The spiritual father of the priests of Rome

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100th anniversary of the death of Fr. Francesco Pitocchi, C.Ss.R. (June 13, 1922)

A century after his death in the General House of the Redemptorist Missionaries in Rome, interest in the figure of Fr Francesco Pitocchi, the subject of numerous studies, is still alive. His remains, interred in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, in the Collegiate Church of San Michele, in Vico nel Lazio (Frosinone), are the object of prayer and annual commemorations for numerous faithful. The humble religious, a model of priestly life, whose existence unfolded in the secrecy of the confessional, continues his mission as a spiritual counsellor from ‘behind the scenes’. Following in the footsteps of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, Fr. Pitocchi was a ‘man of the people’ and a formator in the spiritual life of generations of priests, religious and lay people.

His biographical story has its roots in a small town in the then Diocese of Alatri – today Anagni-Alatri – where he was born on 22 September 1852. Orphaned by his parents, he was educated by his grandmother and a local clergyman who prepared him to enter the diocesan seminary, run by the Jesuits. Fascinated by the religious ideal, he had to abandon his aspiration to join the Jesuit Society because it was suppressed. Ordained a priest on 22 May 1875, he carried out his ministry between Collepardo and Vico, ministering in the parish and teaching in public schools, in a rural context of geographical marginality and cultural backwardness, which Pitocchi helped to elevate with feverish pastoral activity and a modern literacy campaign, founding and directing evening schools.

In 1885, fascinated by the preaching of the Redemptorist Fr. Giuseppe Pigioli, he entered the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, spending his religious life in the Redemptorist Roman houses (S. Alfonso, S. Maria in Monterone and San Gioacchino ai Prati di Castello). Assigned by his Superiors to collaborate in the compilation of the epistolary of the founder of the Redemptorists and to edit popular editions of the works of St Alphonsus, he devoted himself at the same time to teaching humanistic subjects to young Redemptorist clerics, including the Servant of God Isidoro Fiorini. At the same time, he preached numerous courses of spiritual exercises to the people and religious sisters, in parishes and women’s institutes in the City.

Assisting the Daughters of Mary, he would outline in his conferences the coordinates for a more active role of women in Church life. In charge of editing a bulletin in the popular parish of San Gioacchino ai Prati di Castello, he shares the evangelisation of the populous Roman district with his brethren.

A crippling illness forced him to give up his apostolic activity, relegating him to the confessional. Pitocchi discovered his true vocation in what seemed a limitation: spiritual fatherhood and the ministry of reconciliation. The meeting with “an unidentified Roman priest” became the occasion for an invitation to Roccantica (Rieti), in the “summer villa of the seminary”, for weekly instruction and confessions of the young candidates, on holidays. Monsignor Vincenzo Bugarini, Rector of the Roman Seminary, and the formation team noted the effectiveness of the religious man’s ministry. Gradually, almost all the seminarians turned to him, finding him an authoritative point of reference.

Appointed confessor and ‘auxiliary’ spiritual director of the seminary, he collaborated with Canon Luigi Oreste Borgia (1840-1914), with whom he formed a deep spiritual friendship.

Fr. Pitocchi thus made his entrance into the first and most important Roman educational institution at a time of significant tensions, originating from the fight against Modernism, finding himself involved in the project of reform of the Seminaries, initiated by Leo XIII and structured under the pontificate of Pius X. Rigour and control became the embankment against the Modernist danger, from which young candidates for the priesthood were to be preserved. The Superiors of the Seminaries adopted a regime of austerity that risked exasperating the young men. In this context, marked by strong tensions, Pitocchi plays the role of mediator. Indeed, he is able to welcome the instances of renewal and understand the intellectual needs of the seminarians, whom he orients to the study of theology and its sources, the Fathers and the classics of Christian spirituality. The religious teaches not to suppress the critical spirit but to exercise it in a pertinent manner and starting from the sound doctrine of the Church, known and assimilated. Francesco Borgongini Duca, in his eulogy, attested: ‘His coming to the seminary was providential. With sure intuition, Fr Francis foresaw the danger and ran for cover. We are witnesses, we, who with most of our companions, were saved through his prompt charity’.

Fr. Pitocchi presents himself with the traits of a modern educator. His positive view of man and innate pedagogy of benevolence earned him increasing trust and esteem, to the point that superiors and students of the seminary declared themselves his spiritual children.

Welcoming, listening attentively to every detail and a frank and open dialogue enabled him to get to know the seminarians in depth. He takes an interest in all aspects of their formation process, appreciating and valuing their qualities and gradually directing them towards a path of holiness, the fulcrum of which is conformation to Christ. It offers few but sound advice. Brevity and concreteness are the hallmarks of his methodology. His psychological intuition allows him to adapt to the temperament of each person guided and to find appropriate means and solutions to the problems that arise. Imperturbable calm, the gift of advice and the capacity for discernment become the basic criteria of his spiritual accompaniment, the objective of which is to make one walk towards a high ideal of Christian and priestly life.

