GIOVANNI BATTISTA TRECCANI, NEPHEW OF POPE PAUL VI
CATHOLIC PRIEST TO EVANGELICAL PASTOR
Giovanni Battista Treccani was born in Italy into a traditionally religious family. The mother, sister of Pope Paul VI, was a devout Catholic and had very much at heart the religious formation of her children. From early childhood, Giovanni Battista Treccani felt the desire to live close to God. The following is the testimony of his conversion to Jesus Christ, transcribed from a recording.
I thank the Lord for this good opportunity this morning. Certainly the Lord has something special for each of us. I am sure of it. From early this morning, I felt the presence of the Lord and prayed that I could get here in time. The train was going more and more slowly. However, I arrived a few minutes earlier. Thank the Lord for this.
I would like more to speak to you in Spanish. It is my current language but I will take advantage of the opportunity to speak in Italian, although I do not remember many terms well.
Glory to the Lord. These are the last days that I am in Switzerland. On the tenth of this month, I return to Patagonia. How many know where Patagonia is? Patagonia is the last frontier of the earth, where … the world ends. When the Lord sent me there, the Catholic Church sent me as a missionary there, to convert the Indians to Catholicism. But an Indian converted me to the way of the Lord!
Many times I ask the Lord why I didn’t know Him in Italy when I was studying in Rome. Because I didn’t know Him in the Vatican. Because I didn’t know Him in the monastery. The Lord took me so far, to break the chains that bound my life, to let me know the truth, and to grant me peace in the depths of my heart. Alleluia.
Before giving my testimony, I would like to reflect a little on Nicodemus, in chapter 3 of the Gospel of Saint John. We all know this … who Nicodemus was and who Jesus is. You all know who Jesus is, don’t you? Who is Jesus for you, personally? Many say, Yes, I know Him as a person of history … many as a religious leader … others for a martyr … but who is He for us? You have to give the answer this morning. Is He just a person we turn to when we need Him? Or, is He everything to us? Before the aspirin, before the doctor, before our friends … He has to be first. When He is in the first place, then we have the certainty that when we raise our prayer to Him, He certainly listens to us. This is why many times we do not receive the answer from heaven, because we are not available to Him. Ninety-nine percent of our time and attention is occupied with things of this world but for the Lord only one percent. May the Lord help us in this.
I came to the Lord in the same circumstances as Nicodemus. I was in the same position. I was a good religious priest, but without peace in my heart. I needed an encounter with the Lord. And certainly, I sought Him with all my strength, as Nicodemus sought Him with all his strength. He wanted to have an answer in God, and we only have the answer in God when we have a direct relationship with Him. And this is important in our life. Not from what others tell us, but from personal experience. Nicodemus wanted this experience, somewhat at his convenience, but the Lord changed the whole landscape afterward. Nicodemus could not understand that he had to be born again. Many don’t understand this term; even in our churches, this happens many times. We are good religious people but there is no change, there is no new birth, there is no transformation. Maybe Nicodemus wanted to follow Him in the same religious state. He couldn’t conceive that he had to be born again. He took a human argument, and arguments there are many. If you talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses, they have many arguments. Talk to Mormons, they have a lot of arguments. All religions have their arguments. I was in the Holy Land the past few days, I have had contact with both Jews and Muslims, and they have many arguments. But their arguments always end there. But the Lord goes even further … the change, the transformation … and Jesus wanted to bring Nicodemus to this point. He couldn’t understand it; humanly we cannot understand the power of God that intervenes in our life. Then yes, things start to change.
When Jesus had the encounter with the Samaritan woman … the Samaritan woman had a disordered life, but she claimed through her religion to worship God in this way. But Jesus changed things, and the Lord also wants to change the position of our life.
I was born in northern Italy. I can’t tell you my age … (general laughter) … no, fifty-four … I was the youngest of seven children. Two were raised in my family because they were orphans. When I was born my mom was too old to have a baby … and the doctors said it was impossible that I could be born. But my mother was a sincere Catholic … more than a Catholic, she was a Christian … and she said this prayer to the Lord, “Lord, if this child comes into the world, I would like him to serve You … this was not the thought of my father, because there were many religious priests and nuns in the family, and therefore my father was tired of seeing all those skirts going in and out of the house … (laughter). Never did he expect a child who would become a priest.
