St. Paul of the Cross: Following in the Footsteps of Crucified Jesus

October 19, the Church celebrates the memory of St. Paul of the Cross: called to found a religious order dedicated to contemplating and making reparation for the Passion of Christ. He was required to suffer pain and bewilderment within himself as the foundation of his great work.

Newsroom (October 20, 2021, 12:45 PM, Gaudium Press) Paul Francis was born in Ovada, Italy, on January 3, 1694, the firstborn of the Danei family. From his early childhood, an inclination to piety blossomed in his soul, and the Catholic education he received at home encouraged it even more.

Paul and his brother John Baptist played at building altars to Our Lady. Sometimes, to do penance, they would spend their nights in the barn, sleeping on boards or the floor. In this way, the childhood of the two brothers went by, and God lovingly prepared them for a very high mission.

When he was 19, while listening to a sermon by the parish priest, he experienced what he would call his “conversion.” Deeply moved, he asked the priest to hear him in General Confession. Since then, he began a life of sacrifices; and separated himself from the world with a burning desire to give himself to God alone.

Imagining that perhaps God wanted him to fight for Him, he enlisted in 1715 in the army commissioned by the Republic of Venice to defend Europe under threat from the Ottomans. However, something inside him told him that this was not God’s will.

His vocation is defined

In 1720 he had a vision, in which he recounts, “I saw myself clothed in spirit with a black tunic that reached to the ground, with a white Cross on my chest, and under the Cross was written the holiest name of Jesus in white letters.”

However, he didn’t know if God was calling him to a hermitical life, or to enter a religious order, or perhaps to found a new community. He had received some divine inspiration, but none had explicitly revealed to him what his mission was.

He consulted three priests who were his friends. One of them suggested that he seek out the Bishop of Alessandria, Monsignor Francesco Arborio di Gattinara. The Bishop submitted him to harsh trials and, perceiving the hand of God in his intentions, ended up clothing him with the tunic of a penitent which he had previously worn.

He began to live off charity, in prayer and recollection, in a small room under the sacristy staircase in the Church of Saint Charles in Castellazzo. There he wrote the rule of his future congregation in only five days, “as quickly as if someone were dictating to me from a teacher’s chair.”

The first missions

After an unsuccessful trip to Rome to ask the Pope for help in discerning his call, and with the advice given by Bishop Gattinara, he went to the hermitage of St. Stephen, and this time his brother John Baptist accompanied him, also wearing the black tunic of a penitent.

After a few months, they settled in the hermitage of the Annunciation on Mount Argentario, in the Tuscan diocese of Pitigliano, where Paul had passed on his return from Rome.

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Secluded from everyone, the two brothers dedicate themselves more and more to penance and meditation on holy things, reflecting in themselves the Passion of the Savior. They slept a few hours at night and got up several times to pray. They lived on alms and ate only one meal a day, feeding themselves on the herbs and roots they gathered in the region.

Meanwhile, they began their missionary life. The Bishop of the diocese, Fulvio Salvi, believed that the brothers’ vocation was not strictly solitary. He sent them to educate the faithful in the cathedral, visit families, and prepare the dying for death. In addition, Paul settled disputes between enemies, and often, through his influence, real outlaws made amends.

Thus, they wen from town to town, carrying a large Crucifix with them.

Such fruitful missionary action came from intense contemplation and piety. Both spent long hours on their knees adoring the Blessed Sacrament, always the first to enter the Church and the last to leave.

Frustrated Congregation

The reputation of sainthood of the two brothers reached the ears of Bishop Pignatelli of Gaeta, who invited them to exert their apostolate there. In the summer of 1723, they discerned in this request the voice of God, and they both began to live in strict austerity. They moved near the city to the hermitage of Our Lady of the Chain, where some hermits already lived.

In 1725, between active and contemplative life, the two brothers arrived in Troy on a mission; and Bishop Cavallieri welcomed them. Paul revealed to him the plans of the long-awaited foundation, and the latter, having read the rules, affirmed: “This is a work all from God.” With letters of introduction, Bishop Cavallieri sent them to Pope Benedict XIII.

Full of hope, the two traveled to Rome, where their unique attire attracted the attention of Msgr. Crescenzi, canon of St. Peter’s Basilica. He approached them in the street and inquired about them. Delighted with the humility of these two men of God, he introduced them to Cardinal Corradini. He then invited them to render their services at the San Gallicano Hospital and promised to bring them closer to the Pope.

The opportunity for the longed-for meeting came during the visit of the Supreme Pontiff to the Church of Santa Maria in Navicella. There, on their knees, the two Danei brothers explained their plans, and the Pontiff listened to them, authorizing them in “‘viva voce’ to carry out the divine inspiration they had received.

They returned to Gaeta to start the congregation with their hermitage brothers. But the attempt was thwarted by the heterogeneity of the developing community. The austerities of life frightened some, the mere verbal approval of the Pope frightened others.

Paul and John Baptist headed alone to Itri, where in solitude and penance, hoped for inspiration of grace.

