Saints in Our Times: St. Paul of the Cross: A contemplative, celebrated preacher
By Mary Lou Gibson
For more than 50 years, St. Paul of the Cross had one message to deliver: he would promote the love of God revealed in the Passion of Jesus. He was born Paolo Francesco Danei in 1694 in Ovada, near Genoa, Italy, the second of 16 children in a noble but impoverished family. In his early years, Paul led a very normal and pious life, but lacked much formal education because of his father’s financial difficulties. In 1714, he joined the Venetian army to fight the Turks.
When he left the army a few years later, he experienced a conversion to a life of prayer. He received some direction from priests of the Capuchin Order and was also influenced by a reading of the “Treatise on the Love of God” by St. Francis de Sales.
He experienced a series of visions in 1720 in which he saw Our Lady in a black habit. John Delaney writes in the “Dictionary of Saints” that Paul later said she told him to found a religious order devoted to preaching the Passion of Christ. As he wrote a rule for his religious community, he aimed to combine meditation with practical work, such as preaching and ministering to the poor and to the sick.
His younger brother, John, became his first companion. They were granted permission to accept novices from Pope Benedict XIII in 1725. Both brothers were ordained to the priesthood in 1727. They established their first house in the mountains above Genoa. Author David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that Paul wanted to communicate the devotion of the Passion through mission work in parishes.
Paul called his monasteries “retreats” and members were expected to celebrate the Divine Office and to devote at least three hours to contemplative prayer each day. He also insisted on poverty.
His main goal was to form “a man totally God-centered, totally apostolic, a man of prayer...” It became St. Paul’s lifelong conviction that God is most easily found in the Passion of Jesus Christ. “I am Paul of the Cross in whom Jesus has been crucified.”
Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that the pope persuaded Paul to modify the rule and the community received papal approval in 1741. In 1769 the title of Discalced Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ was granted.
The community grew and their members were soon in demand in many parts of Italy because of their ministry to the sick and dying and in reconciling sinners. Paul was an effective preacher and also had the gifts of prophecy, healing and reading secrets of the heart, according to many biographers.
Richard McBrien writes in “Lives of the Saints” that the Passionists (as they began to be known) were successful because their method involved active participation by the laity. This included processions, vigils, penitential works, hymns, prayers and other forms of devotion.
Delaney writes that Paul was one of the most celebrated preachers of his time. People fought to touch him and get a piece of his tunic as a relic. Paul was also a contemplative and spent long hours in prayer each day. His writings focused on matters of spirituality and produced more than 2,000 letters. A diary he wrote during a retreat in 1720 was published in 1964, according to Burns, and a work on “Mystical Death” was published in 1976.
In 1765, Pope Clement XIV gave Paul (his brother, John, had died), the basilica of Sts. John and Paul. For many years Paul had been especially interested in the reconciliation of England to the Holy See. Near the end of his life, Paul founded a convent of enclosed Passionist nuns at Corneto in 1771.
Paul died in Rome in 1775 at the Retreat of Sts. John and Paul. By the time of his death, the congregation had 180 fathers and brothers living in 12 retreats. Burns writes that the Passionists did not spread outside of Italy until the mid 19th century. They went first to Belgium and then to England where they ministered to Irish immigrant workers. The Congregation spread to the U.S. in 1852.
Paul was beatified in 1852 and canonized in 1867 by Pope Pius IX. His feast on the General Roman Calendar is Oct. 19 and Oct. 20 on the Proper Calendar for Dioceses of the U.S.