Who was St. Paul of the Cross?
WHO WAS ST. PAUL OF THE CROSS ?
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
Paul Francis Danei was born on 3rd January 1694 in the town of Ovada, near Alessandria in northern Italy. He was one of sixteen children, eleven of whom died in infancy or at a very early age. Although birth and death were part and parcel of the daily life of this hard pressed family, their Christian faith proved their source of strength.
Luke Danei, father of St. Paul of the Cross, owned a small clothing and tobacco store, the income from which was barely sufficient to maintain his family. Since the fluctuations of business forced the family to move from place to place, the children attended school very irregularly.
The hardships of life endured by Paul were offset by the advantages of growing up in a deeply Christian family. His mother, Anna Maria Danei, whose experience of birth and death matured her faith, exerted great influence upon his future life. She inculcated in her children a deep devotion to the suffering and crucified Christ by pointing to the crucifix in times of pain or discomfort and saying: “See how much he suffered for you.”
Paul’s later love for the Passion of Jesus was grounded in these early lessons learned at his mother’s knee and the influence of such childhood experiences should not be minimised. His soul was well prepared for the seed of God’s Word. While his youth was unexceptional, his temperament was most receptive to the religious education given him by his parents.
THE CALL OF GOD
In 1713, Paul Francis Danei had an experience which greatly influenced his entire life. After listening to a sermon, he was moved to make a general confession during which he became aware of being called to the service of God. Paul responded wholeheartedly to this call and decided to dedicate his entire life to the Lord. In later life he referred to this event as his conversion. The poor financial circumstances of his family, however, delayed his response to God’s call and led him instead to assume temporarily his share of responsibility for his father’s business, despite his “strong desire to withdraw to solitude and live for God alone”.
Some years later, Pope Clement proclaimed a Crusade against the Turks. Paul, who saw the Crusade as an opportunity to die a martyr for Christ, enrolled as a volunteer and moved to a camp near Milan. After spending a few months in the barracks, he decided God’s will for him did not consist in serving the Lord as a soldier. In 1716, he returned to his father’s home. For the next four years, Paul worked in his father’s business, contributing to the support of the young family. His uncle, Father Christopher Danei, thinking the young man should marry went so far as to choose a bride for Paul from among one of the respectable families of the area. The death of his uncle solved the problem for Paul who informed the young lady that he did not intend to marry.
Shortly afterwards Paul joined the Confraternity of St. Anthony and soon became its leader. In this capacity he was responsible for religious instruction at the meetings and for giving spiritual conferences on Sundays and feast days. He performed these duties with such conviction and ability that many of his companions remembered them for decades afterward.
Paul, for a long time, had felt the desire to withdraw into solitude and give himself totally to the service of God. His parents, however, had great hopes for their son on account of his many talents. But the Lord, who called ever more clearly and insistently, had other plans for the young man.
Paul’s vocation as founder of a religious congregation matured in various stages. He himself, has told us of these in a letter which he wrote to Bishop Gattinara in December 1720 and which served as an introduction to the Passionist Rule. The first stage was a call “to wear a simple black tunic, to go barefoot, in short to live in very deep poverty: with the grace of God to live a life of penance”. This was a calling to the life of a hermit where solitude, recollection and works of penance were further calls of God’s grace.
The second stage of Paul’s vocation consisted in the desire “to gather companions who would live together and work to strengthen souls in the fear of God”. Sanctification of the individual was not Paul’s only goal: pastoral care and activity were also in the forefront of his mind. For Paul, apostolic orientation was basic; the experience of God, which his companions would enjoy, was to be shared with others so that all might be led to a closer union with God.
At this stage, however, the saint was not certain about God’s will. Paul was sure the Lord wished him to assemble companions, but he had no idea as to how this might come about. After repeated light from God, he became convinced he was, with the permission of the Church, to found a congregation which would have the name of the “Poor of Jesus”. This was the third stage in the development of his vocation.
This prospective congregation had a special mission. The centre of its spirituality was the suffering and crucified Christ and its members were to devote themselves in a special way to preach the Passion and Death of Jesus “as the most astounding work of God’s love”. Contemplation and preaching of the Crucified were to form the essential charism given by God to Paul himself and through him to his congregation. This charism took concrete shape in the form of a first vow taken by Passionists to give witness to the “miracle of miracles of divine love” revealed in the Passion of Jesus. With this focus on the Passion, we see the fourth and final stage in the evolution of Paul’s vocation.
This maturation of Paul’s vocation occurred during the years 1713 – 1720 while he still lived with his family. Despite his involvement in managing family business at this time, Paul found time to live an almost monastic life. Apart from daily Mass and frequent Communion, he spent much time in spiritual reading, in contemplative prayer and in the practice of severe penance.
THE GREAT RETREAT
The year 1720 was a decisive one for Paul. He was now twenty six years old and his parents were no longer dependent on him. At last he was free to pursue his vocation. Having asked forgiveness for his failings from his brothers and sisters, he left home on 22nd November 1720. With his parents’ blessing, he set out for Alessandria where Bishop Gattinara, Paul’s confessor and spiritual director, lived. The Bishop clothed him in a simple black habit on the day of his arrival. This ceremony, which took place in the Bishop’s private chapel, marked the birth of the Passionist Congregation, which Paul was called to establish.
For the next forty days, Paul lived an austere life in a small room adjoining the sacristy of St. Charles in Castellazzo. His ambition to live in prayer, penance and solitude was not only realized but these weeks also served as a preparatory retreat for his life as hermit and founder.
As confessor and spiritual director, Bishop Gattinara commissioned his zealous penitent to keep a spiritual diary in which he was to record his inner perceptions and spiritual experiences. As a result we have to this day a true record of the course of his retreat. Entries in the diary indicate that already the young man had reached a high degree of prayer and mystical experience. In addition to the diary, Paul also wrote the Rule of the Passionist Congregation during this time, within a space of six days.
Having completed his retreat, Paul was so filled with enthusiasm that he wished to leave immediately for Rome to submit the newly written Rule to the Pope for his approval. Bishop Gattinara advised against this course so Paul continued to live in various hermitages close to his family home. His apostolic spirit soon found expression in the many catechism classes he conducted and in the numerous Sunday sermons he preached though still a layman.
In September 1721 Paul made an unsuccessful attempt to gain approbation of his Rule. In fact, he did not even gain access to the papal residence. He was turned away from the Quirinal by the porter who assumed Paul was a beggar. Disappointed but not discouraged, Paul walked to the Basilica of St. Mary Major and there, before the famous icon of the Mother of God, drew strength and comfort.
Upon his return home, Paul found his brother, John Baptist, eager to join him in religious life. The brothers, who had been closely united since childhood, lived over the next four years in various hermitages in central Italy, testing the viability of the Rule.
In 1725, the two brothers returned to Rome. On this occasion Paul obtained verbal permission from the Pope to assemble companions and to live in community under the new Rule. In the belief that it was necessary to reside in Rome in order to secure further approval of the Rule, Paul and John Baptist accepted an invitation of Cardinal Corrandini to help establish a new hospital being founded by the Cardinal. The brothers devoted their energies to providing nursing care and, in addition, ministered to the pastoral needs of both patients and staff.
The priest director of the hospital quickly recognized the extraordinary ability and deep piety of the two recruits. Eventually, he recommended that they be ordained and, after a short course in pastoral theology, Paul and his brother, John Baptist, were ordained to the priesthood by Pope Benedict XIII in St. Peter’s Basilica.
As support for Paul’s work grew, he was able to receive more members into his congregation. Wanting to establish the first community on Monte Argentario, a promontory about 150 kms northwest of Rome, Paul and his companions took up residence there in a vacant hermitage. As the size of the group grew, the hermitage proved to be too small and so work began on the first monastery of the Passionists.
Many difficulties had to be overcome before the monastery and church were blessed in 1737. The next important task was to obtain full approbation of the Rule. After it had been examined by a commission of Cardinals and some minor modifications made, Pope Benedict XIV approved the Rule and thus the Congregation of the Discalced Clerics of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ was officially established.
During his long life of 82 years, Paul founded eleven other monasteries, overcoming innumerable obstacles. At the age of 77, he realized his life long desire when he founded the first monastery of Passionist Nuns for whom he wrote a Rule prescribing contemplative life and papal enclosure. Today there are over five hundred enclosed Passionists in various part of the world from Italy to Japan and the Philippines.
Paul’s interest in the laity was strong. In 1755, sixteen years before the first foundation of the Passionist Nuns, Paul founded the Confraternity of the Passion, a canonically approved pious society of men and women who, while remaining in the world, dedicate themselves to contemplation of the Passion and share in the apostolate of the Passionist religious. Members of the Confraternity, known as “Lay Passionists”, follow an inspirational rather than an obligatory Rule of Life based on key concepts taken from the Passionist Rule.
The crowning point of the founder’s work was achieved when Pope Clement XIV, a personal friend of Paul, gave the congregation the famous old monastery and church of Ss. John and Paul on the Coelian Hill, one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was built. In December 1773, the first Passionists moved into this house, which was to serve as their Generalate to the present day.
Paul of the Cross did not limit his activity to founding monasteries. Entries in his spiritual diary indicate his constant desire to work for the conversion of sinners. For him, preaching missions was a major means of accomplishing this goal. During his life, he preached over two hundred missions in about thirty dioceses of Italy. Some of his mission campaigns lasted as long as eight weeks with one mission being given after another.
Eighteenth century missions contained three elements: a sermon on the basic truths of sin, death, judgment, heaven and hell; a catechetical instruction; and the preached meditation on the Passion. It was to the Passion meditation that Paul attributed the grace of many conversions.
The key to Paul’s success in preaching was to be found primarily in his personal relationship with Jesus and in his strong faith with moved listeners to conversion of heart. In addition, Paul had a natural aptitude to preaching. His strong and clear voice combined with deep sensitivity made him an extremely effective speaker. It’s no wonder then that eyewitnesses reported extraordinary conversions following his missions, reconciliations between bitter enemies, and renewal of faith in all who heard him preach.