The priesthood and, finally, the foundation

In mid-August 1726, without giving up their mission, they decided to move to Rome to serve again in the hospital; and prepare themselves for the priesthood.

In a few months, they received their minor orders. On June 7, 1727, Benedict XIII ordained them to the priesthood.

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The following year, they obtained the Pope’s permission to retire again to the solitude of Mount Argentaria. They soon gathered their first companions, among them Antonio Danei, one of their brothers.

It was, after all, the beginning of the cenobitic congregation of the Poor of Jesus, dedicated to the contemplation of the Savior’s Passion. Thus, they fulfilled God’s will.

The small congregation grew slowly. Many came to the hermitage of St. Anthony the Abbot, where they stayed, to receive the sacraments, attracted by the sanctity of the brothers.

Trials: the pillar of the Institute

On one occasion, while Paul was praying before the Blessed Sacrament in Orbetello, Our Lord appeared to him, declaring that the first retreat – as the houses of the Passionists would be called – in honor of the Presentation of the Virgin would be built in that city. Two years later, the construction began, whose plan Paul himself had drawn up, harmonizing “holy poverty with monastic decency.”

He had to go through many trials to carry it out. He had to feel in his soul the abandonment of Christ on the Cross. St. Paul was the object of countless slanders and misunderstandings, difficulties within his community. In Rome, with Benedict XIII dead, despite the oral support he had given years before, the doors had been closed for the approval of its rule.

Following in the footsteps of the crucified Jesus, Paul lived moments of pain and bewilderment. Providence kept him waiting for more than a decade, and only when Benedict XIV ascended to the papal see – Cardinal Lambertini, who had helped him a great deal in his early days in Rome – did he have the rules and constitutions approved on May 15, 1741.

The order took shape, and on June 11 of the following year, the first vows of the congregation were taken, in which the saintly founder took the name of Paul of the Cross, and his brother that of John Baptist of St. Michael the Archangel.

Development and consolidation of the Order

He lay prostrated in bed for almost six months, with an illness from which he would never recover at all. For 40 days, he did not sleep for a single minute, and the prayers of his friends had no effect and even seemed to double his sufferings.

Once this storm had passed, new disciples gradually appeared, and the institution already had a novitiate.

The burden of age and poor health did not prevent him from continuing his missions. For those who did not convert, he made it clear what destiny awaited them: “He saw the interior of souls as one sees the sun at noon.”

Wherever he went, he brought people who had separated back to the bosom of the Church; public sinners accused themselves in front of everyone after confessing; and in one region, the inhabitants became so devout that they even abstained from legal entertainments.

During a war, Paul had also become an apostle to the soldiers. A high-ranking officer, coming out of Confession, said to him: “Father, I have been on the battlefield, I have been under cannon fire, and I have never trembled, but you make me tremble from head to toe.”

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The loss of his brother and the final approval of the congregation

On August 30, 1765, after a prolonged illness, John Baptist died. Paul mourns the loss of his lifelong companion mostly because he no longer had someone to correct his defects.

A few years later, Pope Clement XIV was elected. Paul goes to Rome to ask for the final approval of the congregation, with solemn vows and other privileges. The Supreme Pontiff welcomed the old man, who 50 years ago was rejected in the Eternal City, and granted him the obedience to stay there and preach missions.

The devil could not let such a mission proceed in peace. He had tried to do him a lot of damage over time, and during this period, he was attacked by an illness of which he said: “My case is not medical, it is an evil caused by demons.”

When he started to improve, he got sicker again, so he felt closer to death than ever. He only regained his health because of the obedience given by the Supreme Pontiff, demanding that he remain in this world.

In fact, he had one more project to fulfill: the foundation of the feminine branch of his order. Overcoming numerous difficulties, he succeeded in accomplishing it, starting the first convent with ten zealous nuns. Years later, among his most illustrious spiritual daughters, stood out the great St. Gemma Galgani.

With his eyes fixed on the crucified Jesus

With the work consolidated, the time to meet the Lord was approaching. Feeling his end coming, Paul visited all the retreats for the last time. He gave his confreres the final instructions and encouraged them to observe the rule faithfully.

In May 1775, he presided over the order’s last General Chapter, where he asked pardon for all the shortcomings of his government and begged the mercy of dying in the congregation. He was re-elected superior general by papal determination.

Toward the end of June, his health deteriorated. His sufferings were atrocious, and he could not eat any solid food. However, his serenity of soul was complete: “The more his body was weak and sickly, the more his spirit was strong and full of life, and inflamed with a desire to be perfectly united with God.”

When he received the Viaticum, he again asked forgiveness for what in his eyes constituted faults and gave a blessing to all the Passionists. The severity of his condition lasted for some weeks.

In his agony, with his eyes fixed on Jesus Crucified and Mater Dolorosa, he saw them enter his room, accompanied by a procession of saints, among them, his brother John Baptist and other deceased Passionists.

On October 18, 1775, when he was 81, St. Paul of the Cross completed his career and his passion in this life and entered into the glory of eternity.

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel, n. 178, October 2016.

Compiled by Ena Alfaro

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