Tag Archives: Napoleon

St. Paul of the Cross


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.

The Legacy of Paul of the Cross

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!”

Where are the Passionists Going?

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?