my first attempt to preach in public. It was to be on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the fiftieth anniversary of that dogma, and it was to the Children of Mary in Our Lady’s chapel at San Gioacchino. I wrote everything down, and on the preceding evening recited it all to my Father, on my knees, after confession. He listened to me, smiling kindly and encouraging me.
The next day, complete failure! I was at once put off by the general atmosphere which to me, a countryman, seemed too aristocratic. I lost my presence of mind, my fluency, my fervour; I even lost my way in my own manuscript: I confused the New Testament with the Old, the witness of the Doctors of the Church with the imagery of the prophets, St Alphonsus with St Bernard, the middle with the beginning, and the beginning with the end: in short, a disaster! When I had finished and tore myself away from that altar, I was like a shipwrecked man cast up on a shore, completely lost.
Once in the presence of Father Francesco, in his little room near the sacristy, he encouraged me with such kindness in his bearing and his words, that in the end I was content to have suffered that mortification, which he made me offer to Our Lady, with a resolve to attempt another public sermon as soon as possible.
(to be continued)
From ‘Journal of a Soul’ by Pope John XXIII
Four Square Editions 1966
Pope John XXIII - Papal Coat of Arms
'The cross of the wicked thief, endured with impatience, became to him a precipice leading to hell; while the cross endured with patience by the good thief, became to him a ladder to paradise'
('Thoughts from St Alphonsus' compiled by Rev C S Neiry C.SS.R - Burnes, Oates,Washbourne 1927)
'O Holy Mary, Mother of God, guide and protect thy people, especially our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI'