St. Paul of the Cross 1694-1775
“Tell me the landscape on which you live and I’ll tell you who you are.” Ortega y Gasset
In 1714 a young northern Italian, Paolo Danei, had a striking experience of God. It happened during an ordinary sermon in an ordinary church, preached by an unknown parish priest. A sense of God and a desire to serve him filled his heart. Over the years, the experience grew, and it centered on the Passion of Jesus Christ.
From the sermon he heard in church, the young man gained a life-long respect for preaching. In his early years he taught catechism in churches near his home; later he became a powerful preacher of God’s word.
In 1715, responding to a call for help from the pope, Paul left his work helping his father to join a crusade against the Turks who were threatening the Venetian Republic, but he soon realized that God wasn’t calling him to be a soldier. There was something else for him to do, and so he returned to help in the family business.
“My Father Was a Poor Tobacconist”
His father was “a poor tobacconist,” who moved his family and small store from town to town near Genoa trying to make ends meet. Financial conditions in Italy were bad as economic power shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast, bringing prosperity to the seaports of England, Holland and France, but leaving Italy, once the richest country in Europe in Renaissance times, a poorer place.
Considered medicinal at the time, tobacco was an item that hard-pressed governments
put a high tax on. Paul’s father fell into the clutches of zealous Italian tax-collectors more than once as he brought supplies for his store from the docks of Genoa. No doubt his son did too. Paul would always have a soft spot in his heart for people in trouble with the law.
The Danei were a devout Catholic family. Large families were not unusual then. They had 16 children; Paul was the second child, born in the town of Ovada, January 3, 1694. Only six children survived into their adult years; the majority died as infants. So Paul Danei became acquainted early on with the mystery of death, and from his mother especially, he learned to see it through the lens of the Passion of Christ.
“Poor Italy,” Paul called his native land, and in the 18th century it was poor in more ways than one. The majority of its people lived in rural areas hit hard by the country’s weak economy. Many were illiterate.
Politically, the Italian peninsula was a patchwork of small city states and territories that made it easy prey for Europe’s bigger states coveting its resources. The governments of Spain, France and Austria continually found reasons to meddle in Italian affairs and periodically sent their armies across its borders to enforce their will. Outside control made it difficult for Italy to develop economically and politically.
The Catholic Church also shared in 18th century Italy’s poverty. The popes controlled large sections of the Italian peninsula– the ancient Papal States– but they were under the thumb of foreign powers. Foreign rulers already had their hands in appointing bishops and in the affairs of religious orders; through agents they manipulated papal conclaves to lessen the role of the papacy in European politics. If they couldn’t get a pope that favored them, they settled for an old man in poor health, less likely to get in their way. Their aim, already realized in England by Henry VIII and his ministers in the 16th century, was to weaken the ancient church, dismantle its religious orders and institutions, and grab its wealth for themselves.
Historians recognize the limitations big governments placed on the papacy in the 18th century: the popes of the era were “good men,” “spiritual leaders,” but–with the exception of Benedict XIV– lacking the “breadth of understanding” to deal with the critical problems of their times (Henri Daniel-Rops). They were “humane,” “not heroic,” “mostly good-humored” church leaders caught in the whirlwind of changing times (Owen Chadwick). They held on to the past, but were not sure how to face the future.
Besides political and economic forces, a new movement, the Enlightenment, affected 18th century Italy and the rest of Europe, along with Europe’s colonies in the New World. Scientists, philosophers and historians saw human reason as the way to a better future and emphasized human rights and human and scientific development–values they’ve passed on to us today. The Enlightenment changed the spiritual landscape of the western world.
The movement’s followers were religious, for the most part, though some, like the French philosopher Voltaire, attacked religion (especially the Catholic Church) as the chief enemy of human progress and denied God’s existence.
Most figures of the Enlightenment, like the Americans, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, believed in a “providential deism.” God created the world, yet afterwards watched it from a distance. No need, the deists thought, for revealed religions or for prayer or spiritual searching into a higher world. This world’s secrets discovered through science and reason are enough:
Know then thyself,
presume not God to scan;
the proper study of mankind is man.
(Alexander Pope, Essay on Man)
Enlightenment thinkers, whose God was little involved in human affairs, would dismiss a spiritual awakening like Paul Danei’s. Human growth took place through human effort, not from heavenly grace.
The “Enlightenment” at Castellazzo
Yet, Paul Danei saw himself guided from above, mostly by slow steps and small graces, with occasional strong spiritual experiences. God was close, he believed, but mostly in a dark closeness. The young man regularly prayed and read the scriptures and spiritual books to know God’s will, but the road to take wasn’t clear.
