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STORIES OF SIMPLE PRIESTS
from issue no. 05 - 2010

The diary of Don Canovai, “most sweet song of Thy mercy “


The story of Don Giuseppe Canovai, a Roman priest who lived in the first half of last century. In Rome, where he spent most of his life, he held positions in the Curia, and was assistant of FUCI. Then at the end of 1939, he left for Argentina as auditor of the local Apostolic Nuncio. He wrote a diary, published only after his death: in it he noted his thoughts as if they were prayers


by Paolo Mattei


A portrait of Don Giuseppe Canovai <BR>[© Opera Familia Christi]

A portrait of Don Giuseppe Canovai
[© Opera Familia Christi]

“It’s useless: he’s always the Roman, he knows how to change even a painful thing into a party, blessed good humor”. The young Giuseppe Canovai jotted this thought on a page of one of the many diaries to which he entrusted his thoughts and observations during the course of a lifetime. He wrote a lot, already as a boy, stealing the time from what little remained after study and the ordinary chores of the day. And in the early twentieth century, in 1919 to be exact, at the age of fifteen, he also gathered some samples of daily life in Rome – “carriages, cars, carts loaded with fat provincial women wearing necklaces, packed trams with people on the platform, even hanging on outside, at times even on the roof” – observing the cheerfulness of the people among whom he was born, the lightheartedness with which they behaved on All Souls’ Day: “All these people responding to a pious thought..., a charitable thought, a truly Christian thought; it isn’t sad however, quite the contrary, they seem like people going to party and proof of this are the many open taverns and the barrows loaded with apples, pears, the posters...”.
This view of Rome in early November offers an evocative image of the history of the person who sketched it: a Roman priest in Rome, a spectacle of joy and vitality to the eyes of those who knew him, who with meticulous consistence set down on the pages of his diaries (“my poor jotting”) the outline of his days, so tracing the portrait of a life – with all the joys and difficulties, hopes and sufferings, expectations, uncertainties, tears – which unfold in a daily dialogue with Jesus. Many of those who had the good fortune to meet him probably did not suspect that in the journal kept by a man – never short of working-class sharpness and contagious joy – dramatic reflections and observations about his own existence might so thicken. Reflections and observations that from the outset Canovai entrusts to his one great friend, Jesus. And that seem like a single prayer: “Lord,” he noted in 1941, “grant me the grace of never writing things in which I may find the satisfaction of nice feeling and pride, that I write only what rises to you, what purifies and humbles, what chastises and refreshes: the most sweet song of your mercy.”

The air of the world
The son of “sor Luigi” – a bank clerk – and Egeria – from a Roman and pro-papal family, whose father was dean of the pontifical “chair-bearers” – he lived with them in Via Terenzio, in the Prati district, where he was born on 27 December 1904. He began to venture outside his district when he enrolled at the Visconti high school in Piazza del Collegio Romano, near the Gregorian, the University of the Society of Jesus. His imagination ran ahead of itself, the boy already saw himself as the “businessman”, who would allow himself the proper time “to see and know the beautiful country where I was born”, to go into “works of painting, poetry, sculpture; I may take delight in mechanics by observing its great triumphs, in architecture by observing the great wonders with which my homeland is adorned. That is how I see my future...”. The words come from a high school essay – with all the understandable tones of rhetorical naivety – and are those of an ambitious student, curious and open to the beauties and mysteries of reality. Moreover, in his city, every morning the winds of the world brought him the echo of the languages of travelers, or those of the conversations of the students at the Gregorian who came from various countries in the world. Among them, many priests by whom he was immediately won over: “Their supernatural mission, their perfect character ... their wonderful succession that connects them to the apostles and, through them, to their divine origin...”.
A vocation has its own special way of emerging, it is sometimes slow and discreet, sometimes quick and untroubled, always however choosing its own time. Often it seems to play hide and seek with the character of men, with their composure or their haste, as with Giuseppe, who continued to study, and flit about the streets of his beloved city, the ancient history which he knew, even as a young boy, as well as many a professed scholar of Rome. He matriculated in 1921 and the following year enrolled in Law at the ancient Sapienza university. In the most ordinary circumstances – studying and spending his free time with the many friends with whom he often went on trips to the mountains – gradually the prospect of the priestly life grew on him. And over time it became clearer in talks with Father Enrico Rosa, the editor of the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, from whose hands he had received First Communion. This Jesuit was to be his spiritual director for a long time. It was he who advised some rest for the young man, ceaselessly active and busy with initiatives: “This evening I went to confession to Father Rosa... He gave me much good advice also including that of writing less and sleeping more...”. So he noted in the diary in 1924, just months after the death of his father Luigi from Spanish flu in March of that year. The fatigue and distress of those months was relieved by the closeness of many of his friends, and especially by the “joy coming primarily from being at peace with God and God’s friends: this joy is almost, I would say, the sign of a life really united with God, this simple and inner joy shines in all the saints, because in them is the sweet dwelling of God”. And, as for the priesthood, the following year he was to note: “I have again thought, Lord, that the vocation... is something absolutely divine, which any human thought distorts and ruins; it is something that starts from you and comes back to you, supported and enlightened by your grace, which is your thing, in short, all a gift of yours, inward responsiveness of our soul to you who lovingly calls us and invites us to follow you”.

