By Orlando Hernández
Three hundred years ago, on November 22,1720, 26-year old Paolo Daneo (now venerated as the great St. Paul of the Cross), reclused himself for forty days and nights in a small room attached to St. Charles (San Carlo) Church in Castellazzo, Northern Italy. This retreat was facilitated by his mentor, Bishop Francis Gattinara, in order for Paolo to discern his vocation, under the inspiration of God.
Paolo worked there, cleaning the church and assisting the priest, but mostly, he prayed and prayed. He wrote in his diary every day. During those forty days of silence, solitude, and fasting he experienced cold, hunger, physical discomforts, temptations, and loneliness, but especially, his soul intensely felt the desolations, pains, and sufferings of Our Lord Jesus during His Passion. Most importantly, through the power of Our Lord, Paolo also experienced great consolations, joys, and unexplainable mystical experiences of close contact with Our Living Loving God. Finally he was infused by the great inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which led him to write the Rule (the blueprint) for the establishment of a new religious order.
This congregation he named initially “The Poor of Jesus,” but was later to be called The Congregation of the Passion. To think that the birth of the Passionist Order took place in this dark, cold place 300 years ago! Passionists all over the world, with whom my wife Berta and I are lay Associates, will be celebrating a Year of Jubilee in joyful remembrance of this event, beginning on November 22, 2020 and ending a year and forty days later on January 1, 2022.
I am sure that throughout this year Fr. Victor Hoagland will instruct us on the details of this Jubilee, and on the wonderful aspects of St. Paul’s life and spirituality. Many reunions and celebrations were planned all over the world, especially in Italy. It is sad to realize that most of these plans have been upset due to the Corona-Virus Pandemic. We will have to observe this Jubilee Year under conditions of “lock-down”, “stay-at-home”, “or quarantine”, in a strange solidarity with San Paolo himself, as he spent those days in a desert of isolation and prayer. We will be in a sort of retreat while our world continues to be crucified by this terrible disease. Will it still feel like a jubilant celebration? Of course! Every time we move in the Presence of Our Living God, especially during His Passion, the infinite joy of Resurrection is just ahead!
Berta and I had hoped to be part of these wonderful events, even go to Italy and pray joyfully at the places where St. Paolo lived and worked: Castellazo, Mount Argentario, Rome. This Pandemic has left the two of us dismayed, frustrated, and confused. How could we commemorate this wonderful Saint, and his Congregation, the Passionist teachers, mentors, and friends to whom we owe so much?
Suddenly an idea presented itself to us; since we are mostly confined to our home, why not go on a forty day “retreat”at home, in honor of St. Paul of the Cross? It would be a kind of Lenten experience (Fr. Victor calls it a “desert”), with fasting, prayer, silence. Each day we begin by praying together, my wife Berta and I, and sharing the readings for the daily Mass and meditating on them out loud. Then we read to each other our journal entries from the day before. Again we react, reflect, share, encourage or console each other. Then we read from St. Paolo’s journal entry for the same day, which we found in the book, Words From the Heart, Selected Writings From St. Paul of the Cross. Each day we find that we grow closer to this young holy man. His short entries are powerful expressions of prayer and emotion which teach and inspire us.
These entries explore the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and take us to the very Center of Gravity which is the Passion of Our Lord. Once more we are led to share our reactions to the reading. We then go off by ourselves and write in our journals followed by our own private time with Our Lord.
We try to go to Mass every day, since the Eucharist was so central to the experiences of young Paolo. The rest of the day is spent in a quiet way, facing whatever comes, going for walks if weather permits, reaching out to people on the phone, or participating in Zoom prayer events with folks we love. As for the fasting, we eat only two smallish meals a day. It is a wonderful surprise to see how much closer together this experience has brought us. We reminisce together, even about painful things, we cry together, we console each other, we help each other in moments of dryness and despair, we rejoice together. We sense the Presence of Jesus, our Teacher and Guide always with us.
Fr. Victor asked us to share the diary of St. Paul of the Cross, along with our journal entries, with the readers of The Victor’s Place . On November 23rd, the day of St. Paul’s first diary writing, Fr. Victor will post our first entry. We hope it will touch your hearts with the love of Our God, especially the words of St. Paul of the Cross.