However, at seven months I came to this world. I was a premature baby and they were afraid I would die the same day. Then they wrapped me in many rags and took me to the church in my village. It had snowed enough, and we went in a cart pulled by a horse. They gave me the name of John the Baptist. They took me home, but my aunt was a very distracted person … she held me well wrapped up in the cold, and I weighed so little that she didn’t notice if there was anything in the rags … But my aunt was a very distracted person, and she took me like that, and when she got off the wagon, I fell in the snow … (laughter). My aunt didn’t notice, she came home, she put everything on the table, and my mom saw that I wasn’t moving, I wasn’t crying, and they went to see and they couldn’t find me! They had to run out immediately and found me sleeping peacefully in the snow. Do you want to know something? It’s that the Lord was preparing me to take me to Patagonia … Patagonia is the south pole! It is where we are also 34 degrees below zero …
I grew up in a peaceful environment, but as a child, I began to listen to the voice of God calling me. I wanted with all my heart to serve Him. All I had at my disposal was religion. But I was hungry for the things of God. I began to grow up in that environment. At the age of ten, I left the house to lock myself up in a seminary. My father didn’t want that but I ran away from the house. And I remember I needed a lot of things, my sister was getting married, and she had to cut her sheets … in a thousand ways, they helped me get into the seminary. At the age of 15, I received the religious clothes. I felt very happy because I did not know the world, I did not know sin yet, and I did not know deeply what my religion was! I was living an artificial life.
From northern Italy they sent me to study in Rome. I wanted to get to that city. They said it was the eternal city, the holy city. I wanted to get to that place. Although after a few years I had to escape from Rome. It is the pagan city, the idolatrous city, the city of lies. But when I got there I had this view in front of me. And I began to grow in my studies, but I began to feel that there was something that made me feel sad: I felt a void inside me. Then I began to pray more, I began to renew my devotions, I began to deepen the religion. However, the more I did all those religious practices, the more I felt empty. I realized that I did not have peace. I realized that the load of my sins was still on me, although I confessed every day.
Then I came to a terrible reality. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t even want to talk about it with my superiors. But one day I decided to go to them, and I asked them a few questions. Then they said to me, “You must recite fifty Hail Marys, you must recite a hundred Our Fathers.” But after I finished those prayers, I found myself worse and worse. And, “You must read the lives of saints.” Many times I did not go on vacation in order to stay back and read the biographies of the saints, to see if they had found the answer in their lives. But the sad reality at the end of their biographies, I was in the same condition as those saints. And they had the same condition as me! They never found the answer to their problems. And that made me even sadder. I didn’t know what to do.
I arrived at the Vatican. It was the first time I saw the pope. At that time he was Pope Pius XII. I said, certainly when the pope passes in front of me, his blessing will reach my heart, and will help me to get out of this situation. I’m telling you about 1950. It was the holy year. Every 25 years there is a holy year … for me, they are all holy years, every day! Alleluia! Because the presence of the Lord is with us. And this is important. When a pastor asked one of the last popes, “How many times in your life have you felt the presence of the Lord?”, he said, “Twice: when I was consecrated a priest, and when they made me pope.” How miserable. If I don’t feel the presence of the Lord in the day, I feel like I’m dying! And it is so for the life of a Christian, if there is no presence of God we are nothing! We are dead! There is no life! Because He is life!
And when I was there in that great church of Saint Peter … I don’t know how many saw it … at the entrance of the Basilica of Siant Peter there is the size of the largest church in the world. St. Peter’s Basilica measures nearly a kilometer, 988 meters, and is about 500 … [wide] and 117 high … it’s tremendous.