He faced unanswered questions all his life. Who would support his struggling family? Should be marry? An uncle, a priest, tried arranging a good marriage for him, but he declined the offer. Sometimes his faith seemed to disappear. But then, on a trip for supplies for the family’s store, he would see a mountain shrine and hear a call to “climb the mountain of the Lord.”
Six years after the sermon in church, another strong experience of God occurred. “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…” He saw himself clothed in a black garment with a white cross on his breast on which was written the name of Jesus.
He told his family and then the bishop of his diocese that he wished to be clothed in the garment of a hermit, a common step for those wishing to serve God in those days. Then he settled in a small room belonging to the church of St. Charles in Castellazzo and for 40 days he fasted and prayed to know what further step to take.
His diocesan bishop, Bishop Francesco Gattinaro, asked Paul to keep a diary of those days, and Paul afterwards gave him a written account of moments of great consolation and great emptiness. It was what he would experience for the rest of his life. At the end of the 40 days, like Jesus in the desert, he embraced a mission. He believed God was calling him to begin a new community in the Church.
The 18th century wasn’t favorable for founding new religious communities, however. Governments considered some existing religious communities, like the Jesuits, as dangerous political adversaries; others, as socially useless. Henry VIII had already shown that lands appropriated from religious communities could bring in healthy sums.
Facing economic hard times, the Church wasn’t looking for new religious communities either; there were more than enough, most church leaders thought.
So instead of supporting Paul’s desire to found a new community, Bishop Gattinaro told him to take charge of the little chapel of S. Stephano in Castellazzo. Within months the young hermit had renewed the people of the area spiritually with his words and spiritual advice, and other young men began to associate with him as companions.
Going to Rome
By the summer of 1721, Paul wrote to the bishop “I feel inspired by God to go to Rome.” In late September, he was at the door of Quirinal Palace, where the pope then resided, and asked to see the Holy Father.
A new pope had just been elected, Innocent XIII (1721-24),“ a well-meaning but sickly old man” who would be bedridden for much of his papacy. The guards at the palace door told Paul to go away.
The young man, who thought he would be received with open arms, made his way dejectedly toward the basilica of St. Mary Major, not far from the Quirinal Palace, and before the church’s ancient icon of Mary, Help of the Roman People, asked for help to do God’s will and placed his cause in her hands. Then, he started home.
A Holy Mountain: Monte Argentario
On the boat to Rome, Paul’s eyes were drawn to a majestic mountain that dominated the coast not far from the city, Monte Argentario. Perhaps, he thought after the rejection at the papal palace, this might be the place where God would speak more clearly to him.
In the spring of 1722 Paul and his brother, John Baptist, climbed Monte Argentario and moved into the abandoned hermitage of the Annunciation on the mountain’s high slope. Here, they prayed and studied the scriptures and let earth, sky and sea tell the story of creation to them. On Sundays the two went down the mountain to the little fishing villages along the water for Mass and afterwards taught catechism to the children.
As before, people responded to their words and soon not only children, but adults came to hear the two men. Their fame spread until priests and bishops were asking them to come and preach God’s word in other towns and places. Eventually, the two brothers were welcomed to Rome where they found patrons in the church’s highest offices. For a brief period they ministered in one of Rome’s hospitals and were advised to become priests. They were ordained in St.Peter’s Basilica on June 7, 1727 by Pope Benedict XIII.
For years Paul and his brother, gradually joined by other companions, tirelessly brought a message of hope to the dispirited men and women living in this part of Italy.
Bishops, cardinals and popes began to recognize the spiritual renewal these men brought and gave them support. As others joined him, Paul sought new retreats where they could be formed and from which they could go forth to preach. But the church was painfully slow in approving the new community and Paul was an impatient prophet who “saw all things in God, but had no experience of how slow history can be” (G. Cingolani).
On May 15,1741, 20 years after his first visit to Rome, his community’s rule of life was approved by Pope Benedict XIV who said “This congregation should have been first, but it is the last founded.” On June 11,1741, shortly after the approbation, the first six Passionists professed their vows, placing an emblem with a white heart and cross on the black habit they wore. Paul Danei started signing letters and documents “Paul of the Cross.”
The message Paul and his followers preached was always the same: a loving God is near in Jesus Christ, who died for you. Keep his Passion in mind. In the poorest of places, in the poorest of humanity, God is present and brings his love.
Papal approval was no guarantee that the community would survive or go unchallenged, however. Some older religious communities considered the Passionists rivals for the scant support provided in hard times. Recruits for the new community came and went, especially in the beginning, but gradually membership grew and new foundations were made.
By 1752 Paul wrote “We are 110. We have eight houses. They are all full and we cannot accept all those who want to join us.”
He died in Rome, on October 18,1775, acknowledged for his holiness and as a founder of a respected community in the church.
