The Death of St. Paul of the Cross
LETTER OF FATHER JOHN BAPTIST OF ST. VINCENT FERRER, SECOND SUPERIOR GENERAL, INFORMING PASSIONISTS OF THE DEATH OF PAUL OF THE CROSS
John Baptist of St. Vincent Ferrer Vice-General and Servant of the Congregation of the Discalced Clerics of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Jesus Christ, to all the Religious of the said Congregation Greetings and Peace in the Lord.
Notwithstanding our desire for a prolonged presence of our most beloved First Father General and Founder of our Congregation, Father Paul of the Cross, both in view of his outstanding merit and for our common good and consolation; and although we, dearest Brethren, have all reason to mourn his loss through death, and even if we feel that in spite of his advanced age death came to him too soon, still he was taken from us for our own greater good. And yet we cannot refrain from saying we are left as deserted orphans, deprived of this Father. And then I must add, to make our loss the more deplorable, that it so happens that the one who is to take his place is from every viewpoint most unworthy of it; I must, sad to say, confess that I am so devoid of those qualifications that are necessary to carry such an office rightly, that I am filled with fear and confusion and would consider it my greatest boon, if I could cede the burden to one of the others who could so easily succeed in carrying it worthily.
In your double affliction, I would, however, wish to be able to offer the most efficacious comfort. This, I wish to all of you, with all the affection of my poor heart, and I pray most earnestly that this be granted you by the most compassionate Father of all mercies, the God of all consolation. Allow me then to remind you that the most soothing remedy that can be offered in our common sorrow is that absolute conformity of soul with which we must adore the inscrutable designs of that infinite Goodness Divine, which, with playful and incomprehensible Wisdom – tuden in orbe terrarum – knows how to convert even disaster into a blessing – in bonum monstra convertit.
All in all I believe that the knowledge of the many incidents that accompanied the precious death of our good Father will provide a special and most welcome consolation. These I now present to you in this short account and I will call your attention to the more remarkable things that preceded and accompanied his death. This write up, however, I send to you under the explicit condition that it be given to no one else nor a copy of it sent to anyone.
It is generally known that for the last five years or so our Father Paul of the Cross, was quite unwell. But on the feast of Sts. John and Paul, Patrons of the Holy Basilica, 26th June 1775, he began to suffer certain ailments and cramps in the stomach, these caused him violent attacks of vomiting. This made it difficult for him to take the necessary nourishment to keep up his strength. As his condition grew worse, it soon became impossible for him to take any nourishment save a little broth and even this caused him much inconvenience in so far as it augmented such cramps. Thus, it was that only for a short time was he able to take this nourishment, because around 22nd September his food was reduced to a little water that had been boiled with bread and even this he could take only in very small quantities on account of the pains and the nausea is caused. In order to get him to receive more nourishment, the physician ordered that some milk be mixed with the water: this caused our Father such great pains that he left off taking food of any kind.
In this dangerous condition, he was too weak to offer the Holy Sacrifice, so he had one of the Religious do this early every morning in the little chapel attached to his cell; during the Holy Mass he devoutly received Holy Communion. As his condition ever grew worse, on 30th August he asked that Holy Viaticum be given him solemnly in the presence of the entire Community and that the bells be rung for the occasion. When all the Religious had gathered in his cell, before Holy Communion, he made a very fervant profession of faith and then presented to all the Relgiious, present and future a few recommendations, as his last will and testament.
One another day he said to the Fathers First Consultor, Procurator and Rector of the Retreat, that he had a few further things that he felt urged to recommend, namely a love of the Congregation and the Observance. He added: “ Let no one say ‘De Minimis non curat Praetor’ (Let the Superior not bother about trifles), but let them take great account of the small things. And he also said, ‘Let them take good care of the good grain and remove the cockle’ wanting to say by this that the Congregation should be kept clear of the unobservant and the restless. One the following day he asked the same Fathers to take from him all that he still had for use that in their charity they give him a worn-out habit.
He seemed to continue to live merely in order to suffer more and to give more examples of his rare virtue. During the entire time of his sickness he was never heard to complain or even to give signs of annoyance or impatience with his condition; on the contrary he revealed a very grand resignation and uniformity to the Divine Will. He was always found in great calm and peace of soul. He explicitly declared: “I wish neither to live nor to die, but only that what my good God wants’. And this was the answer to a Religious who sympathised with him: “You are concerned about my condition? I am indifferent to it: I place myself in the wounds of Jesus.” On another occasion he said with great emphasis: “Si Tempus Nostrum Advenit, Moriamur Fortiter”. If our time had come led us die bravely; I have no fear of death. He ever wished the window shutters and the door to be closed in order in this way the more easily to be united with God alone. He reposed quietly and lovingly in the peaceful Divine Embrace; thus, he told one of our Religious, the soul spontaneously recommends itself to God.