When I was in that big church, it was full of people, and Pius XII didn’t come walking, he was carried by 12 princes, and he was sitting on his throne, and on his head was the tiara. The tiara is 3 crowns. The classic, the classic tiara, do you know how much it weighs? It weighed 15 kilos! Studded with silver, gold, and precious stones. Sure, he was moving his head inside because it was hooked in the chair! Otherwise, he would have been crushed. But thanks to the Lord that the tiaras of the popes remain in the Vatican museum, but we have the incorruptible crown of glory, which neither fire nor thieves can steal. Alleluia.
And when I saw the pope coming to this position, and I firmly believed that he was the vicar of Christ. Do you know who is the Vicar of Christ? (they answer, “the Holy Spirit”). The Holy Spirit. “I do not leave you orphans, I go to the Father and I will pray and He will give you the Holy Spirit, the vicar, the one who leads us to God, through sanctification. And I wanted the pope to give me the blessing. And when he came forward, there was a cleric in front of him carrying the cross. And I looked at the cross. I looked at that crucified Christ with the crown of thorns on His head. And then it was the first time I considered Christ crowned with thorns. At the same time, believing that the pope was Christ’s vicar, I asked, why should he wear such a crown, if Christ wore a crown of thorns for love of us? What’s the meaning?
And then I had my hand up high, and I was waiting for that blessing. But when the pope came close, my hand was no longer up. I had already lowered it because I had seen that contrast. Christ crowned with thorns, and a man loaded with gold and silver. And a great sadness came inside me. I began to cry. I ran to the seminary, and my superior asked me, “Did you have that experience you were looking for?” I said, “I didn’t get anything.” I asked, “Why? Why all these things?” Then he says, “Eh, it is necessary. We must like these things.” It is for this reason that after many times the celebration of Mass, I would remain sitting there in the pew, and many times I would cry without knowing why. And I said, “Lord, if I’m serving You here, why can’t I hear You. Why don’t I have any experience inside of me?” And I had no explanation.
I went to confession, and I said to my confessor, “I would like that at this moment I can feel the forgiveness of my sins. May I feel the peace that you are offering me.” Because after confession he always told me, “Go in peace and don’t sin anymore.” But I did not get to the door of the church that I already no longer had peace, and I still felt the weight of my sins. But I told him that day, and I said, “Give me this peace that you offer me. Give me the forgiveness of my sins.” And then sadly he looked at the earth, lowered his eyes, and said to me like this, “I can’t give what I don’t have.” I believed that I was the only person who lived in that condition. But I saw that my superior was also in the same condition. And he said to me, “Go to the bishop, maybe he can help you. “And I asked the bishop if he had peace. He said, “Yes, I have peace within me.” But maybe he had peace in his pocket. I insisted on him, and then sadly he didn’t have peace too. I could look him in the face; he too was in the same condition. When one of these popes was about to die, an evangelical pastor asked him if he had the certainty of his salvation. Then the pope replied, “I have no certainty of my salvation, but I am sure that I am going to purgatory. But I have six hundred million Catholics who will pray for me, and I won’t spend much time in there.” But glory be to the Lord, we have the certainty of our salvation! When He calls us, we will go to the Father’s house! We consider it our home!, where He awaits us. And this is very important,
Then, I felt desperate, I had finished my philosophy studies. Instead of getting closer to God, they pushed me even further! I began my theology studies … even worse! We did not know how many hours of dogmatic theology to study each week, but only one hour a week of Bible study. And only some part of the Bible, what suited us …
So I made up my mind: if here in Rome I don’t find what my soul is looking for … others have advised me too, “You must shut yourself up in a monastery; there, through penance, you will be able to find peace.” Then I returned to northern Italy, in a town called Lovere, in the province of Bergamo, on a mountain, there is a monastery. I entered that monastery. When I knocked on that door, a monk came to receive me. He had a long beard and had a hood on his head. He didn’t even look me in the face, and abruptly said, “What are you looking for?” I said, “I am coming to seek peace, serenity.” Certainly, there was peace in that place. The outer peace, that not even the sparrows went there, because that place was so sad! (laughs) But, they told me, “If you insist, we won’t resist.”
