Six transforming moments in the life of St. Paul of the Cross -
The year was 1713 and Paul was just twenty years of age. He was struck by a sermon, “Go sell all you have and come to me.” Simple in itself and of no great importance to anyone else, this sermon, this experience, changed Paul’s life forever. Paul always referred to this experience as his “conversion to a life of penance”. After this, however, Paul was tormented by doubts about what had happened. Had God spoken to him and was he simply deceiving himself? Was God there at all or was it simply his imagination? When these temptations against faith would come over him, he would go to church and lay his head on the altar rail because he did not know what to do. Then in prayer, on Pentecost Sunday 1713, all doubts about the experience left him and never bothered him again. Paul would be faithful to his resolve to give himself completely to God, but the direction he was to take was as yet unclear.
In December 1714, the year after Paul’s conversion, the Ottoman Empire declared war on Venice and the Christian West. Pope Clement XI tried to unite the European powers against the Ottoman forces and called people to fasting, almsgiving and prayer to turn away the ”anger of God” and encouraged those who could to enrol as crusading volunteers. Paul decided to join the crusade. After several months in preparation, Paul realised that army life was not for him. According to his sister Teresa, he was praying in a church in Crema near Venice during the Forty Hours Devotions when the inspiration came to him to leave the army. This was the Thursday before Lent, 20th February 1716.
Paul had left the Army and was uncertain about his future. During this time he stayed with friends in Genoa. It was here that he had another experience that helped shape his life. In an account he wrote in 1720, he described what happened: “I was going westwards along the Riveria of Genoa when, on a hill above Sestri, I saw a small church dedicated to Our Lady of Gazzo. As soon as I saw it my heart longed for that place of solitude, but this longing could never be satisfied – though I carried it always with me – because I was occupied by the work I was doing as a matter of charity to help my relatives. After this ( I do not remember for certain either the day or the month ) I remained as I was for some time but with a growing inspiration to withdraw into solitude. This inspiration, accompanied by great tenderness of heart, was given me by the good God”.
The fourth and most important of these formative experiences was one that remained the guiding star of his life. It was an indication of what he was to become. It took place in the early summer of 1720 in Castellazzo. Returning from Mass, Paul turned the corner to his home. He became completely oblivious to all else but the powerful action of God. He saw himself vested in a black tunic with what was to become the Passionist Sign over his heart. Writing towards the end of 1720 he says: “This last summer (I do not remember the day or the month because I did not write it down but I do know it was the grain harvest time) on a certain weekday in the Capuchin Church in Castellazzo, I received Holy Communion with a deep sense of unworthiness. I remember that I was deeply recollected and then I left to go home. Walking along the street I was as recollected as if I were at prayer. When I came to a street corner to turn towards home, I was raised up in God in the deepest recollection, with complete forgetfulness of all else and with great interior peace. At that moment I saw myself clothed in a long black garment with a white cross on my breast, and above the cross the holy name of Jesus was written in white letters. At that instant I heard these very words spoken to me: “This signifies how pure and spotless that heart should be which must bear the holy name of Jesus graven upon it.” On seeing and hearing this I began to weep and then it stopped. Shortly afterwards I saw in spirit the tunic presented to me with the holy name of Jesus and the cross all in white, but the tunic was black. I pressed it joyfully to my heart.” The idea of wearing a black garment with the name of Jesus and a white cross on the front of it was linked with the other inspirations to withdraw into solitude, to live a penitential life and to gather companions to promote reverence for God. Together they provided the basic structure for a way of responding to the love of God Paul had experienced at the moment of his conversion. Paul goes on to say in the text quoted above: “After these visions of the tunic and the sign, God gave me a stronger compelling desire to gather companions ….”
The fifth great formative experience in the life of St. Paul of the Cross began with his investiture in the black garment by Bishop Gattinara on 22nd November 1720 and continued through forty days and nights of retreat in the Church of St. Charles in Castellazzo. During this retreat he wrote the Rule for his companions: “I began to write this Rule in the year 1720 on 2nd December and finished on the 7th of the same month. Before writing I spent some time in prayer. Then I left prayer full of courage and began to write … Let it be known that when I was writing, I wrote as quickly as if someone were dictating to me; I felt the words coming from my heart. I have written this to make it known that this was a special inspiration from God because as for myself I am but wickedness and ignorance.” For Paul the retreat was a time of entering deeply into the sufferings of Jesus; it was also an experience of the meaning of the mystery of his own suffering, in which he learned how God could purify his heart through his own inner struggles. The Retreat concluded on Wednesday 1st January 1721.
Paul travels to Rome to gain approval for the freshly written Rule of Life. Early on the morning of 25th or 26th September 1721, Paul walks across Rome to the Papal Palace at the Quirinale where he asked to speak with the Master of the Sacred Palace, we presume to present his Bishop’s letter of recommendation. He was sent away, “Don’t you know how many ruffians come here every day? Leave. Go!” He writes of the experience: – “I experienced no displeasure on this occasion, but went out quietly and with bowed head.” His mission seemed to be a complete failure: thrown out of the palace, without a chance to even explain his business, much less present the Rule to the Pope. Then wandering down the hill he sees the Basilica of St. Mary Major, only about ten minutes walk from the Quirinal, and decided to enter the Basilica to pray. Coming from the direction of the Papal Palace, Paul would have entered the Basilica from the door at the back of the building, between the main altar and the chapel of the Madonna, known as the Borghese Chapel. He entered the Madonna Chapel and knelt before the icon of Mary known as the Salus Populi Romani, said to have been painted by St. Luke. Kneeling there allowing the turmoil to leave his heart, he prayed for understanding. Slowly he realised that the time had not yet come for presenting the Rule to the Pope; that day would come. In the meantime, he must remain faithful to the inspiration God had given him. When all doors seemed closed, the only way forward was to commit himself more fully to the work he had been given to do. Before the Icon of Mary, he pronounced for the first time in history the distinctive Passionist vow to promote the memory of the Passion of Jesus and to work to gather companions to do likewise. Paul was twenty eight years of age.
["Paul of the Cross: An Historical Reflection" by Fr. Cassian Yuhaus, C.P., The Passionist, 1976 No. 4, p. 13-34]