St. Paul of the Cross, Founder
In St. Paul of the Cross the inspiration to found a new Congregation was strictly bound to the asceticism which characterised his life.
Paul became aware of his charism as Founder shortly following his “conversion”, which he recalls as that profound, spiritual experience he had had in 1713 after listening to a simple sermon of a local parish priest. Precisely where we do not know, but he was afterwards inspired to make a general confession and to dedicate himself to a more commited ascetical life (Cfr. Zoffoli, St. Paul of the Cross, Volume 1, p. 123; Giorgini, Story of the Passionists, Volume 1, p. 59)
He himself speaks of the maturation of that experience in the introduction to the Rule which, together with the diary of the forty days spent at St. Charles, Castellazzo, he presented to Bishop Arborio Gattinara, Bishop of Alessandria: “About two years after my most beloved God converted me to a life of penitence … I felt interiorly moved by the desire for that solitude” (Letters IV, p. 27), referring to his experience while at the small church dedicated to Our Lady located on a mountainside outside of Genoa.
Not only did he think of a life of recollection and solitude, but he also had the desire to manifest the change in his life by some external sign: “It was revealed to me that I was to wear a poor black tunic of rough wool, that is, the ordinary wool one finds in the villages, to go barefoot, to live in utter poverty … and to live the life of a penitent.” (ibid).
These desires were ever more deeply rooted in his heart, he was irresistibly attracted to God, but many obstacles of social and family nature kept infringing on his attraction to solitude and penance. Caught up in this dilemma between his emotional ties and his ever more inspired insights, God’s plans began to mature in Paul’s soul: “I did not know what God might want of me, and, for this reason I have not given it much thought, I only know that I was ready to finish up all my business at home and then go into retreat” (ibid, 118). During this time of trial, other inspirations arose in Paul, among them, “to gather other companions that we might then be united in promoting the holy fear of God in many souls” (ibid).
By this time our Saint recognised precisely what his charism was, so much so that, in a later spiritual experience, he saw the habit and sign which were to be the characteristic expressions of the Congregation of the Passion.
On a summer evening, while on his way home after he had gone to Mass and received Holy Communion in the Church of the Capuchins in Castellazzo, he tells us, “while walking I was recollected in prayer: when I turned the corner to go home I was raised up by God to the heights of recollection to the point of forgetting everything else and sensed an interior sweetness: it was at this moment that I saw myself, in spirit, vested in black from head to toe, with a white cross on my breast and under the cross the Most Holy name of Jesus in white letters. At that instant I head these words: This is a sign of how pure and clean must be the heart which bears the Most Holy name of Jesus engraved on it” (ibid).
This detailed account of the beginnings of the Congregation clearly manifest the special work of the Holy Spirit in the founding and development of the Congregation of the Passion. In the post conciliar document, “Mutuae Relationes” reference is made to such influence, in fact the document emphasises, “The same ‘charism of the founder’ (ET11) is revealed as an experience of the Spirit, transmitted to his disciples to be lived, guarded, studied in depth and constantly developed by them in harmony and continual development in union with the Body of Christ” (MR11).
St. Paul of the Cross was profoundly convinced that the Congregation was not of his doing, but the work of God alone. It’s enough to examine some of the expressions of his rich correspondence to understand his thought. “The Congregation is totally the work of the Lord” (Letters III, 166), “a holy work” (Letters 1, 192), “a work of the hand of the Most High” (Letters IV, 166), “a great work of God” (Letters 1, 421).
He safeguards this “great work” in faith and love with his entire being, bearing hardship, suffering, delusion and, at times, unnerving tension. In the dynamic of the joy and suffering in his life he grew to love and spiritual fatherhood, guiding the Congregation with wisdom to the end of his life. It is this precious inheritance, fully developed and firmly rooted, which he left to his spiritual children.
This inheritance, a gift of God and the fruit of the great and generous heart of Paul of the Cross, must be guarded , incarnated and developed in harmony with the Body of Christ, as “Mutuae Relationes” reminds us. Every Passionist must come to recognise this charism in his or her own life and communicate it with faith, love and dedication.
Father Adolfo Lippi, C.P., rightly underscores this in his recent biography of St. Paul of the Cross: “For the realisation of a spiritual movement in the church it is not enough that a christian possesses the charism of foundation, rather it is necessary that others recognise and share that charism” (Lippi, St. Paul of the Cross, Paulist Press, 1993, p. 280).
The early religious certainly shared the charism of the Founder as have all the Passionists up to our time; it now remains for us to give a new impulse to the Congregation by resolutely preserving intact our charism, expressing it in a new way, always keeping in mind the “continual growth” of the Mystical Body of Christ.
adapted from St. Paul of the Cross, Founder
by Archbishop Piergiorgio Nesti, C.P.
Secretary, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life
International Annuario, Passionists ’94, p. 12 – 13.