His Legacy : The Mystery of the Passion of Jesus
Born in critical times, in a poor country and in a weakened church, Paul of the Cross was among the saints of the 18th century, like St. Alphonsus Liguori, Saint Lucy Filippini and St. Leonard of Port Maurice, whom God raised up to bless the Italian Church and eventually the Church throughout the world.
From small beginnings, Paul’s community–the Passionists– spread to continents throughout the world, where they’re found today. Besides men, different groups of women, some cloistered, some dedicated to active ministry, became part of the Passionist family. Increasingly, lay people have been drawn to the Passionist charism.
Paul’s own life is a lesson in perseverance and courageous patience. He was at home in an imperfect church. With little formal education or resources, he became a spiritual guide to popes and high church officials, as well as countless ordinary men and women who listened to his words and sought his advice.
He reminded those bewildered by a changing world of the unchanging presence of God, signified in the Passion of Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son. For him the Passion was a wise and tender book to keep always in mind. Anyone who reads it knows how to think about life, how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, and what to hope for.
Above all, one finds courageous patience in the One who promised: “Come to me, you who are heavily burdened and I will refresh you.” As Paul knew from his own experience, life has its burdens, but God refreshes.
Remedy for the Evils of Our Age
Paul saw the mystery of the Passion shedding its light beyond Calvary. It’s “a remedy for the evils of our age,” he said. Surely he would see it reaching to the crucified of a future age, lifting up men and women, especially the poor, caught in society’s unjust structures and selfishness. “I saw the name of Jesus written on the foreheads of the poor,” Paul once said.
The mystery of the Passion also falls upon the natural world threatened today by human neglect. Was it by chance that Paul Danei chose to live on a mountain close to the sea where the hills, the sky and the sea showed him an Infinite Goodness behind everything? In his day, some already saw the shadow of the cross falling on the natural world as a new industrial age dawned. Did he faintly recognize that cross too?
Keeping the Passion of Jesus in mind is not for our personal spiritual growth alone. It’s not simply an exercise of historical imagination. It helps us see a suffering world and all that’s in it, and then do what we can to bring it peace and justice. For Paul Danei’s followers today, his charism is a grace for the present, not a memory of the past:
“We are aware that the passion of Christ continues in this world until he comes in glory; therefore, we share in the joys and sorrows of our contemporaries as we journey through life towards our Father. We wish to share in the distress of all, especially the poor and neglected; we seek to offer them comfort and to relieve the burden of their sorrow.
The power of the cross, which is the wisdom of God, gives us strength to discern and remove the causes of human suffering.”
A World Forgetting the Passion of Christ
The Enlightenment changed the face of the western society, but it made slight inroads into Italy in Paul’s day. The Italy of Paul’s time was described by contemporary witnesses as filled with wayside crosses and newly built “Stations of the Cross.” Devotion to Christ’s Passion seemed stronger than ever. Yet with a mystic’s insight, Paul saw radical changes on the way: “The world is sliding into a forgetfulness of the most bitter sufferings lovingly endured by Jesus Christ our true good,” he said.
The Enlightenment began a “slide” from an age of revealed religion in Paul’s day to the secular age we know today. As Charles Taylor notes in A Secular Age, Deism, the religion of the Enlightenment, was “a half-way house on the road to contemporary atheism,” cutting ties to a higher world as it called its followers to concentrate on science and reason. Religion still plays a role in modern life, but increasingly citizens of the western world, embracing an “expressive individualism”, see the heavens closed and look to this life for everything. Paul’s warning about forgetfulness seems to ring true.
For this reason, it‘s good to remember this holy man of the 18th century who changed his name to reflect the mystery he loved. He wears a sign with a white heart surmounted by a cross. Usually, he’s depicted carrying an over-sized cross.
He tells us to remember a God who is close and never forgets us.
Biographies on Paul of the Cross
St.Paul of the Cross, Gabriele Cingolani, Passionist Press, Union City, NJ 1994
As a Seal Upon Your Heart, Paul Francis Spencer, CP, Kildare, Ireland, 1994
Listen to his Love, The Life of St. Paul of the Cross, Bennet Kelley, CP, Passionist Press, 1984
As a Seal Upon Your Heart, The Life of St. Paul of the Cross, Union City, NJ, 2005 (DVD)
Letters of Saint Paul of the Cross, translated by Roger Mercurio, C.P. & Frederick Sucher, C.P. Edited by Laurence Finn, C.P. & Donald Webber, C.P. New City Press 2000
Spiritual Direction According to St.Paul of the Cross, Bennett Kelley, CP. Passionist Press, 2007
Living Wisdom for Everyday, Bennett Kelley, CP, Catholic Book Company. Totowa, NJ 1994