Today, October 20th, we celebrate the feast of St. Paul of the Cross in the United States. A saint leaves a legacy; what legacy did the saintly founder of the Passionists leave?
He died October 18, 1775, a year before our American Revolution and fourteen years before the French Revolution. In 1798, twenty three years after his death, that revolution spilled over into neighboring Italy and the Papal States. The pope, Pope Pius VI, was imprisoned by Napoleon, religious houses and church resources were taken over by French forces and the Catholic Church in Italy, like the Catholic Church in France, was crushed by a seemingly invincible French general and his powerful army.
In May of 1810 the situation got worse. Napoleon declared an end to the papal domains and ordered the new pope Pius VII to be imprisoned in Savona, Italy. Thousands of religious were led under police escort from their religious houses back to their homes and told to start another life. Among them were 242 Passionists, the community laboriously founded the previous century by Paul of the Cross.
The old church was dead, the emperor said. He would replace it by one of his own.
If Wikipedia existed then and someone bothered writing an article about Paul of the Cross, thirty five years after his death, the article would probably call him a poor deluded figure, now buried in an old abandoned church on the Celian Hill in Rome. His community’s disbanded and no longer exists.
Of course, the church didn’t die and neither did the Passionists.
Historians usually praise the brilliant diplomacy of Cardinal Consalvi, the pope’s secretary of state, for keeping the church alive in that chaotic time and getting it on its feet again after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, ending Europe’s long nightmare.
But the Passionists may have had something to do with it too.
Certainly, Vincent Strambi, the Passionist bishop and first biographer of Paul of the Cross, was a major inspirational church figure at that time. Before Napoleon’s troops invaded the city for the first time in 1798 Pius VI called him to strengthen the Roman people in their faith by preaching in four of the city’s major churches. He was called on repeatedly to raise the hopes of a frightened city. After Napoleon’s defeat, Pius VII asked Strambi to Rome again to preach a 9 day retreat of reconciliation–not everybody stood up to the French invaders.
Vincent Strambi was a pillar of strength for the church in crisis, preaching the mystery of the Cross by word and example in his dioceses of Marcerata and Tolentine and throughout central Italy. He spoke to a church in ruins. Years of house arrest for refusing to take the loyalty oath to Napoleon only increased his stature. From what we know, other Passionists– also faithful followers of Paul of the Cross–joined him in shoring up a battered church.
What is St. Paul of the Cross’ legacy to us? We know he not only preached that mystery, but lived it. He held on to his dreams through hard times and the community that followed him also kept that dream alive when times were hard.
Somewhere as the years went on, Paul stopped signing his name on letters “Paul Danei” and simply wrote “Paul of the Cross.” That’s the mystery he held on to. Wouldn’t he tell us to hold on to that mystery too?