Don Canovai with some FUCI students in a photo from 1937 [© Opera Familia Christi]

Don Canovai with some FUCI students in a photo from 1937 [© Opera Familia Christi]

“In your will lies our peace”
The Society of Jesus held a formidable attraction for Giuseppe. He wanted to train for the priesthood in the Order of St Ignatius. But the uncertain economic situation after the death of his father and his mother’s need of assistance because of her poor health, counseled prudence to Father Rosa, who in any case would have liked him as a future staff member of La Civiltà Cattolica. Meanwhile, in 1926, a year of intense study, the young Canovai graduated in Law at the Sapienza university and in philosophy at the Gregorian university, where, in that same year, he enrolled in Theology. Father Rosa saw to it that the Capranica College was his seminary, so he could go on studying at the Gregorian. He entered in 1929, a year of turmoil: the dream of joining the Society of Jesus faded, not least because of the disagreement of the Cardinal Vicar Basilio Pompili who wanted him at the Lateran seminary and only reluctantly agreed to his entering the Capranica. In that same period he began suffering from a duodenal ulcer which was never to leave him. In that year he noted: “And yet, O Lord, in the peace that dwells in the depths of my soul I see the loving shadow of your mercy and your providence. Thank you, my God, for the peace that you have given me today despite the bad news and the trouble I foresee ahead. Ensure, O Lord, that this peace and this patience never fail me. I sometimes feel my weak will, my confidence, shake. Give me, Lord, strength and courage, ensure that against all human appearances I be full of trust, hope and joy. Give me, O Lord, your peace, the peace of your patience and your resignation. Ensure that I always be, whatever my tomorrow may be, equally happy, equally tranquil”.
Giuseppe was to try again the following year for entry into the Society of Jesus, even against the advice of Father Rosa. He was not accepted. But he entrusted everything to the will of God: “What does the future prepare? I don’t know, it is in your hands, my God But whatever it is, it will be the bringer of peace, because ‘in your will lies our peace’ ”. To his mother, agitated because she had difficulty putting up with the inactivity forced on her by her delicate health, he wrote: “Again, don’t worry and always pray to the Lord. I say always because prayer must be “uninterrupted” to be truly acceptable to the Lord. We must never leave off: so either praying or offering what one does, or rather what we have the duty of doing, that is the best prayer. And you now have the duty of doing nothing and keeping still while perhaps you might have some “excuse” for not keeping so, and therefore offer to the Lord the ‘doing nothing’ and the ‘ keeping still’, and offer it with much love and great ease and so you will pray uninterruptedly with the most beautiful prayer and most pleasing to God”.
Those were hard months for Giuseppe. On 6 August he wrote: “I spend moments in which the thought of being unable to do anything, inept in everything... that for me there’s no hope of anything oppresses me unbelievably and unspeakably. Yet those are the only moments when I know myself fully”.