Then the bell rang, all the friars of the monastery came, took me to the church, and made me lie down on the ground in front of the altar and covered me with a black rag, and lit four candles. It was the symbol that I had to die to the world. Then they began to sing Psalm 51. I was trembling with fear under that rag! (laughs) It was a symbol that I had to die. When I got up from there, they changed my clothes, they changed my name too. They gave me the name of Clementino. I don’t know where they got it! (laughs) But they couldn’t change the condition of my heart. I remained in the same condition.
And they gave me two things in my hands: discipline and sackcloth. Discipline is a chain, it ends in seven chains … three times a day we used it, and the skin became more and more sensitive because the same religious habit (garment) we used rubbed on the body. It was a continuous pain, even the skin was very sensitive. And when there was a storm inside of me, I used the discipline, locked myself in my cell, and many times until I was bathed in blood, looking for the answer in my heart.
The sackcloth was a belt with spikes, it was made of iron. It was not made according to my measurements, it belonged to the other monks who had died … thank goodness I was thinner … it was always used at 12 in the night, and we had to get up and sing the psalter in a row. And when one prayed he had to lean deeply on the iron sackcloth. Then those spikes penetrated the flesh. Several of my companions died of tetanus, of infection, from those spikes.
Another thing that bothered me was the skull of a dead monk … they took us to the common ossuary (a container or room in which the bones of dead people are placed) because when the monks died they were buried in the sand, without walls. Then a short time later the skeleton remained clean, and they were brought to one place only. When the monks entered the monastery, they had to choose a skull, and one had to bring it to the table where he studied. And I was terribly afraid! (laughs) Mostly at night … I had to cover it with a rag because it scared me! And worse still, we didn’t have electric lights inside the cell, and the fear was even greater …
When I was in the monastery my father also died. They only warned us like this, “Pray because the father of one of you is dead.” One wondered: will he be my father, will he be my father? And this was terrible. But I learned later that it was my father who had died. I was a few kilometers from my home. He called me until the last moment. But they did not allow me to get there. Although God’s law says, “Honor your father and mother,” religion says, “Hate your father and mother.” Actually, there was already a tremendous hatred inside of me.
In the year ’59 my uncles who lived in Argentina came and asked my uncle in Italy. At that time he was archbishop of Milan, who later was elected Pope Paul VI. They asked him where I was because they needed a missionary priest in Argentina there. They said, “We need him, you have to send him with us.” But the answer was, “He can’t leave the monastery, it’s impossible!” I had taken solemn vows. I was regarded as dead. I was like that in the civil register of my country, I was already canceled. When I had to get my passport, they told me, “But the register says you are dead!” I had to bring my brother and sister to testify that I was of the family. But thanks to the Lord that my bones did not remain in the monastery. The Lord took me out in time. Then they asked the Vatican for permission, and they took me out of the monastery. I said, “Where am I going now, if the monastery was the only hope for me?” However, the Lord had prepared something better.
I got ready to go to Argentina. And the same day I left for Argentina, I didn’t have enough money to pay for my ship ticket. But I was confident that the Lord was helping me. My mom told me, “I’m glad you are going if it’s for your soul’s sake.” I was sorry to leave her alone. But that same morning a woman came and brought me a book, and inside there was an envelope and there was the money I needed to pay for my ticket. I lacked 30,000 lire, and there were 30,000 lire there. Nobody knew. Only one, the One who was calling me. Then I left happy for Argentina. And for two years I worked as a Catholic missionary in Argentina.
But I saw that I could not do anything for the poor Indians. Materially I could help them, but spiritually I could not do anything. I couldn’t give them what I didn’t have. And the only thing I gave them was a holy picture, a medal, a little holy water, and if they wanted a little more, they had to pay.
But one day, I was returning to a small church on a mountain … I was returning to that chapel. I used to go there every day. I knew I couldn’t find anything there but I had to set a good example. But halfway, right where we have our central mission today, I found myself with an Indian and then he came to meet me and greeted me. He was very smiling, I had a sad and stern face. I was always angry, I had a terrible temper. The Lord must also change our character. Our character must also change. Our character must change! And this is part of the new birth! Alleluia.
