Like many Catholic religious communities in the western world my community, the Passionists, is shrinking in North American and Europe and growing elsewhere. I wonder why we’re not getting vocations.
These days we’re reading Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Matthew at Mass. Matthew’s gospel, especially the 23rd chapter, makes clear that Jesus and his followers were sharply opposed in their ministry. Some say the gospel describes a time later on in Matthew’s community, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but even so, Jesus faced strong opposition in his day.
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians also describe the opposition he faced. Unfortunately, our lectionary readings leave out most references to that opposition and so we may lose sight of what Paul and his followers accomplished.
It’s true generally, when you don’t see the challenges and crosses people face, you don’t get to know them well. That’s true of individuals and groups– like the Passionists. Bumps on the road are part of your story.
Fr. Alessandro Ciciliani in the latest Passionist International Bulletin from Rome, The Congregation at the Time of the Canonization of St. Paul of the Cross 1867, describes some bumps on the road my community faced then. It’s a wonder we survived.
From our foundation in the 18th century by St. Paul of the Cross we’ve known threats to survival. In Paul’s day, there was strong opposition to new religious communities in the church and in society. (The time was unfavorable to older religious communities too. In 1774, the Jesuits were suppressed) Humanly speaking, we shouldn’t have gotten started.
In our early days, the popes were our strong allies, but shortly after the death of St. Paul of the Cross (1775) the papacy as an institution was severely weakened and almost disappeared. When Pope Pius VII died exiled by Napoleon in 1799, smart people predicted he was the last of the popes.
Threats to our survival continued in the 19th century. In his article Ciciliani describes the closure and seizure of most of our foundations in Italy shortly after St. Paul’s death. By 1850 we had three provinces and 27 houses in Italy. In the space of 20 years 21 of those houses were seized by the government, and the religious told to go home. Anticlerical laws issued by the Kingdom of Savoy and the Kingdom of Italy insisted that communities like ours weren’t needed; the new governments also saw properties and assets as sources of revenue for themselves.
“There was a lot of confusion among the religious and little hope for the future. Consequently there was a temptation to return to their families or look for accommodation with the diocesan clergy,” Ciciliani writes.
What’s surprising, though, were the creative thrusts emerging in the church and in our community in those dark days. In 1817, Pope Pius VII– the pope supposed to be the last – created the Propaganda Fidei, a papal arm that built up the church in South America and Asia, and in 1834 organized the church in North America.
In 1844 the Passionist, Blessed Dominic Barberi, began a vital mission in England. In 1861 4 Passionists arrived in Philadelphia and planted the community in North America. Other new missions were started and flourished, not because of survivors, but because of people dreaming new things. A dream was alive in them.
The scripture readings tell us the church grows in response to challenge and opposition. The history of my own community says the same. Father Ciciliani writes of the “terrible experience” my community faced in the 19th century, but ends by recalling that the mystery of the cross is terrible too, but it does not end in death; it brings life.
What’s the life ahead?