Off and on he would have some need and would call the infirmarian; when he was no longer able to speak with a loud voice he would use a small bell; then the Religious would enter his cell to have the consolation of seeing him again; but as soon as the need was satisfied, he would dismiss all of them.
With all his desire to be alone, he could not dispense with receiving some of the Benefactors and personages of rank who called to visit him; he would use these occasions to give some salutary advice and induce them to a fervent devotion to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Towards the end of September, being now no longer able to take even a bit of broth and having almost lost the use of his speech, he wanted again in the presence of the Community solemnly to receive Holy Viaticum. This he wanted done of the feast of St. Michael, his great advocate. He received the Holy Sacrament with his usual devotion and humility. From that day on he received Communion four times a week. The Holy Father, the Pope, had given permission for him to do so, even if he were not fasting; but even with this dispensation, he thought it more reverent to do so fasting, if he possibly could.
On one occasion, the two Provincials (of the Patrimony of Saint Peter and of the Compagna) came to visit Father Paul. Although he could hardly speak, one of the first things he did was to order that some refreshments be given the two men. So great was his charitable attention. He was also most attentive to the feelings of his infirmarians. He would often see to it that they took a little lunch on account of the strain they had in attending him. He would try to make as few demands on them as possible and would show himself most grateful for any services done for him.
As he approached closer to the end, it pleased our Lord to ever more refine and purify him ‘tamquam aurum in fornace’ as gold in the fire. Beyond the fact that he could take no solid food also liquid nourishment could soon no longer be given him, in spite of his great thirst, on account of the pains that even a sip would bring him; add to this his loss of speech and to his almost life-long rheumatism, siatic pains, infections of the gum and bed sores. Once he indicated that there was hardly a spot as wide as four fingers in his whole body that was not racked with pain. When asked how he felt he answered he was oppressed with suffering. Some times he would say that he felt as if he were dying and that his soul was being pulled out of his body. But with all this he was ever fully resigned, peaceful, calm and entirely abandoned to the Divine good pleasure. Thus, once Father John Mary of St. Ignatius intimated that Jesus wanted him to die crucified in His imitation; immediately he indicated he was most content with whatever was pleasing to his God.
Often he would suggest Extreme Unction, finally on 7th October after having received the Sacrament of Penance, from said Father John Mary of St. Ignatius, he insistently begged that the following day at Vesper time he be anointed. Accordingly on 8th October, in the presence of the entire Religious Community, Father Ignatius conferred the Sacrament; Father Paul received it with great humility and tears of devotion. He then told Brother Bartholomew of St. Aloysius, the official infirmarian, that no one except our own Reigious should be permitted to enter his cell. This wish however was not able to be carried out in view of the insistant requests of prelates and other men of prestige; thus on the very morning of the day of his death a monk from St. Gregory, Bishop Tafuri of Scala and Ravello were admitted; to these he, with trembling hands, gave a Crucifix and indicated that they should meditate on His bitter Sufferings.
On the morning of 18th October, Feast of the glorious St. Luke, to whom the sick Father Paul was greatly devoted, he wanted to receive Viaticum once more and for the last time. In the afternoon he received a very agreeable visit: on of his first companions in the Congregation, one whom he loved and revered greatly, namely Bishop Struzzieri, Ordinary of Amelia. His Excellency wished to come to Rome to visit the sick Father and announced his coming and wrote that Father Paul should be told not to die until his arrival in Rome; upon hearing this message Father Paul responded with a quiet smile and indicated that he had expected the Bishop. According to arrangements Bishop Struzzieri should have arrived on the 19th October, but the Lord in his Infinite goodness disposed things so that he arrived on the 18th October about 1.00 p.m. As soon as he entered the Retreat he visited our common Father who in turn was jubilant with joy which he revealed with a welcome smile as soon as he saw the prelate. This visit was quite short: the Bishop hoped to have time for a more congenial visit with his Father of old. But this was not to be granted him. Hardly had he taken a bit of refreshment when he was notified that Father was about to go to heaven.