And when he came to greet me, I didn’t know him but he said to me, “What are you looking for in that place?” I was ashamed to answer; I knew I couldn’t find anything. But he said to me like this … the text of the Bible, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And yet he wanted to tell me this, “What are you looking for in that place, why are you looking for the living among dead things?”
Then he said to me like this, “I know you are looking for peace. There is only one place to find it.” I said, “What do you know, poor ignorant Indians?” I had so many books in my head, but I had an empty heart. But he said to me like this, “There is only one place.” But if I have Christ here, on my chest … I had a cross. I have a big statue in the church … I have the Eucharist … I have the Christ! But he said to me like this, “I want to tell you about the living Christ, a Christ who can help you, a Christ who can change your condition.” I didn’t understand what he was saying to me. And he said, “Come to us tonight, and we’ll pray for you.” I said, “Pray for me?” But if I didn’t feel like a sinner! Because I hear the confessions of others.
But the evening came, June 24, 1961 … it is winter in Patagonia, it was snowing. I lifted my skirt, it was dark at night, and I began to run, and as Nicodemus arrived at night, in secret, I was afraid that the others would see me. I entered that small church, there was no electric light, there was not even a floor, it was earth, but there was a small group of Christians who prayed. I began to listen to those prayers. Everything was new to me. I said, “What beautiful prayers. Where are they written?” (laughs). I wanted to look for them in my book. I was used to repeating what others wrote. When they finished praying, the Lord gave me the first lesson. I went back to the Catholic church, and for many months I celebrated Mass in the Catholic church, but I also went to evangelical worship. At first, it seemed that I had to change my religion. But this was not the case. I had to surrender my heart to the Lord. I felt happy when I was there at the worship but I had my obligations in the Roman church. But on October 31 of the year ’61, as this Sunday is the birthday of my birth (they applaud) … I found myself in front of the Catholic church, it was five in the afternoon. At the same time, the evangelical brothers praised the Lord in the church.
But I had to celebrate a procession in the Catholic church. I was very angry because I couldn’t go to the Evangelical meeting. I was there in front of the Roman church. The bishop was present and almost the whole city was present. Then the bishop says, “The procession begins.” I was wearing my cassock and vestment but I also had my Bible in my hands. I wanted to run away to the Evangelical meeting. But I had to carry out that procession. The bishop said, “The procession begins.” But I didn’t want to take a single step forward because I felt that the time had come for my decision. And the bishop began to scream and scolded me, “Come on, the procession begins!” And then in that same instant, I heard a voice that spoke inside me, “What is the use of you carrying out this procession?” Then the bishop pushed me again, “The procession begins!” But the procession had already begun, it was the One inside me holding me up, alleluia! So I took off my vestment and cassock, handed them to the bishop, and started running towards the evangelical church. Behind me, the bishop sent the Catholic people but I was thin enough and I ran fast enough! (laughs). I entered that little place, I passed up there in front because I always sat there as before. The brother preached about the prodigal son. I felt like a prodigal son, and in that same instant, I bent my knees, and accepted Jesus as my sufficient Savior, and felt His presence, felt the new birth within me. I could not explain in words what I felt at that moment, but it was a glorious thing. And if up until that moment I had felt like a priest of the Roman church, from that moment I felt that I was a true priest of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t easy for me. Many things bound me. But the brothers then took me, happily they praised the Lord, and out there the Catholic people were waiting for me to come out. The procession did not take place. Since that time, no procession has taken place. (laughs).
The brothers took me to a river … quite cold water, water that comes from melting snow … and they took me there in the water, and I said, “What are they doing now?” I thought I had to die there! (laughs) … better to die there in the water than to die at the hands of Catholics because they were there waiting for me! Then they immersed me in the water for baptism and my eyes opened to the truth.
It wasn’t easy for me; the police threw me out of the city the same day and I had to walk almost 100 kilometers to the border with Chile. There, under a tree, was my first church, my first home, my first congregation, because I had nothing materially speaking, however, I had everything, and from that moment the presence and glory of the Lord was in my life. Now we already have 18 places where we preach the word of the Lord. We have communities of 600-800 members. The Lord is truly helping us. In many countries where there was the Catholic Church, the Catholics left them and joined us.
