The Life and Work of St. Paul of the Cross


Paul Francis Danei, to be known later as Paul of the Cross, was born in northern Italy in the town of Ovada, situated about 50 km (31 miles) northwest of Genoa.  Although his father belonged to an old and noble family of Alessandria, over the course of years the family had been reduced to poverty.

Hardship was no stranger to the Danei household.  Both birth and death were major events in this trial-tried family.  Paul was the second oldest of sixteen children, of whom eleven died in infancy. Although the Daneis owned a small tobacco and dry-goods store, affairs connected with the business compelled the family to move frequently.  As a result, Paul attended school very irregularly.

Of great importance in Paul’s spiritual growth and development was the personality of his mother, whose deep and lively faith had overcome so many difficulties.  There was nothing remarkable about his younger years, however, other than the fact that Paul’s childhood was spent in the midst of a truly Christian family and that he was open to the influence of his parents and the religious education they provided.

It was not until 1713 that Paul faced the first great decision of his life.  Impressed with a sermon by a priest or perhaps just by a private conversation with him, Paul was moved by a spirit of compunction and repentance.  He made a general confession and resolved to make a radical surrender of his life to God.   He subsequently called this event his conversion to penitence.

Some years later Pope Clement XI called for a crusade against the Turks. Since Paul desired to die a martyr, he assumed the crusade was his call from God, and he enlisted as a volunteer.  After a while (a few months, perhaps spent in barracks and camps), Paul came to the conclusion that this was not the proper way to serve God. In the year 1716, he returned to his parents’ home, where he spent the next four years energetically helping his father in business.

I.  On the Way to Becoming the Founder of a Congregation

At this point, we are entering that period in the life of St. Paul of the Cross in which the history of his vocation as founder of a Congregation takes shape.  Because there are original documents preserved in which Paul himself speaks of the progression in his vocation to establish a monastic order, we are not forced to deal with vague conjectures and inferences made from secondary sources.  Paul’s vocation matured in four stages.  Initially, he felt called to retire into solitude . . . to wear a poor, black tunic . . . to live in extreme poverty . . . to lead a life of penance. In other words, he felt called to live as a hermit.

The second stage of Paul’s vocation consisted of an inspiration to “gather companions who would live together and work to strengthen souls in the fear of God”. In his own words, Paul admitted he did not pay any attention to this call at the beginning.  After a series of repeated inner lights, however, God strengthened in Paul “the desire and interior impulse to gather companions and, with the approval of Mother Church, to found a Congregation with the name ‘the Poor of Jesus’”.

The third stage was considered to have been reached from the moment Paul arrived at the inner certainty that he was called by God to found a religious community.  Only when the specific and extraordinary mission of the new Congregation was made clear to him was the fourth and last stage of Paul’s vocation reached.  More will be said later about this stage.

As early as 1715 (a date deduced from assertions made in quoted material), Paul had a firm desire to retire as a hermit.  Upon his return from military service, however, he remained with his family for several more years because of his parents’ appeal for his assistance.  Decisive in the life of Paul as hermit and as founder of the Passionist Congregation was the date November 22, 1720.  On that day, he bid farewell to his family and received from the hands of his former confessor and spiritual director Bishop Gattinara of Alessandria the garb of a hermit, which became the black tunic of his Congregation.

Paul spent the next six weeks, from November 23, 1720, to January 1, 1721, living under the poorest of conditions in a small storage cell adjacent to the sacristy of the church of St. Charles in Castellazzo.  These weeks served as a preparatory retreat for his life as hermit and founder.  Told by Bishop Gattinara to record his feelings and inner experiences which occurred during this time, Paul of the Cross (as he later came to be known) did so.  An authentic transcript of this spiritual diary has been preserved and is most revealing.  For example, in an entry of the first day Paul encapsulated the basic principle underlying his entire spirituality:  to be crucified with Christ.

During this forty-day retreat, St. Paul of the Cross wrote the Rule of the new monastic community whose members were to be called the Poor of Jesus.  The original manuscript, according to his own statement, was written in an amazingly short time of five days (December 2-7, 1720).  Unfortunately, it has not been preserved for us.  At the conclusion of these days spent in prayer, penance, and fasting, Paul wanted to leave for Rome to obtain papal approbation of this Rule.  Bishop Gattinara, however, thought that the time was not yet ripe and succeeded in dissuading the young founder.

