Who are the Passionists?
Religious movements begin with a call. Usually God calls one person first – like Peter, James and John – who in turn call others. The Passionists, – a religious movement of priests, brothers, women religious and laypeople – are found in most parts of the world today. Their founder is St. Paul of the Cross and they’re called to keep alive the memory of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul of the Cross: a Saint for Hard Times
The first thing you should know about the Passionists is their founder. His name was Paul Danei. He lived in 18th century Italy and for 81 years experienced hard times – times in many ways like our own.
Italy’s economy then was severely depressed as countries along the Atlantic Ocean like England, Spain and France captured world markets. As its trade dwindled, poverty and unemployment spread across the Italian peninsula. “Poor Italy!” Paul would say of his battered land.
The church in Italy also experienced hard times as Europe’s monarchs grabbed its resources and held the popes under their thumb. It was the beginning of the Enlightenment in Europe, and “enlightened” scholars and scientists were teaching that real progress came through human efforts alone. No need for revealed religions or prayer or spiritual help, they said God, if God exists, was little involved in human affairs.
Some 18th century pundits were predicting that religion, and the Catholic church in particular, was coming to an end.
Just the time for God to call for saints.
In 1714 young Paul Danei had a striking experience of God. It happened during an ordinary sermon in an ordinary church, preached by an unknown priest. A sense of God and a desire to serve him filled his heart. Over the years his experience grew and it centered on the Passion of Jesus Christ. So taken was he by this mystery that eventually Paul Danei preferred signing his name as Paul of the Cross.
If you asked St. Paul of the Cross today for some words of wisdom, he probably would point to a cross he usually carried and tell you to look at the world you live in, then look at yourself with this mystery of Jesus Christ in mind. Maybe he would say something like this:
“Are times bad? Is your church shaken? Is God nowhere to be seen?
“Well, what about my own lifetime? That dreadful time, when faith crumbled and God seemed to have abandoned his Son?
“Yet, God was never closer than in that dark moment, and God is close to you now. I found him first at a bad time, in an ordinary church, listening to an ordinary sermon. You can find him too. Don’t be afraid of the darkness. And be ready: God uses simple things to come to you.”
In his youth, Paul worked for his father, a “poor tobacconist” who moved his family and small store from one town to another in northern Italy to make ends meet. Six years after hearing the sermon in church the young man had another strong experience of God.
“In the summer of 1720, at the time of the grain harvest, after communion at the Capuchin church in Castellazzo on a street corner near my home – I was raised up in God in the deepest recollection with complete forgetfulness of all else and with great interior peace…”
Shortly after, Paul made a retreat of 40 days in a small room in a nearby church where he experienced temptations and spiritual consolations as he prayed in imitation of Jesus Christ. At his local bishop’s request he kept an account of how God worked in his soul; his retreat account is considered a classic of Christian spirituality.
The Passion of Jesus was at the heart of his experience; it would always be at the center of his spirituality. For him, it was the door into the Presence of God where one rested “in the bosom of the Father” and received the blessing of “great interior peace.”
Paul’s retreat is one of the reasons Passionists today promote retreats and spiritual direction as important ways to discover God in our lives. In the United States alone, they staff 10 retreat centers, like Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford, CT, Our Lady of Calvary Retreat Center in nearby Farmington, CT, Holy Name Retreat Center, Houston, TX, and Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center, Citrus Heights, CA .
It’s the reason why the Passionist nuns keep a guest house for those who wish to come apart and rest awhile at St. Joseph Convent located on 170 acres of peaceful woodlands in Whitesville, KY.
Paul ended his 40-day retreat convinced that God wanted him to begin a new community in the church, but the times were unfavorable. Most church and government authorities thought there were already too many religious communities in the world.
After a disappointing attempt to interest the pope in his cause, Paul and his brother John Baptist lived as hermits, then as priests, on Monte Argentario, an isolated mountain on the Mediterranean Sea at the edge of the Tuscan Maremma (at the time the poorest part of poor Italy). They began preaching missions in this run-down land of small towns built above unhealthy swamplands, where bandits roamed the lonely roads and foreign armies periodically fought battles for control of Italy.
Traveling from town to town, they would set up a large cross on a platform in the town square, preach to the people for 12 to 13 days and then move on to another place. Paul emphasized daily prayer, especially meditation on the Passion of Jesus, as the door into the Presence of God and strength in the darkness of life.
After the missionaries left, some wrote to Paul looking for spiritual help. His letters back to them (over 2,000 remain) focus mainly on helping them to pray. If people prayed, he said, his work was done; God would do the rest. He was tender and blunt, enormously patient with them, because he knew from his own experience that God works slowly, tenderly sometimes bluntly.
They told him their doubts, their fears, their temptations, their yearnings, their questions and sufferings. He called these things their “darkness,” and drawing on John’s gospel, a favorite source, told them that darkness is where the Light shines. Don’t be afraid of it.
“Darkness and suffering can be your friends,” he wrote, “faith comes alive in the dark.”
By a “high providence” God sent Jesus Christ to dwell among us. In the darkness you share in the mystery of his Passion and Resurrection.
“We carry the cross with Jesus and don’t know it.”
Paul never probed into the causes of human darkness by social analysis nor did he offer much psychological advice or counseling, so popular in spirituality today. “I am a blind guide,” he said of himself and warned against over-analyzing. “You shouldn’t be looking at what you’re going through and philosophizing minutely about it and reflecting so much on yourself… By thinking too much about yourself, you lose sight of the Sovereign Good.” The wise and tender book of the Passion of Jesus will teach you to understand yourself and understand life, he taught. Let it guide the way you pray and the way you live.
But for him the Passion of Jesus was not limited to the words of the gospel. It was a mystery found everywhere.
Certainly, Paul saw the Passion of Jesus relived in the Tuscan Maremma, the poorest part of Italy, where he spent most of his life. “I saw the name of Jesus written on the foreheads of the poor.” He lived among poverty-stricken people but could do little to change the economic and political systems that kept them poor.
Like Paul, Passionists today still see the Passion of Jesus burnt into “the foreheads of the poor” and point to the strengthening message of the cross. But in solidarity with the poor they are also trying here and now to stand up for human rights and build a just society, especially in some of the poorest parts of the world. They see the struggle for justice and peace and the integrity of creation as a vital part of their spirituality.
In earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Father Rick Frechette, a Passionist priest and medical doctor, runs a free hospital for children and sets up schools for street kids near Port-au-Prince. In Jamaica, West Indies, Passionist Sister Una O’Connor built the Catholic College of Mandeville to train teachers for the next generation of Jamaica’s youth.
Eleven young volunteers belonging to Passionist Volunteers International currently are offering a year’s service to the rural poor in Jamaica and Honduras.
At the United Nations, Australian Father Kevin Dance and Sister Mary Ann Strain head up Passionist International, a NGO group that brings dreams for peace, justice and the integrity of creation to bear on the decisions made by 191 nations.
Since the 18th century, the Passionists have given the world a remarkable number of saints, besides their founder, Paul of the Cross. Their martyrs and holy men and women testify to the community’s holiness. They’re hoping God will send them saints as a new global age begins.
Father Victor Hoagland, CP, is director of Passionist Press in Union City, NJ. He is the author of “A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. Paul of the Cross” Christus Publications, 2011
March 17, 2011