Tuesday, June 18, 2024

St Gregory Barbarigo, One of John XXIII’s Favorite Saints

In various dioceses in northern Italy, today is the feast of St Gregory Barbarigo, a cardinal, bishop and confessor, who died on this day in 1697, at the age of 71.

Portrait of Cardinal Gregory Barbarigo by an unknown artist, ca. 1687.
Gregory was born in 1625 to a Venetian noble family which had two doges and several senators in its history, his father among the latter, and would give the Church three other cardinals. He received a typical education in mathematics, philosophy, and the classical languages, and while still quite young, served as secretary to a Venetian ambassador named Aloise Contarini. While accompanying the ambassador to Münster for the negotiations that led to the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire, he became friends with one of the papal nuncios, Archbishop Fabio Chigi. In 1652, Chigi was made a cardinal; the following year, Gregory came to visit him in Rome, and received his encouragement to embark on a career in the Church.
A portrait of Abp Fabio Chigi, the future Pope Alexander VII, made when he was papal nuncio to the negotiations for the Peace of Westphalia, ca. 1646, by the Flemish painter Anselm van Hulle (1601-74.) Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
After obtaining the prestigious laurea utriusque (a degree in both civil and canon law), Barbarigo was ordained to the priesthood in his native city, but soon called to Rome by Chigi, who had been elected Pope with the name Alexander VII in 1655. After two years of distinguished service to the papacy, noteworthy especially for his charity to the poor and distressed, he was appointed bishop of Bergamo in Lombardy, which was then a territory of the Republic of Venice. There also he distinguished himself in his office, personally visiting all of the nearly 280 parishes in his diocese. In 1660, he was elevated to the cardinalate, and four years later, transferred to the diocese of Padua, far closer to his native place. Continuing as a model bishop, he visited all 320 of his parishes, and exercised the same pastoral charity for the poor that he had in Rome, even, on one occasion, selling his own bed. For these reason, he was routinely referred to a second St Charles Borromeo.
Popular devotion to the holy bishop led to a process for his canonization, which was formally introduced at Rome almost exactly 25 years after his death. In 1725, his remains were exhumed, and found to be in a remarkably good state of preservation, though not miraculously so. He was beatified in 1751 by one of the great experts on the subject of canonizations, Pope Benedict XIV, after which his cause stalled for over a century and a half.
St Gregory Barbarigo’s tomb in the cathedral of Padua. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by harvey Kneeslapper, CC BY-SA 4.0.) 
Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope St John XXIII, was ordained a priest in 1904 for St Gregory’s first diocese, Bergamo. Both as priest and bishop, he had a great admiration for and devotion to the holy cardinal, and in 1911, he signed a petition to Pope St Pius X (an alumnus of the diocesan seminary of Padua, and former patriarch of Venice), asking that Barbarigo’s cause be renewed. A decree to that effect was issued the following year, and the cause resumed. Roncalli himself became patriarch of Venice in 1953, from which see he was elected to the papacy in 1958; as Pope, he would bring the cause to completion by canonizing St Gregory in May of 1960. Of the ten Saints whom he canonized, Gregory is the only one whom he added to the general calendar, but since his dies natalis was then occupied by St Ephrem the Syrian, he was assigned to the previous day, June 17th.
John XXIII, patron saint of unintended consequences, proved to be particularly unfortunate in his relations with the liturgical calendar. The feast which he specifically chose as the opening day of Vatican II was suppressed by the liturgical reform enacted in the wake and despite of that Council, while his favorite saintly bishop was deemed one Charles Borromeo too many, and relegated to the local calendars as a Saint “not of truly universal importance.” Gregory Barbarigo thus became the single most rapidly degraded canonized Saint in history, removed from the general calendar less than nine years after he was added to it.

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