Today the Passionists celebrate the feast of St. Vincent Strambi, CP (1745-1824). In his early years as a Passionist priest Strambi was a well known preacher, writer and spiritual director. He was a close associate of St. Paul of the Cross and wrote his biography after his death.
He was chosen to be bishop of Marcerata during tumultuous years in Italian history when Napoleon moved to take over Italy, the papacy and the Catholic Church. Strambi was an heroic supporter of the pope and fought for the freedom of the church.
To understand most saints you have to understand the times in which they lived. They’re antidotes for the poison of their time. Unfortunately historians pay little notice to the challenging times Vincent Strambi lived in.
In 1789, following the French Revolution, a Reign of Terror struck the church in France, religious orders were suppressed, priests and religious were imprisoned, exiled, put to death. Word of the terror quickly reached Italy and Rome; the defenseless Italian peninsula would be the next target for France’s fierce revolution.
Pope Pius VI asked for prayers that Rome be spared, and he called on Vincent Strambi, then one of the church’s best preachers, to prepare the people for a blow sure to come. In packed churches and piazzas in Rome Strambi promised that God would not abandon his people. The Roman people gained strength from his words.
In 1796 Napoleon Bonaparte turned to Italy, demanding heavy tribute from the Pope and the Papal States. The murder of the French General Duhot in Rome gave him the pretext for invading the city, deposing and imprisoning the pope and declaring the Papal States a Republic.
Religious houses were suppressed, their goods systematically confiscated. Strambi, a well-known opposition figure, fled to Monte Argentario, a Passionist sanctuary on the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1799 Pius VI died in exile and was succeeded by Pius VII who, in 1801, appointed Strambi bishop of Macerata and Tolentino, two important cities in the Papal States along Italy’s Adriatic coast, poverty-stricken from years of political and military turmoil.
The bishops of the Papal States were largely responsible for temporal as well as spiritual affairs and Bishop Strambi became a champion of the poor in his diocese. He lived sparingly himself, without signs of wealth or position. The poor were constantly on his mind. “Don’t you hear the cries of the poor?” he said one day to the treasurer of his seminary, looking out his window.
The education of poor children interested him especially and he urged his priests to care for them. In sermons he constantly looked to the Passion of Jesus for wisdom in the struggles of the time. His devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus was influenced, at least in part, from reflection on the bloodshed the Napoleonic Wars brought to millions in Europe. Almost 4 million died as warfare rose to a level never seen before. Their blood was precious to God.
On May 5, 1809, after occupying Rome and most of the Papal States. Napoleon declared the region under French control and the temporal power of the pope abrogated. On June 6, 1809 Pius VII placed notices on church doors throughout Rome excommunicating anyone cooperating with the French. July 6, the French general Radet arrested the pope and brought him north to Savona.
Napoleon then demanded bishops sign an oath of loyalty to his new government. Refusal meant exile and imprisonment, signing was an act of disloyalty to the pope.
“I am ready for prison and for death. I am with the pope,” Strambi declared. On September 28,1808 he left his diocese under guard for northern Italy where he remained for 5 years under house arrest.
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 the church’s exiled leaders returned. Bishop Strambi returned to his diocese in May, 1814; immediately the pope asked him to come to Rome to preach a nine day “retreat of reconciliation” in late July and early August. Not all met the French invasion heroically.
In 1816 a typhoid epidemic followed invading armies. Food shortages and inflation spread through the bishop’s diocese. He opened hospitals for the dying and sought supplies for his suffering flock.
Physically frail from birth, Bishop Strambi became increasingly ill and found it harder to manage his diocese. By 1814, the world too had changed. The Papal States had no bishops in the long chaotic period of the Napoleonic invasion and new forces demanding change came to power. Strambi recognized it was too much for him.
In 1823 he asked the new pope, Leo XII, to allow him to retire. The pope accepted his resignation on one condition, that he come and live with him as an advisor in the Quirinal Palace, then the pope’s residence in Rome. A local commentator said of the departing bishop: “ He was a man who lived a holy life, giving alms to all and content with only the necessary for himself. We are sorry to see him go, for we lose a good pastor. The cries of the poor are especially loud, for they lose one who cared for and sustained them.”
Vincent died in Rome on January 1, 1824, having offered his life to the Lord in place of that of the pope who was seriously ill.
Pope Leo ordered the process for his canonization 8 days after his death. He was declared a Saint in 1950 and his relics now rest in Macerata, the city where he was a zealous pastor for twenty-two years.
With the help of the Holy Spiirt, I on my part will do all I can that the living image of Jesus crucified be imprinted in the hearts of each of you. I do this gladly, not counting the cost. I consider myself fortunate to give my lifeblood so that Christ might be formed in you. I can say, like the apostle, that because of my love for you, I want to share with you “not only God’s message, but our very lives, so dear have you have become to us.”
I urge you, then, to look attentively on the Image of the Crucified, the bishop of your souls, on his throne of grace. In that way I shall fulfill my obligation to announce to you the death of the Lord, an obligation arising from my profession in the Congregation of the Holy Cross and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. I shall do all I can to urge you all to fulfill your duty to love him who first loved us, who offered himself on the altar of the cross for us, who shed his blood for us.
( Letter to the people of Marcerata on becoming their bishop)
I will stick to the lives of the Saints and the saintly. By their lives they show us the way to the Kingdom and always give glory to God. It seems like the Passionists have many Saints and saintly members. I pray for the beatification of Father Theodore Foley, CP. And very meaningful to these times… Father Theodore nourished a steady hope that God is with us, no matter how dark life seems to be. May the passion of Jesus Christ always be in our heart. (Now, I can say those words with meaning, thanks to the Passionists living and living who have entered my life.)