When giving a mission, much of the time not spent in preaching was spent in the confessional. Paul was especially kind to all who approached him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Indeed, his contemporaries recalled that he was a confessor known for his compassion, encouragement and gentleness.
Paul of the Cross saw in the preaching of missions an activity well suited to both the active and contemplative spirit of his Institute. From their contemplative life, the religious would draw strength for their active ministry in which they would share with others the fruit of their contemplation – their experience of God and the liberating power of the cross.
Paul valued periods of contemplative prayer and solitude so highly that he included them in the Passionist Rule. When not involved in preaching, he and his religious were to withdraw to their monastery where, through prayer and silence, they disposed themselves to the action of the Holy Spirit. The value Paul attached to these periods can be seen in a letter written to a fellow priest, “We are obliged by the Holy Rule to return to the Monastery immediately after the completion of missions or retreats so that we might be refreshed in solitude through prayer and fasting. Believe me, a worker in the vineyard who is a man of prayer, a friend of solitude and detached from all created things will bear much more fruit than a thousand others who are not so”. In the same letter, we see how vital Paul considered the link to be between solitude and the active ministry. He writes, “Our congregation is built on this foundation, which if it is destroyed will result in the collapse of the whole structure. Anything else is outside the mission that God has entrusted to the congregation”. In conclusion, it can be said that the two pillars upon which the congregation is based are contemplative-monastic life and an active apostolate.
During his intensely active life, Paul came in contact with many people. Apart from his two hundred missions, he conducted eighty retreats, mostly to religious sisters. Many who got to know him trusted him and asked him advice in the difficulties of their spiritual life. Since missions and the business of the Institute often took the saint away from the monastery, most of his spiritual direction was by letter. He regarded this correspondence as an important apostolic work, and according to his own accounts, he wrote an average of twenty five letters a week. The content of these letters is not confined to brief practical hints or pithy pieces of information. It often encompasses questions of a spiritual and mystical nature. Such letters frequently extend over four or five printed pages.
People of various social strata and from different walks of life entrusted themselves to him for guidance. Priests and religious, fathers and mothers of families, single people, young and old, rich and poor are represented among his correspondents. It is amazing to see how sensitive he is to the needs of each.
There are personal letters too, written to people who were very close to him. Sometimes we find in them words of deep human warmth and friendship along with steadfast faith and practical wisdom, a combination that is a sure sign of true Christian religion and mysticism. These two components, humanity and holiness, were deeply integrated in Paul’s personality, and as he developed in Christian holiness, his humanity flowered all the more.
Since Paul had not taken advanced courses in theology, how could his knowledge of the spiritual life have been so deep and accurate? The answer: he was self taught. His diary reveals a knowledge of the works of Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, and Frances de Sales; later in his life, he developed a great love for the writings of the mystic John Tauler. From the study of these classics came the solid principles of his theology.
Paul’s own experience also served to make him a suitable guide for others. His advice did not spring from untested theories, but rather from his own deep relationship with God. It is not surprising that those who were striving for Christian perfection found in Paul an expert in the ways of God and one to whom they entrusted themselves.
SUFFERING AND A FRUITFUL EVENING OF LIFE
Given the trials encountered by Paul, his title “of the Cross” seems particularly well chosen. In the first place, his foundations were plagued with the envy, jealousy, and calumny of enemies who wished to halt his work. Serious physical illness often threatened his life. On several occasions he was thought to be at the edge of the grave. These numerous sufferings provided opportunities for him to bring his Passion mysticism to perfection and he cheerfully accepted them as a sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
Although filled with suffering and infirmity, Paul’s last years did not go without recognition. In December, 1773, Paul moved into the Roman monastery of Ss. John and Paul. On its titular feast, Pope Clement XIV, who had given the monastery to the Passionists, came to visit its founder. On March 5, 1755, Clement’s successor, Pius VI, attended the Forty Hours Devotions taking place in the Basilica and afterward visited Paul in his sickroom and conversed with him at length. These visits gave Paul great pleasure but they also filled him with awe.
At the Sixth General Chapter of the Passionists, held April 15 to May 20, 1775, Paul of the Cross despite his failing health was re-elected General. Within a few weeks it became apparent that his health had deteriorated to the point that death was imminent. Paul, recognizing his approaching death, requested the Last Sacraments, after which his long life devoted to Christ Crucified came to an end. He died on 18th October 1775. At the time, the Passionist Congregation numbered two hundred members located in thirteen monasteries.
Paul of the Cross was beatified in 1853 and canonized a saint in 1867. His feast is celebrated on October 19
adapted from IN THIS SIGN … The Spirituality of St. Paul of the Cross by Martin Bialas, C.P.
Ways of Prayer 9, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1979.
Martin Bialas, C.P., has devoted many years of study to the character and thought of St. Paul of the Cross. He is a member of the German Vice Province of the Passionist Congregation.