In the following months, Paul lived as a hermit in the vicinity of Castellazzo, where he taught catechism to children, preached at Masses on Sundays, and even conducted a mission for the people at the request of his bishop.

In September 1721, Paul journeyed to Rome to obtain papal approval of the Rule for his new Congregation.  In this he met with great disillusionment, being chased away by the Quirinal’s vigilant guards, who did not spare the use of rough words.  After that encounter, an audience with the pope was scarcely to be considered.

Upon his return to Castellazzo, Paul accepted his first recruit, his brother John Baptist, who too received the black habit of the Congregation from the hands of Bishop Gattinara and was thus clothed as a hermit (today we could say as a Passionist). Until the end of his life in 1765, John Baptist would remain his brother’s most faithful companion.

During the three years that followed, the two brothers tried to make the Congregation’s Rule the norm regulating their lives.  According to the Rule, members of the “Poor of Jesus” had the duty not only to strive for personal sanctification but also to engage in active work for the good of their neighbor.  The Danei brothers did this by going out from the hermitage where they lived to help with such pastoral activities as teaching catechism and preaching in neighboring parishes.

Still preoccupied about the need for papal approbation of the Rule, Paul, this time accompanied by his brother, set out again for Rome.  Despite his desire for written authorization, Paul only obtained Pope Benedict’s verbal approval to gather companions.

By now Paul had become convinced that, if the Rule were ever to receive full approbation, it would be necessary for him to remain in Rome, where he could find friends and benefactors capable of negotiating requirements of approbation with the Holy See.  He therefore welcomed the invitation of Cardinal Corradini to care for invalids in the newly built Hospital of St. Gallicano, where Paul confronted human suffering in a dramatic way.

Besides assigning them to nurse the ill, the hospital director, Don Emilio Lami, also charged the brothers with the spiritual care of both patients and staff.  This they accomplished with such satisfaction that Don Emilio encouraged them both to study for the priesthood.  After a short period of instruction in pastoral theology at a Franciscan College at St. Bartholomew’s on the isle of Tiber, they were ordained to the priesthood by Pope Benedict XIII in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 7, 1727.

The two Danei brothers enjoyed religious freedom at the hospital.  They wore their black habits, and, insofar as possible, they ordered their day in conformity with the Rule of the Poor of Jesus.  Still, it was not the kind of life to which Paul felt called.  Having found influential friends who were willing to press for the approval of the Congregation’s Rule at the Holy See, Paul decided it would be best to leave the matter of approbation in their hands and for him to leave both the hospital and Rome.

2.  Establishment of the Congregation

Quite a few years earlier, the two Danei brothers had withdrawn to a hermitage on Mount Argentario, a promontory situated on the coast about 150 km (93 mi.) northwest of Rome.  They loved the site, its seclusion and picturesque beauty; now they decided to reestablish themselves there, only this time in a different hermitage.  Thus, this mountain in Tuscany became the home of the first Passionist community.

Within a short period of time, however, it became apparent that the tiny hermitage did not offer sufficient space to accommodate all who wanted to live the spirit of St. Paul of the Cross.  They decided to build the Congregation’s first church and monastery, and overcoming immense difficulties, they attained their goal.  The church and cloister were consecrated in 1737.

Still awaiting solution was the problem most basic to the new Congregation:  approbation of its Rule.  After examination by a commission of cardinals and the inclusion of some modifications, it was approved by Pope Benedict XIV on May 15, 1741, more than twenty years after its original formulation.

Henceforth, the name of the new religious Congregation was Congregatio Sanctissimae Crucis et Passionis Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (Congregations of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ).  Even this Congregation’s name indicated its distinctiveness and special mission:  Its members were to contemplate and preach the cross and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is at this time that Paul arrived at the fourth and last stage in the maturation of his vocation.  Above all, it consisted in his charism, his special grace:  to make known, through contemplation and preaching, the passion and death of Jesus to a sinful world.

This charism of the founder was institutionalized in the form of a special vow noted in the oldest preserved transcript of the Rule in a chapter entitled “On the Fulfillment of the Vow of Promoting Devotion to the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, among Believers”.  Paul’s extraordinary vocation was to increase in all an awareness of the suffering of Christ.  This vocation remains to this day the mission of his Congregation in the Church and world.  Because of this, each Passionist makes, over and above the three traditional vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, a fourth vow to preach Christ Crucified in a special way.