I’m talking about the last mission only. I’ll try to be brief, just a few minutes.
There was a nun who dominated a country. She dominated the authorities of that country, and we had wanted to come to that place for 14 years, and we were praying to the Lord. We had communities all around there, except in that country. So the young people of my community, they go every Saturday to announce the Gospel to the villages. Then they came from that country to another mission, it is 25 kilometers. They began to lead family after family for the Lord, and when the nun realized it, half the country was already converted to the Lord! We have already built a place of worship more or less like this year, but when I returned in June, that place was already full! There were no more people left to evangelize, we had to build another church in another neighboring area. There are now 300 people preparing for baptism. In December we inaugurate the new church and we also celebrate baptism. This is also the case in other villages. They are calling us everywhere to hear the word of the Lord. I have a program on the radio, which reaches many places, and many people are converted to the Lord, and there, a new community is born. We thank the Lord for this.
It wasn’t easy. I was poisoned twice, but the Lord delivered me. Another time I was stabbed, I lost a lot of blood, I was in a distant part of the country. I did not report that person, he was a Catholic who had been a student of mine when I was a priest, but he couldn’t understand why I had abandoned the Roman church. But I entrusted it into the hands of the Lord. After a few years, I had to build the Eschel chapel, which is large, 11 by 42, but I didn’t have the bricks. I needed twenty-five thousand bricks to build and I didn’t have a penny in my pocket. So that person drove his truck past us, and stopped, and asked me what I was thinking of doing. I said, “I want to build a building, a church.” He says, “Do you have bricks?” “No.” (laughs). And he said nothing more. I went to visit another mission, and when I got back there were twenty-five thousand bricks there! That man built the bricks, made them, and donated those twenty-five thousand bricks. The Lord has truly gained his heart. The Lord is good. Pray for this man.
We in Patagonia have had 3000% inflation this year. There are workers earning $25 a month and it’s a growing work, and now we have five chapels under construction. We are going to build a school where we teach how to work and prepare students in the Bible. They come from the fields, they don’t know how to do any work, the only one is to ride a horse. We invite you to Patagonia so that you can help us in the Lord’s work.
On Sunday I have to do almost 600 kilometers. I leave a group in one country, another in another country, I go to celebrate worship in a country where there are several communities and come back in the evening to celebrate worship in my community. The roads are very difficult, many times we also have to cross rivers. I used to do it on foot, when I didn’t have a car … in the middle of winter, with water up to my waist. With snow on the sides of the river, but with the desire to preach the word of God. The environment of Patagonia is a very inhospitable place, for the strong wind, for the great distances … they are 3000 kilometers long, and almost everything desert; there are several villages, of shepherds, of goatherds, but with a desire to know the word of the Lord. Help us in your prayers, and remember us from time to time.
And if you wish to come and visit us, come there in the summer, in December, January, February, and March. These are the tolerable months. But in February we have the youth congress; there are hundreds and hundreds of young people, who gather there in the open air in a wood in the Andes mountain range, a very beautiful place to receive the counsel of the word of the Lord. The first week of March we have our gathering, all our brothers come, and all those who serve the Lord; we have made enough beds, although we still lack several mattresses (laughs). If you want to donate a mattress it would be good. A mattress costs $25 there; a sack of flour costs almost $15 now. Pray that the Lord can help us. You are welcome to Patagonia.
I would like to pray for some people this morning. The Lord wants to totally change your life. There are still things that bind your life, even if you are religious, Protestant or Catholic, but you need the person of Christ. And the things you’ve never been able to overcome, the Lord is here to help you. I would like to pray for you. If you want me to pray for you, raise your hand. Amen. Glory to the Lord. The community pray with me now. Hallelujah, God is faithful. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
If you feel that something still binds you, come, God wants to work this miracle. Do not doubt for a moment, just believe. He can help you, as He helped Nicodemus. As He helped me, as He has helped many who are here, He wants to help you too. Trust Jesus right now.
(The community begins to pray; then the songs are sung to the Lord and the recording ends.)