“How easy it is to be borne by Him”
“Do you see, O Lord, what I can give you? And to think that people talk about me as a person who can do something; I just feel, O Lord, with evidence, that I can’t do anything, that I’m finished! But not even this floors me, you alone suffice, in nomine tuo laxabo retes!” In these brief notes Don Giuseppe handed his priesthood over to the Lord. His ordination took place on 3 May 1931, and already by the next month the new priest was given his first assignment as minutes taker at the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities. The post in no way responded to his aspirations. He felt called to teaching or preaching, ministries for which, according to many acquaintances, he had a very obvious talent: “My life is so different from what I dreamed, a job so diverse from what I would have liked! Patience, you will sustain me, O my Lord, and I will offer it all to you”.
On 21 December 1932 he graduated in Canon Law: he was twenty-seven years old and had four degrees, figures that speak of promptness, the pace at which he moved about the city in those years, on foot or with a “Mickey Mouse” car: “He was always in a hurry”, says one of the many people who had to do with him on the many occasions on which he dedicated himself – after working hours or during holidays – to his beloved ministry of preaching. He went wherever he was called, and he was called everywhere, to lecture on St Benedict and St Francis, on Benedict XV and on Bellarmine, on Charlemagne and Giambattista Vico. He spoke on Apologetics and Theology, on the Roman catacombs and on Law, War and peace and Papini... Then he gave retreats and exhortations in every corner of the city. And with some friends he began to give shape to a charity based on the lay contemplative life, the “Familia Christi”, the statute of which was approved in 1938.
Meanwhile he moved house, settling in Via Monserrato as assistant to the Brigidines, and was appointed chaplain of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, the headquarters of the University of Rome. In 1937 he became the assistant of the FUCI, the Federation of Italian Catholic University Students – and Monsignor: “And now let’s play Harlequin”, he commented ironically as he put on the insignia that went with the honorary title.
The words of the diary are an underground river flowing quietly beneath the noise of the day: “How easy it is to walk with Him, how easy it is, bearing Him, to be borne by Him!”. Everything becomes easier when Don Giuseppe is in the company of the recipient of his written prayers, his “poor jottings”: “Lord, keep my soul in these desires, I know, Lord, that it is not possible to stay in them without the constant help of your grace”. In those pages he also notes thoughts for his sermons, such as the one on the Gospel parable of the son who, having initially refused to submit to an order of his father, in the end obeys:”… I really like that little corner of the Gospel because it’s so full of discretion, so full of compassion for our weakness... Because it’s so human... Just because it’s so wonderfully divine, it seems to pass within us, unnoticed almost, a mysterious kindness of God towards the poor resistance of nature which writhes in its weakness before yielding to the invasion of charity”. Often there are short meditations in which the prevailing note is wonder at beauty glimpsed: “How holy is the Lord’s law! I really like that long Sunday Psalm in which it is glorified in every possible way! But this morning I was thinking especially of that little verse: ‘iudicia tua iucunda’. How joyous in the heart is the law of the Lord!... And how splendid it is to feel close to that invitation to observe the precepts the promise of the Paraclete... How splendid it is! It seems that the Lord cannot ask it without the promise to help... to make us understand that that observance will not be ours, but His, which will be the spreading in us and outside of us the promised Spirit of God”.

Don Giuseppe Canovai on the deck of the ship Oceania that took him to Argentina in December 1939 <BR>[© Opera Familia Christi]

Don Giuseppe Canovai on the deck of the ship Oceania that took him to Argentina in December 1939
[© Opera Familia Christi]