St. Paul of the Cross desired that his new Congregation be exempt, that is, that it be directly under pontifical rather than local Episcopal authority.  He further wanted its members to make solemn rather than simple vows.  Notwithstanding his desires, the 1741 approbation put the new Congregation under Episcopal authority, and its members were permitted simple vows only.

Not content with this solution, St. Paul of the Cross again petitioned for the privileges of exemption and solemn vows.  Five years later, in 1746, the Rule was again approved in a brief issued by Benedict XIV in which Passionists were no longer placed under Episcopal authority, the new Congregation having been granted its desired status of exemption. The privilege of making solemn vows, however, was not granted.

Since the newly built monastery on Mount Argentario could no longer accommodate all who wanted to enter, the Passionists began building two new monasteries.  Organizational growth was needed too.  With the issuance of his brief approving  the Congregation’s Rule in April 1746, Pope Benedict XIV named St. Paul of the Cross the first superior general.  Shortly after, Paul summoned the first General Chapter, whose members elected him superior general and entrusted him with primary responsibility for the future of the whole Congregation.

All new foundations face difficulties, and it was not long before conflicts occurred for Paul of the Cross.  Mendicant monks in a nearby monasteries felt their rights to solicit funds for their own upkeep jeopardized by the new monastery.  By 1748, their complaint reached Rome.  Because the aim of the attack was to prevent the establishment of new foundations, Paul of the Cross felt compelled to defend himself and his Congregation before the authorities.  He was not lacking in support.  Many bishops and priests had observed the endeavors of the Passionists and supported them.  Then, too, Pope Benedict XIV displayed much goodwill to the new Congregation.  In April 1750, the dispute was settled by a commission of cardinals, who issued a document allowing Passionists to resume the work of establishing new foundations.  Although the pope himself approved this document, the attacks still did not end.

That the founder considered these attacks to be a serious threat is obvious even in subsequent years.  In his letters he frequently alluded to this problem.  For example, he wrote to a friend, “My distress is great, and it grows greater and greater, that now, in my old age, it will all collapse and go up in smoke.  Just how in the midst of such difficulties his mysticism of the cross and passion was a source of strength for him is evident from the following passage:  “Pray for me, because I am in a terrible abyss of tempests with water up to my neck, but I remain fastened to the safety plank, the holy cross, and I hope not to be wrecked.”

Despite the immense problems associated with the new foundations, St. Paul of the Cross succeeded in establishing five new monasteries prior to 1760.  Fortunately, he did not lack men who wanted to lead lives in accordance with his spirit and the Rule he conceived.

3.  Spiritual Director and Lay Missionary

St. Paul of the Cross was not only the founder of the Passionists; he was also a fervent spiritual director and lay missionary.  At the age of twenty-six and as yet neither cleric nor priest, he felt called to an apostolate of leading people to a conversion of mind and heart.  In his spiritual diary of December 1720, he records his “continual desire for the conversion of all sinners”.

This same apostolic thrust is also contained in the Rule.  In the first chapter of the Rule of 1736 it is specified that one of the essential aims of the Congregation is to work for the salvation of others.  The founder saw in lay missions a form of ministry especially suited to this purpose.  In fact, the 1741 papal rescript approving the Rule for the first time designated missions as the sole purpose (finis unicus) of the Congregation.  Therefore, it is understandable why this ministry took first place in the activities of Paul of the Cross.

During the course of his life, Paul conducted approximately 180 missions in over thirty dioceses in Italy.  The method he used was essentially that which was customary at that time.  Besides the usual subject matter (sacraments, sin, death, judgment, heaven, and hell), Paul placed special emphasis on meditation on the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, which, as prescribed in the 1736 Rule, was given each evening of the mission.  These meditations compensated for the severity of the sermons on the last judgment and hell, which were overly emphasized in those days.

St. Paul of the Cross stressed the point that after every mission each priest must return to the monastery to recollect himself in “solitude, prayer, and fasting”.  For him, the monastic qualities of solitude, silence and prayer formed the essential substructure of the Congregation and its apostolate.  He presents this idea very clearly in a letter written to a priest desirous of becoming a Passionist.  “Our Congregation”, he states, “is built on this foundation.  If it were destroyed, the whole edifice would collapse, and we would be severed from that special mission given this Congregation by God.”  The founder himself very cleverly negotiated his time to allow for the dual activities of action and contemplation.  He went on missionary journeys three times a year (in spring, autumn, and winter) and spent the remaining time in the monastery.

