I don’t know that I’ll ever forget my first reaction to the black habit of the Passionist Order. I was in Rome, studying at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, and I was immediately drawn to the vital simplicity of the sable habit with the curious patch. Perhaps I was taken rather by its novelty to me. I had not only never seen the habit before, but I don’t believe I had ever heard of the congregation, and I certainly had never heard of or was consciously aware of their founder St. Paul of the Cross whose feast it is today.
The obscurity of the Passionists is not all that surprising given their limited presence here in the United States. Though present since the mid 1800’s, they have not exactly taken off here, and today their Passionist Retreat centers can only be found in four cities, two in California, one in Texas, and the last in Michigan. Still, that they should be so obscure given the wonder of St. Paul of the Cross their founder is a shame.
St. Paul was born in Ovada in Genoa, Italy in 1694. It seems that from a very young age he displayed particular spiritual gifts, gifts which he shared with his younger brother John Baptist. From St. Paul’s fifteenth birthday onward, he was known to have eaten very little, slept little, and spent many hours in prayer.
After trying several times to lead a “normal” life he was convinced more than ever that he was called to a clerical vocation. In the summer of 1720 he was granted several visions that included a black habit with a patch of white characters that bore Christ’s name with the cross. In one vision he was told clearly by Our Lady that he was to found an order.
There were many fits and starts to this order whose proper full name is the Barefooted Clerks of the Holy Cross and Passion (C.P. in initials), and there were so many because the rule was so austere. The aim of the order was to provide missionary preaching for the Church with always the theme of Christ Crucified, their charism the constant meditation and communion with the Passion of Christ. The rule was, even by many saintly standards, quite extreme. St. Paul’s missions were hugely successful, bringing many souls to Christ and drawing a good number of young men to his order. They seldom lasted long. It wasn’t until 1741 that the order began to increase in size, and this was due in part to the stipulation of Pope Benedict XIV that the rules be lightened.
St. Paul of the Cross and his order became known throughout Italy for their preaching. Indeed St. Paul achieved quite the reputation. One soldier is recorded to have said,
Father, I have been in great battles without ever flinching at the cannon’s roar. But when I listen to you I tremble from head to foot.
However, if his preaching did not seem to be making the impact he felt it should, he would take to self-flagellation in a public area to repair for the sins of the people. At the sight of such a thing, even the most hard-hearted of men could be known to break down in tears and confess all they had done ill before the now-bloodied priest.
Such a story may seem odd to us today. In our oh-so-dowdy conveniences we are quite sure that we can’t possibly engage in those sorts of sacrifices anymore. How old-fashioned of St. Paul, no? Or perhaps we are tempted to think that St. Paul of the Cross was a bit of a mental case? Who would do such a thing after all? But why should it be so? What does Christ’s Cross mean to us now if St. Paul of the Cross was over the top, extreme, zealous beyond prudence?
Which is not to say that such austerities are for everyone, or anyone. I certainly don’t trust myself and my level of discernment capability in order to treat my body this way, but St. Paul had regularly high moments of contemplative prayer wherein he communed with the Godhead. Why should that not be what he discerned properly? We learned not too long ago that Pope John Paul the Great would also occasionally engage in self-flagellation. Was he mentally unstable? More importantly, for certainly good St. Paul of the Cross and John Paul the Great are beyond caring what our opinions are, what does all of this mean for us?
St. Paul of the Cross wrote this once in one of his letters,
It is very good and holy to consider the passion of our Lord, and to meditate on it, for by this sacred path we reach union with God. In this most holy school we learn true wisdom, for it was there that all the saints learned it.
Therefore, be constant in practicing every virtue, and especially in imitating the patience of our dear Jesus, for this is the summit of pure love. Live in such a way that all may know that you bear outwardly as well as inwardly the image of Christ crucified, the model of all gentleness and mercy. For if a man is united inwardly with the Son of the living God, he also bears his likeness outwardly by his continual practice of heroic goodness, and especially through a patience reinforced by courage, which does not complain either secretly or in public. Conceal yourselves in Jesus crucified, and hope for nothing except that all men be thoroughly converted to his will.
Is this not the height of perspicacity? Is this not the very same advice one ought to hear from a saint? Does this sound like the ravings of a mad man?
St. Paul of the Cross’ mandate from our Lady came to full fruition in 1769 when Pope Clement XIV gave the order final approval. St. Paul then proceeded to seek the erection of a Passionist order of women. He worked tirelessly, but passed before he could see the nuns in their habits.
St. Paul died on October 18, 1775, but as this is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, it was transferred to April 28th. It was transferred to October 19th as a result of the Vatican reforms of the last century.
I would encourage everyone on this day of St. Paul of the Cross to consider Christ crucified. Leave out the dimpled child of the manger. Ignore the kindly prophet of the mount. Forget, for the moment mind you, the risen king bedecked with the glory of heavenly esteem. Do this, and concentrate on the man on the tree, quivering in pain, solicitous of nothing more from us but the acknowledgment that we do love Him for all he suffers for us.
I cannot refrain from adding some minor points of interest about St. Paul of the Cross. Since his visions about founding the order he knew that a particular charism for him and the order would be to pray for the conversion of England. What with the beatification of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, I think good St. Paul is quite pleased. So keep up those prayers. They’re working.
Another thing is this, upon the death of the young brother John Baptist in 1765, the brother who remained by St. Paul’s side at all times, Pope Clement XIV granted the basilica of Saints John and Paul to the Passionist Order to memorialize the great relationship between the two brothers John and Paul. It is there that St. Paul of the Cross is buried, and it is this basilica which since 1946 has been the titular basilica of the Cardinal priest of New York. And it was also in this basilica that some interior scenes for the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black were shot. Starring Gregory Peck as Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, the film is the true story of an American priest who worked against the Nazis during the German occupation of Rome. In the end, with the failure of the Third Reich, the German Captain who sought to kill the Msgr. ended up asking the cleric to help move his family out of Rome in safety. The Msgr. did so and visited the Captain in prison after the war. The Captain eventually repented of his crimes and became Catholic.