October 20 is the Feast of St. Paul of the Cross in the United States.
June 29th marks 150 years since Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, was canonized by Pope Pius IX. I like the letter Fr. Joachim Rego, superior general of the Passionists, wrote to the Passionist family recently in which he expressed hope that “ this event would be an enriching time for us, individually and communally, to focus on the mind and heart of our Founder and delve into his vision of the Congregation and its mission in light of our present times.”
“’Our present times’ have been dark and dismal indeed! The world continues to experience so much suffering: wars, hatred, discrimination, denial of human rights and freedom, terrorism, indiscriminate killings, natural disasters. Very much to the fore in our memories at this present time are: the senseless Las Vegas shootings; the unimaginable destruction caused by hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes and landslides; the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and other refugees and displaced peoples; the struggle for self-determination in Catalonia and Kurdistan; the racial discrimination and promotion of hatred by white supremacists in the US….
“I ask myself: What would be the mind and heart of the Founder in these present times? In fact, it seems that our present times are not too much different from the times of the Founder. He also experienced in his time of history: wars and domination by foreign powers, lawlessness and fear, disease and climate change, the tyranny of existential distance and the marginalisation of peoples, the unequal gap between the rich and the poor.
“Yet, Paul of the Cross was convinced then, and would be equally convinced now, that it is in the Passion of Jesus that we can find meaning and see possibilities for a renewed future. It is there, in the Passion of Jesus, that we find HOPE for visioning and seeing life differently!”
I like Fr. Joachim’s insistence that Paul lived in the world of his day. He could have become a hermit and shut himself up somewhere, but he lived in the world that was present to him.
Fr. Fabiano Giorgini offers a thorough description of Paul’s world in a book he wrote “La Maremma Toscana nel Settecento”, a study of the Tuscan Maremma where Paul spent most of his years of ministry in the 18th century. That’s where the church told him the Passionists should be.
The Tuscan Maremma, an area in Central Italy facing the Mediterranean Sea, is almost 2,000 square miles, roughly the size of Long Island and New York City together. When Paul ministered there, it was the poorest and most troubled part of Italy. Only gradually, towards the end of the 1700s did it begin inching towards recovery.
It’s an area of hills and valleys–now a popular tourist destination– but then because of wars, political turmoil and natural disasters its farmlands had been abandoned to become swamplands. Malaria was widespread. It was an unhealthy area. People moved away, if they could. The roads were often impassible, often dangerous because of bandits. The area near Monte Argentario, where Paul lived, was a place where troops were billeted troops on their way to fight in other parts of Italy. A number of wars were fought there. The area had immigration problems, migrant workers were stranded, without work. Beggars were everywhere. The people living in isolated villages and hill towns tended to be suspicious of outsiders.
Paul wasn’t blind to this world. He didn’t hide from it. Most of his popular missions are in the Tuscan Maremma and he reminded people that living here you were living the mystery of the passion of Jesus, but don’t lose hope.
None of the passion narratives in the gospels are hopeless. They all say new life is coming, God is present, hidden for sure, but God is present. Don’t miss the signs. The mystery of the Passion is not hopeless. It gives hope. “HOPE for visioning and seeing life differently!”