October 20th, we celebrate the feast of St. Paul of the Cross in the United States.
A saint leaves a legacy, a blessing for the church and especially for members of communities he founded or inspired. What legacy did the saintly founder of the Passionists leave?
Paul of the Cross died October 18, 1775, a year before our American Revolution and fourteen years before the French Revolution. Twenty three years after his death, the French revolution spilled over into neighboring Italy and the Papal States. Napoleon imprisoned the pope, Pope Pius VI, religious houses and church resources were taken over by French forces; the Catholic Church in Italy, like the Catholic Church in France, was seemingly crushed by the French general and his powerful army.
In May of 1810 the situation got worse. Napoleon declared an end to the Papal States and ordered the new pope Pius VII to be imprisoned in Savona, Italy. His police led thousands of religious from their religious houses back to their homes and told to start another life. Among them were 242 Passionists, the community Paul of the Cross founded in the previous century.
The old church was dead, the emperor said. He would replace it by a new one of his own. In that thinking, the Passionists too were dead; they would hardly have a role in Napoleon’s church. Of course, the church didn’t die and neither did the Passionists.
Historians usually credit the brilliant diplomacy of Cardinal Consalvi, the pope’s secretary of state, for keeping the church alive and getting it on its feet again after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. But diplomats weren’t the only ones responsible for the church’s restoration. Most of the credit belonged to ordinary believers who kept the faith and remained loyal.
The same was true for the Passionists. We certainly gave the church an inspirational figure at the time, St. Vincent Strambi, the Passionist bishop and first biographer of Paul of the Cross. Before Napoleon’s troops invaded Rome in 1798 Pius VI asked Vincent to preach in the city’s four major basilicas to strengthen the Roman people. After Napoleon’s defeat, Pius VII called Strambi to Rome again to preach a 9 day retreat of reconciliation–not everybody stood up to the French invaders.
But besides Strambi, what kept the Passionists alive were certainly those ordinary religious who were driven from their monasteries and came back to continue the work that St. Paul of the Cross envisioned a century before. They were the faithful ones, faithful to what they learned from him.
Paul of the Cross not only preached the mystery of the Passion of Jesus; he lived it. He held on to his dreams through hard times. Humanly speaking, the Passionists, the community he founded, should have gone out of existence many times, from its tenuous beginnings to the years it waited for acceptance by the church. The mystery of the Cross was present in its birth, its growth and its life.
Now as then, the Passion of Jesus brings life, not death.