This is what took place. Suddenly Father Paul felt a violent chill; upon this he immediately told his infirmarian, Brother Bartholomew: “My journey is near; call Father John Mary for me that he recommend my soul. “ Brother told him not to fear and to let the choir finish Vespers. Father acquiesced and obeyed the Infirmarian as was his wont. Then the disagreeing Brother said: “But Your Paternity is resigned to die any moment that God wishes to send death”. Immediately Father Paul nodded in the affirmative, at the same time pointing to the crucifix, where he ever placed all his hope. Then the Brother asked whether he remembered the promise of Father John Mary, made to him, that, if God permitted, he would come to assist him at the moment of death and at that moment to obtain for him from the Lord a true contrition for his sins; to this Father Paul answered in the affirmative. In the meantime, the Infirmarian noticed that the patient was growing steadily worse; the entire Community was called and the prayers recommending the soul to God were started; this was done by Bishop Struzzieri, and Father John Mary, who for a long time had been our Father Founder’s Confessor; both the Bishop and Father John Mary also alternately would suggest thoughts of the principal virtues into the ear of the dying Father. In the meantime the Father Rector of the Retreat, Father Joseph of the Dolors, read the prescribed prayers of Holy Mother Church. Surrounding the bed of our beloved Father, the Religious were kneeling together with some Ecclesiastics, who were making Spiritual Exercises in the Retreat, and Mr. Anthony Frattini, Master of the Apostolic Palace and eminent Benefactor as well as Procurator of the Retreat, with his elder son, Vincent: all in fervant prayer for the dying patient. Father John Mary gave Father Paul holy absolution: this had been prearranaged with Father Paul and he received it with deep sentiments of devotion. Then the Papal Blessing in ‘Articulo Mortis’ was imparted by Father John Baptist of St. Vincent Ferrer, who had been delegated to do this by the Holy Father; then followed the blessing of Mary of the Holy Rosary and of Mt. Carmel. During the recommending of his soul, Father Paul kept his eyes fixed on the Crucifix and the picture of the Sorrowful Mother; it was clearly noticed that he had the use of all his faculties except that of speech. During this time it was also noticed also several times to make a sign for the attending persons to come closer to him and at the same time leave a passage free for some unseen object. Some of the religious thought that he wanted the blessed candle; this was given him, but he still continued with the sign. It was thought that at that time he was favoured with seeing the Blessed Mother or the Angels or deceased members of the Congregation or other souls saved through his intercession.
Since when still having the use of speech he often humbly asked that he be permitted to die on the straw tick and clothed with the Holy Habit and with a rope about his neck, protesting that he wanted to die as a poor penitent sinner; this was done for him; and for it he showed particular gratitude and satisfaction.
A very short time before his last moment Bishop Strizzeri said to him: “Be sure and remember the Congregation and all your sons when you are in Paradise” His sign of assent was particularly fervent and enthusiastic. About a quarter of an hour before his death Father Paul closed his eyes and relaxed as if in a
peaceful slumber and thus he quietly and tranquilly passed to a better life about 2.30 p.m. on the said 18th day of October, 1775, the day dedicated to the glorious Evangelist St. Luke of whom Holy Church says, “ever carried the mortification of the Cross in his body for the honour of Thy name”. The Holy Father, the Pope, also noted this coincidence when he said: “The Lord called him to himself on a beautiful day, the day of St. Luke of whom it is said that he carried the mortification of the Cross.” For Father Paul, in imitation of this Saint, he always carried the Passion of the Lord in his heart and on his body and instituted a Congregation of new workers in the dear vineyard of the Lord; similarly on the day on which, after the second Vespers, there begins the feast of the pentiential St. Peter of Alcantara, whose example in poverty, penance and starting a new Institute he followed.
Immediately after death the holy body was washed and re-invested with the Holy Habit. In the meantime, the customary sign with the bells was given and notices sent to His Eminence, Cardinal Baschi, Titular Bishop of the Basilica (the Cardinal Vicar of Rome was absent) to the various Generals of the different Orders and other benefactors who had requested such notice. Soon the populace began to flow to the gates of the Retreat to see the remains.
The body was left in the cell where he died placed on boards, head on some bricks, Crucifix in his hands, his forehead strewn with ashes and a stole about his neck, as the Holy Rule prescribes. Till the following morning, Religious were alternately guarding the remains reciting psalms and other prayers for that holy soul.