His profile of an ideal spiritual father can be reconstructed starting from the pages of “Il Giornale dell’anima” in which the then seminarian Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, during the Roman phase (1901-1905) of his seminary training, jotted down his impressions. The future Pontiff described Fr. Pitocchi as: ‘the sure and confidant counsellor, the firmest and tenderest friend, above all the father, the true father, with the nourishing and fertile word that forms and develops Jesus Christ in the soul to lead it to the virility of the Christian and priestly life’. And he affirmed, without hesitation: ‘The Holy Spirit speaks to me through his mouth”.

The spiritual accompaniment of Fr. Pitocchi continued during the first years of the priestly ministry of Roncalli and his seminary companions. The Cardinal Vicar himself, Lucido Maria Parocchi – who advocated Pitocchi’s appointment, despite the resistance of his Superiors – used to refer young priests to him, especially those in crisis, when he ‘wanted to advise the direction of a true man of God’. During the First World War, the Superiors of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, aware of their confrere’s influence on the young clergy and Redemptorists, entrusted him with the spiritual direction of clerics and young priests at the front.

While remaining a child of his time and drawing on the spiritual and theological heritage of St Alphonsus, Fr. Pitocchi developed a new methodology in spiritual direction in the field. Empathy and gentleness of manner enabled him to establish meaningful relationships of spiritual paternity, in which gentleness and firmness converged harmoniously.

A few years after his death, Michele Jacchini, his penitent and spiritual father at the seminary, would testify to this: ‘The trust he inspired was immense, because of the benevolence with which he always welcomed, the wisdom of his advice, and the interest he took in forming the true priestly spirit in us’.

Fr. Pitocchi’s formative action constituted a balanced spiritual filter, which brought formation back into balance between piety and study. In fact, he aimed at a re-evaluation and re-proposition of the centrality of Christ in the spiritual formation and piety of the seminarians. To them, the Redemptorist pointed to the Gospel and “the golden booklet” of the Imitation of Christ, to acquire “the knowledge of the saints”. His spiritual doctrine had its main pillars in humility and trusting obedience. To his spiritual children, Pitocchi taught fidelity to prayer, the search for God’s will and the conquest of peace of heart, drawn from Vincenzo Tarozzi’s work “Industrie della pace interiore”, a reference text for his own spiritual life. This doctrine was experienced by the young Umberto Terenzi, later founder of the Sons and Daughters of Divine Love, who relied on the Redemptorist’s direction during the most difficult years of his formation. In his Diary and in lectures to his religious confreres, Terenzi pointed to the teachings of his ‘old spiritual father’, declaring himself to be a convinced advocate of his holiness. The same experience, albeit for a short time, was had by Fr Giuseppe De Luca, who had listened on several occasions to the Redemptorist’s meditations in the seminary chapel and had occasionally been his penitent. In writing of 1921, De Luca noted some cornerstones of the Redemptorist’s spiritual teaching: fidelity to the spiritual life, love for study, constancy in work, and spirituality of the cross.

Of the same tenor was the experience of the then seminarian Alfredo Ottaviani, who addressed some poems in Roman dialect to Pitocchi. Later, in 1960, as Prefect of the Holy Office, the Cardinal wanted to accompany the remains of the Redemptorist, in the transfer from the Roman church of St. Alphonsus, to his home town. In his speech before a crowded square, he described Pitocchi as ‘the one who taught us to do the will of God’.

An educator of consciences, the Redemptorist religious prepared young candidates for the priesthood for their mission in the Church and in the world, aware of the epochal transformations they would undergo. Many of his spiritual children, prominent figures in the life of the Church in the 20th century, brought to their ministry the spiritual richness received from the man who was called the ‘Great Confessor of Cardinals and Prelates’. His service as a companion to the young clergy continued in the Collegio Leoniano and in the last years of his life in his small room in the General House of St. Alphonsus in Via Merulana, where entire dormitories of seminarians, priests, religious, bishops and cardinals, lay people and confreres joined him to listen to a word inspired by the gift of counsel, which Fr. Francesco had and exercised effectively.

Remembering Fr. Francesco Pitocchi on the first centenary of his death is certainly a way to give thanks to the Lord who never ceases to be present in the many men and women who, with dedication and wisdom, guide many believers in Christ, especially seminarians and priests, into life according to the Spirit.

Fr. Vincenzo La Mendola, C.Ss.R.

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