ST. PAUL of the CROSS:
Founder of the Passionist Congregation
Paolo Francesco Danei now known as St. Paul of the Cross was the eldest of 16 children of Luke Danei and Ann Marie Massari both exemplary Christians. He was born on 3 January 1694 in the town of Ovada, Italy (then the Republic of Genoa). His family was noble but impoverished who had become merchants in Lombardy, Italy.
Not much is written about his early life except that from earliest years he showed signs of a great love for prayer especially before the Blessed Sacrament and for contemplation. So his childhood was spent in piety and great innocence.
It is to his mother that he owes his special devotion to the Sacred Passion of our Lord as she would always show him as a little boy the crucifix whenever he cried tears of pain or annoyance. Then she would tell him simply about how our Lord suffered.
It is to his father, on the other hand, that he was inspired by the stories of the lives of saints which he would often read aloud to his large family cautioning them against fighting and gambling.
Even at an early age he already exhibited a capacity for spiritual leadership when he organized a religious society among the youth of the neighborhood. While an adolescent, he was determined to devote himself to the service of God.
When he was fifteen after hearing a sermon on the Passion of Jesus, he adopted a lifestyle of prayer, rigorous austerity and great mortification at his home at Castellazzo, Lombardy.
Joins the Army
At first in 1714 he thought he would be serving God by joining the Venetian army to fight against the Turks. But after only a year he realized that the army was not his vocation. Moreover he was affected profoundly by the experience. When he was discharged a year later he refused a good inheritance and promising marriage to a wealthy girl. Instead he decided to follow his inner desire for a spiritual vocation so he became a recluse and went back to his earlier life of prayer and penance.
Dedicates his Life to God
In 1720 at the age of 26 he finally dedicated his life to God and was clothed in the habit of a hermit by the bishop of Alexandria Bishop Gastinara.
The following day he began a 40-day retreat in a room off the sacristy in the church of St. Charles at Castellazzo in Lombardy.
His Visions Begin
That year he had several extraordinarily vivid visions of the Blessed Mother in a black habit with the name of Jesus in white character surmounted by a cross in white on the chest. On the third occasion she told him to found a new religious Order or congregation devoted to preaching and mourning continually for the Passion and death of Christ, her Son. So Paul became determined to share with believers his profound awareness of the immense suffering Jesus endured as he hung on the cross.
In an ecstasy he beheld the black habit which he and his companions were to wear and which the Passionists still wear to this day. He received several other mystical visions instructing him on how to found the religious order.
Starts Founding the Order
After consulting with his Bishop-director of Alessandria who decided that the visions were authentic he decided to act on God’s wishes that he establish a congregation in honor of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
On November 22 of that same year the Bishop gave him the habit that had been shown to him in a vision. From then on Paul busied himself preparing the Rule of Life for his congregation the “Discalced Clerks of the Cross and the Passion” better known as the Passionist Congregation. He claimed he was divinely inspired to write the Rule during his 40 days retreat. It was also at this time that Paul first felt compelled for the conversion of England. His aim was to combine monastic virtue with active missionary work. Paul chose as their badge a heart with three nails in memory of the sufferings of Jesus.
Once the Rule was drawn up in 1721 Paul and his brother John the Baptist (who became his closest confidant and inseparable companion) set off for Rome seeking papal approval of their Rule.
At first try he failed so badly he was not even received inside the Vatican.
On their return home Paul was enthralled by the beauty of Monte Argentario that he decided to live there as hermits with his brother. In 1725 Pope Benedict XIII granted them permission to accept novices. So, seven years later in 1727 after receiving priestly ordination the two brothers founded the Passionist Congregation or the Barefooted Clerks of the Holy Cross and Passion starting community life in a small hermitage on Mount Argentario near Orbetello. Others soon joined.
Reluctantly against his will Paul was elected superior general, a position he held for the rest of his life.
Goals and Nature of the Order
To bring souls to Christ through a devout contemplation of His Passion was the main goal of the Order while living monastic lives. Thus it combined the austere Carthusian Life with the active Jesuit apostolate. So prayer, penance, poverty, solitude and devotion to Christ Crucified issuing forth from intensive apostolic work for God’s glory became the hallmark of the Order. It became a society pledged to austerity, self-denial and the contemplative life. They became popularly known as Passionists because of a special vow they take to spread devotion to Christ in His sufferings. In fact Paul would fervently preach about the sufferings of Christ with arms outstretched, cross in hand. When he would scourge himself pitilessly for the people’s sins everyone wept and confessed their sins.
It was not till twenty years later from the time they first sought papal approval that they finally got it when Benedict XIV first simply approved their modified severe rule in 1741 and then later solemnly approved it in 1746.
From then on the new official Congregation of the Barefooted Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion (or Passionists for short) began to spread throughout Italy in great demand for their missions which they were famous for.
The first monastery was built near Orbetello. Later he had to establish a larger community at the church of Saints John (his brother) and Paul in Rome. This splendid church became the headquarters of his congregation.
Work of the Passionists
The work of the Passionists was mainly preaching to the people in parishes. This is why Paul preached all over the Papal States to tremendous crowds. For fifty years Paul, the untiring missionary of Italy, brought back to the faith even the most hardened sinners and criminals. This was because one of his particular concerns was for the conversion of sinners. When he scourged himself in public for their sins he raised the crowds to fever pitch. It is no wonder that people fought to get near him- one of the most celebrated preachers of his time- and get a piece of his tunic as a relic.
In spite of all this Paul ironically believed that he was a useless servant and great sinner. Yet as if to prove him wrong “God blessed him with a number of supernatural gifts – prophecy, miracles of healing, appearances to people in visions in distant places, etc.
One of the things he prayed for throughout 50 years was the return of England to the Faith. So it is believed that it was thanks to the Passionists and their prayers that Cardinal Newman among many many others entered the church.
Death and Canonization
After spending the last years of his life in solitude his saintly death caused by a lifetime (81 years) of penance came at Rome on 18 October 1775. At his death he had established 12 monasteries in Italy and since then his congregation has spread throughout the world.
He was even able to found toward the end of his life the Institute of the Passionate Nuns, a Sister Order of the Passionists at Corneto (Tarquinia),Illinois in 1770.
Final approbation of his Order finally came from Pope Clement XIV in 1769.
Considered the greatest mystic of the 18th century Paul of the Cross was canonized on 29 June 1867 by Pope Pius IX. Not only was he a “tireless preacher of the word of the Cross, outstanding superior of the congregation, eminent model of penance and contemplation, an enlightened director of Souls, but also an indefatigable missionary of Italy.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
ST. PAUL of the CROSS
October 19, 20 (April 28)
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. II – pp 178 – 180
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p 209
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp 393 – 394
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 495 – 497
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I – pp 478 – 479
My First Book of Saints – pp 252 – 253
Saints Companions – pp 396 – 397
Voices of the Saints – pp 604 – 605
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives Grou 6 Card 77
Book of Saints – Part 5 – pp 26 – 27