Paul of the Cross and his brother John Baptist jointly led several missions.  While Paul took charge of preaching, lectures, and meditations, his brother as busy conducting spiritual exercises for priests and religious.

A deep friendship existed between the two brothers.  For decades, John Baptist was Paul’s confessor and spiritual director.  When John Baptist died in August 1765, these tasks fell to Fr. John Mary, who was also the Congregation’s first historian and author of the Annali della Congregazione, a historic work in which he described the establishment and growth of the Passionists from 1720 to 1795.

4.  A Painful but Fruitful Evening of Life

Given the abundance of suffering that was in store for him, Paul’s title of the Cross seems particularly well chosen.  Over and above spiritual sufferings, which accompanied the establishment of his Congregation, serious illness often threatened his life.  On several occasions he was thought to be on his deathbed.  On one such occasion during the summer of 1767, he was so ill everyone thought he would die.  He himself, thinking the same, prepared for death and received the anointing of the sick.  The illness passed, however, and he regained his strength.  For Paul, these occasions of spiritual and physical suffering were opportunities to enter existentially into the mysticism of the cross and passion.

For more than twenty years, St. Paul of the Cross fought for the establishment of a monastery in Rome.  Finally, in the autumn of 1766, a friend and benefactor gave him the title of a house located near the famous church of St. John Lateran.  To meet the housing requirements of a monastic community, renovations were made.  In January 1767, a small community of Passionists moved into this new retreat named “Hospice of the Crucified”.  While establishing this retreat, Paul came to know Cardinal Antonio Ganganelli, who became a strong supporter of the Congregation and an intimate friend of the saint.

Two years later, on May 19. 1769, Cardinal Ganganelli was elected pope.  Within two or three days, the newly elected Pope Clement XIV received the congratulations of the founder in a private audience.  Wanting the saint to remain near him, Clement XIV invited Paul to remain in Rome.  Not being able to refuse the pope’s request, Paul established himself in the Hospice of the Crucified instead of returning to Vetralla, where he had been staying.

As pontiff, Clement XIV used his authority in favor of the Congregation.  On November 15, 1769, he approved its Rule by a papal brief.  A few days later he issued the papal bull “Supremi Apostolatus”, giving the new Congregation numerous privileges like those of the older orders.  Moreover, the Congregation was explicitly acknowledged as an official ecclesiastical institution.  St. Paul of the Cross now devoted himself to the fulfillment of another important goal, the foundation of a monastery of Passionist nuns who, living a strictly enclosed contemplative life, were to support the apostolic work of the priests by their lives of prayer and sacrifice.  His long-delayed desire became a reality when on May 3, 1771, eleven nuns entered the newly built monastery at Corneto (Tarquinia), their Rule having received prior approbation by the Holy See.

While still a cardinal, Pope Clement XIV had on several occasions visited the founder at the Hospice of the Crucified.  He was therefore aware of its cramped living conditions.  As a result, he wanted to provide the Passionists with better lodging in Rome.  Soon an occasion presented itself.  The monastery of SS. John and Paul, situated on the Coelian Hill, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, became free. Wanting to assure the future of the new Passionist Congregation, the pope gave Paul the monastery, its church, and adjoining gardens.  On December 9, 1771, the holy founder and a number of his brethren moved into the large monastery.  From then on, this retreat became the center of the Passionist Congregation, the Generalate itself being established there.

Half a year later the monastery of SS. John and Paul received a most honored guest.  On June 26, 1774, the titular feast of the church and monastery, the pontiff came to pay a visit to the old and ailing founder of the Congregation.  This, however was not the only time Paul of the Cross was to receive a papal visit.  Nineteen days after his election, Pope Pius VI, successor of Clement XIV, attended forty hours’ devotion in the basilica of SS. John and Paul and afterward visited Paul in his sickroom and talked with him at length.

At the sixth General Chapter of the Passionists, held from May 15-20, 1775, Paul of the Cross, despite his failing health, was reelected Superior General.  Within a few weeks it became apparent that his health had deteriorated to the point that death was imminent.  On October 18, 1775, Paul, recognizing his approaching death, requested the last sacraments, after which his long life devoted to the crucified Christ came to an end.  At his death, the Congregation numbered two hundred members living in twelve retreats.


Father Martin Bialas, C.P., entitled “The Mysticism of the Passion in St. Paul of the Cross” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco).

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