St. Paul of the Cross, Priest
October 20—USA Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Ovada, Italy, and founder of the Passionists
He was a spiritual marathoner whose “runner’s high” lasted a lifetime
After unsuccessfully living the life of a soldier, today’s saint left the military to live a secluded life of prayer for over five years. But then in 1720, he received a vision instructing him to found a Congregation devoted to Christ’s passion. In 1727 he was ordained a priest by the pope, along with his brother, and novices began to come to his new Congregation in greater numbers. Paul was not a frivolous man, though, and the Congregation’s Rule was grueling. He and his brethren lived strict austerity, and their ministry focused on preaching the passion to the poor. The new priests did not socialize with people of means and lived as desperately poor as those they served. The effects of poverty encompass more than economic deprivation. Poverty means lack of privacy, bed bugs, rotten teeth, soft apples, little rest, flea-infested clothes, open wounds, infection, putrid water, cold nights, going to bed hungry, violent fights over a handful of coins, lack of hope, and bitterness at one’s own miserable plight. The deep resentment poverty can engender powers the poor man’s emotions over the cliffs of envy and hate.
Living radical poverty, and experiencing life among the poor and their emotional plight, was too much for some of Father Paul’s novices. Rigors such as this were for the few, and many novices abandoned ship. But enough hardy and faithful men remained to enable the new Congregation to succeed. Provisional church approval came in the 1740s on the condition that the Congregation ameliorate its tough-as-nails Rule. Full papal approval for the Congregation came slowly, in 1769. The Congregation’s members were known as the Discalced Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They were more simply known as Passionists. All Passionists took a special fourth vow to preach Christ’s passion so that it never faded from the faithful’s memory. The Passionists’ black habits bore the distinctive badge of their brotherhood—a heart emblazoned with the words JESU XPI PASSIO mounted by a white cross with instruments of Christ’s crucifixion displayed below.
Saint Paul of the Cross was so united to the passion that it was said that his heart pulsated more quickly on Fridays. He was a powerful preacher, and both he and the Passionist fathers in general became known as expert retreat masters, confessors, and directors of parish missions. Paul’s heart melted with love for Christ his entire life. He spent hours in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, never failed to subjugate his body with mortifications and austerities, and was insistent about living radical poverty. Paul seemed to experience a type of spiritual “runner’s high,” something common to many saints known more for their ardor than their originality. As Paul fasted and prayed and lived poverty, it became easier and more joyful for him to fast and pray and live poverty. His virtues gained steam as he rolled through life and as his body sunk deeper and deeper into the person of Christ.
Paul also founded a Congregation of contemplative nuns devoted to the passion. The Passionists remained a relatively small order until they spread beyond Italy in the mid-1800s, including to England, a country which Paul always intended to bring back to the Church. Providentially, it was a Passionist priest, Blessed Dominic Barberi, who received the great Englishman Saint John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church. Saint Paul of the Cross’ legacy is his Congregation more than his few published works. He even developed a reputation as a miracle worker and healer in his old age. He was raised to the altars in 1867.
Saint Paul of the Cross, you lived an exemplary life of poverty, obedience, prayer, and mortification throughout your span of many years. May your followers remain faithful to your charism, and may all priests see in you an example of holiness.