I’m thinking about St. Paul of the Cross.
As a young man, Paul Danei (1694-1774) didn’t enter an existing religious community, but against strong opposition set out to found a new community in the church. New religious communities weren’t welcome at the time.
Spiritual directors and members of other communities–Capuchins, Franciscans, Carmelites–influenced him from his youth and surely helped him understand the basics of religious life, but from his early twenties the young Italian from northern Italy believed God wanted him to begin a religious community with a mission of its own.
A new community would be a fresh voice in the church.
He began as a hermit, a vocation better recognized in the church of his day, and as a hermit, he settled on a mountain, Monte Argentario, facing the Mediterranean Sea. He would always favor time and places apart. Establishing new communities later in life, Paul of the Cross chose locations away from settled towns and cities; if they were on high ground all the better.
On mountains you can see ahead far and clearly, and that’s what he wanted to do. Jesus chose a mountain to reveal his glory, and it prompted his disciples to propose tents be put up there to hold on to the vision. In the same way, Paul of the Cross built a retreat dedicated to the mystery of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple on Monte Argentario.
Paul Danei belongs in the long history of Christian hermits who, from desert places and mountains, play important roles in the world and in the church. We pay slight attention to them today, interested in more newsworthy church people, like popes and bishops and theologians (sometimes). But hermits are important, especially today. In unsettled times, they embrace solitude in one form or another–not to escape their times, but to give them new vision.
The historian Peter Brown, in a study of Christian hermits in late antiquity, says they were respected for their absolute selflessness, their genuine disengagement from property, position and worldly affairs. Though outsiders, they were considered clear-sighted figures, impartial people of faith, trusted holy men and women who brought integrity to a compromised world. (Peter Brown: “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” in Journal of Roman Studies vol. 61, 1971, p. 80-101.) For more on hermits.
“When people were at enmity with each other or had a grievance one against another, the holy man reconciled them…and brought them to a better frame of mind by telling them not to wrong each other. (Theodoret, Church History)
Brown offers the charming example of Simon the Stylite, the Syrian holy man who lived alone on a high stone column, yet thousands came to him for advice. Hermits don’t have to be eccentrics, however. How about Thomas Merton, for example?
In his own way, Paul’s experience of solitude nourished his missionary activity of preaching missions and retreats and brought blessings to the towns and places he visited. Like Moses, he was a holy man come down from a holy place touched by God, and people welcomed him. He wanted his followers to be like him.
When the Passionists were finally recognized as a religious community by the church in the middle of the 18th century, Paul looked for a place in Rome to do business with the Holy See. After all, his community, founded to serve the church, needed a presence in Rome.
His choice for a Roman retreat was not surprising. Following the suppression of the Jesuits by the pope on July 1, 1773, their churches and residences in Rome were given to other communities. In the exchange, the pope offered the Passionists the monastery and church of Saints John and Paul, an ancient shrine site in a area of the city described as “disabbitato,” “uninhabited,” following the barbarian invasions of the city in the 6th century.Paul of the Cross wanted this solitary place for his community and he took possession of it in December, 1773. Now, of course, it’s surrounded by modern Rome. (cf. Paul Francis Spencer, As a Seal Upon Your Heart.)
The retreat house for the Diocese of Rome is there today, a place “to come apart and rest awhile.” The monastery gardens, once part of Nero’s gardens, are an oasis of peace in the busy city. It’s a place steeped in history, built on the foundations of the ancient Roman Temple of Claudius, reached by the Clivus Scauri, an old Roman street, crowned by a 5th century Christian basilica built over 2nd century Roman houses. A venerable place in the ruins of ancient Rome.
I doubt Paul, a sickly old man when he moved to Saints John and Paul, had much time to appreciate its history. He would die there in 1774 and be buried in a splendid chapel added on to the basilica.
But the basilica itself is more than a relic of the past. It’s also a reminder of an interrupted dream. When built in the early 5th, its patrons– wealthy influential Christians from the Celian Hill– meant it to be a sign of a new Christian approach to the pagan world, strongly entrenched nearby on the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. The basilica, the first Christian church to be built in Rome’s “show area,” facing these strongholds of paganism, was their way of saying: “We’re here and we want to engage you.”
The babarian invasions in the 5th and 6th century put an end to their initiative as the families from the Celian Hill fled to safer areas of the city and Roman world.
But the Passionists shouldn’t forget this venerable place and its past dreams, should they? After all, the goal of the hermit is not escape, but ultimately engagement. Is our engagement with a secular age, just outside our doors?