“Con mucho gusto, Señor”
“This morning His Excellency Montini proposed sending me to Buenos Aires as auditor! What a sad Pentecost! I feel an immense pain... But is this really what the Lord wants?” It was 27 May 1939. To Don Giuseppe it seemed that everything was stubbornly moving contrary to his wishes: first the red tape of the Roman Congregation, now the proposal from Montini, the Deputy Secretary of State, that he should leave for Argentina as auditor of the local Apostolic Nuncio, where the red tape would probably be bulkier and more onerous. With his friends, whom he knew he was saying farewell to perhaps forever, he made a joke of it in the Roman dialect: “An’ now we’re goin’ to play the diplomat… An’ yer know that’s a very nasty life... ’Cos the diplomat, poor guy, always lives in fear of an incident, which means: of an accident...”.
Of course, after discussing the matter with various Jesuits, such as Felice Cappello, he obeyed, and he saw the first dawn of 1940 rise on the shore of the Argentinian capital. On 1 January of that year he landed in the New World.
“Say to the Lord a phrase I’ve learned here and that I repeat to the good God in my heart every time – and they aren’t few – I have to do something I don’t like: ‘Con mucho gusto, Señor’”. Monsignor Canovai studied Spanish, and learned it fast, because even in the Ciudad Porteña he was called to preach a bit everywhere, to announce a word “that is not ours; it is infinite grace that God grants us to pronounce it: love, venerate, give our lives to proclaim it with dignity”. His working life, which he considered to be that of a “jobsworth”, even if of a certain rank, was always entrusted to prayer: “My whole day is work, and much given to the correspondence which is thick: prayer, especially adoration, and newspapers. Who could have ever told me I would have to read so many newspapers!”. He felt “a great calm and tranquility; in this I experience a real and very particular help from grace... I live in constant waiting for Holy Mass and the breviary”.
The auditor often found himself uncomfortable at receptions (“where one comes across much bojeria”, he explained to his Roman friends before leaving: “And you have to bow to ministers, to senators, to deputies, to representatives, to all the international freeloaders... ”), but he got along fine, as befitted a diplomat, although his notes are, as always, full of passionate self-humiliation: “It is sweet to me not only to know, but to feel, to taste the imperfection and wretchedness with which all my doings are filled, taste it down to the smallest crumb, to the uttermost, because then I feel that the mercy of forgiveness penetrates every fiber of life and I feel that every moment, every moment of my life is sustained by the outpouring of mercy”.
All that he considered necessary for his life, there also, was “... banging and knocking and always insisting on just one thing: the only one that is certainly good: loving and trusting, humble and serene communion with the cross of the Son of God”. His consolation was friendship with Jesus, who had accompanied him that far: “Indescribable consolation feeling that I said mass in an incomparably better way than the one in which I celebrated my first: after ten years of infidelity and misery, this feature of the mercy of my God has appeared sweet gift of forgiveness and assurance of divine friendship”.

“Like a flower on a spring bud”
Don Giuseppe Canovai died on 11 November 1942, in Buenos Aires, in a clinic where he had been hospitalized for peritonitis. He had just returned from Chile where he had spent the period from January to July as chargé d’affaires ad interim. Sickness had exhausted him. He was thirty-eight years old. In one of the last notes in mid-October, he wrote: “Joy of living prayer and tears of repentance. Joy in receiving my new day from God, as a great divine gift. What a great event, a new day! A new call to Love. At the end of my meditation the breviary blossomed in my soul like a flower on a spring bud”.
The day of the Roman priest reached its end among the prayers of those around him, and his own, the most simple: “I have been especially touched”, he noted in 1941, “by the search for God in the most humble of prayers, vocal prayer... the Rosary, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, repeated here and there during our day, the ejaculations almost muttered when the soul is tired and weary, the Stations of the Cross, the formulas of the favorite prayers one pronounces barely hinting the syllables so well known are they, the Litany of the Virgin, the Litany of the saints, the Psalms of penitence and joy, all holy words with which one asks God, with which one implores His vast descent into our spirit, in which the soul opens to be invaded, humbles itself, stoops before God to be raised up by His mercy. Small and humble prayers of our tired lips!... When I lack the strength to decorate the inner house of the soul and everything is consummated, when my dying lips can hardly move, you humble younger sisters of my secret meditation, you will still flower on my dead lips to seek the mercy of Jesus and the sweetness of Mary”.


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