On the morning of 19th October 1775, around six o’clock, Father Paul was carried in procession to the church and the doors were opened where the populace was waiting with holy impatience to see him and to kiss his hands. As the day grew so did the number of people of every condition and state who sought to kiss his hands and feet and everyone strove to get some relic to keep for themselves; thus, soon the body was shorn of almost all its hair and the habit cut off to the knees. It was found necessary to form a sort of a fence with church pews around the corpse to guard and defend it. Many priests came to celebrate Holy Mass for him in the Basilica, among them Bishop Struzzieri, Bishop Marcucci, Viceregent of Rome, and especially Cardinal Boschi. Around 10.30 a.m. Solemn Matins and Lauds were sung followed by Holy Mass. A great concourse of people attended and it was almost 2.00 p.m. before the Community could gather for the midday meal. In the afternoon, the crowds grew immensely, in spite of the rain, and they did not cease to come till nightfall.
It was discussed to and fro whether the body should be left unburied a few days or whether it should be laid to rest that same evening; eventually, it was decided for various reasons of prudence to go through with the burial that very same evening. Thus, the Viceregent of Rome came again around 5.00 p.m. The Holy Father, Pius VI, ordered the remains be placed in a separate burial place; since there was no leaden casket on hand, a wooden coffin was used for the time being; it was sealed and placed in the burial chamber below the Church.
After the crowd of people had left, a death mask of plaster was made to preserve the true features of our Father. Then the body was taken to the burial chamber. Here it was necessary to change the habit since the first one had been greatly cut off and pieces carried away by the devout. Nor was it difficult to recloth the body for it was as soft and flexible as if it were still alive; sweat had oozed forth so that handkerchiefs and other pieces of cloth could be moistened. The countenance was so beautiful that it inspired devotion.
On this occasion it was particularly noticed how devoted the Viceregent was to Father Paul and in what esteem and love he held him; he also wanted to have some of the hair and could not satisfy his admiration; others did the same; they took their rosaries would put them in his hand and press them there as if Faher Paul should hold them, and then would take them again; others wanted further pieces of the habit and thus gave many signs of high esteem and devotion.
After the other habit had been put on Father Paul, he was again carried back into the church to satisfy the devout. There the wooden casket was sealed with six seals: four of the Viceregent and two of the Congregation. The public Notary made the official document and witnesses were Bishop Bagni and Bishop Struzzieri, besides other persons of note. Then the body was taken back to the burial chamber; the room was locked and the Viceregent took the key with him. This whole ceremony was not ended till about 8.00 p.m. and the Community did not get to retire till about 11.00 p.m.
At early dawn the next morning when the church was opened, there was a crowd of people there waiting to enter; during the day, the crowd of people of all conditions came more and more so that at times there were as many as seven carriages in the piazza of the church at one time; and all this continued till night. When they entered the church and noted that the body was no longer there, one could see a holy disappointment in their features. Not knowing how else to give vent to their devotion, they knelt in front of the door where the remains were kept and could hardly drag themselves away from the place; others would touch the door with their rosary, some went so far as to even take splinters from the door. The crowds continued to come the following day, Saturday, demanding with loud voices to see the Saint. All, even some of nobility, asked for articles that Father Paul used in life, lamenting the fact that his body had been placed in a sealed casket so soon. That Friday and Saturday as well as the following days till the seventh day, the Office of the Dead was chanted and a High Mass offered; on the seventh day the Office of the Dead was chanted and Bishop Struzzieri had the Pontifical High Mass with Exsequies.
Somehow the news crept out that on Saturday Father Paul was to be placed in his definite burial place. Crowds came early and refused to depart till the service was ended at 8.00 p.m. Towards evening that day, the Viceregent and Cardinal Boschi arrived at Sts. John and Paul and soon the ceremony began. The first sealed pine coffin was placed in the leaden one and this soldered and sealed; finally the lead coffin was placed in a third one of chestnut; then the remains were placed in the prepared place. It was a grand sight to see the holy competition with which all present tried to help carry the precious burden to its place; first among those was the Viceregent himself. This enthusiasm for Father Paul on the part of the Viceregent was also expressed to those present when he declared that the first time he had occasion to visit Father Paul, when sick at the Hospice (of the Holy Cross) he became so obsorbed in God after hearing Father Paul speak to him, he could not say a word for half a day later; and when he was asked what was the matter, he could merely say: Let me alone. The same happened every time that he conversed with Father Paul, not quite as intensely as the first time. When the Viceregent left Sts. John and Paul after this burial service he was heard to say in the presence of many: For me the consolation and delights are ended in Rome.
This, my Brethren, is a succinct account of what happened on the ocassion of the death of our dear Father. It remains for us now to imitiate his example. I say then with the ancient Mattathias – Remember the works of the Fathers, which they did in their generations and you will receive great glory and an eternal name. So be it …. Amen.