Tag Archives: St. Vincent Strambi

The Legacy of Paul of the Cross

Saints are raised up by God to meet the needs of their time. What were the needs of St. Paul of the Cross’ time, the 18th century,? He was living in a church weakened and humbled by politics, revolutions and new ways of thinking. The popes then were losing their power and influence in Europe, the Jesuits were suppressed, revolutions, like the the French Revolution, brought persecution, the suppression of church schools, religious houses, the confiscation of church assets. The 18th century saw a church humbled; some said it was a dying church.

A humbled church needed to be reminded of the humble Christ, who took the form of a slave and died on a cross and was raised up by God’s power. That’s what St. Paul of the Cross did through his preaching and ministry. His message was a message his time needed to hear. It was a message of abiding hope.

An “abiding hope.” That was the hope needed then. Most of Paul’s preaching and ministry took place in the Tuscan Maremma, a region north of Rome in Italy, the size of Long Island, NY. “Maremma” means swamplands. It was then a region of small towns and a few small cities suffering from chronic poverty and neglect. Only at the end of the 18th century did the region inch forward with some reforms. Ironically, after Mussolini controlled the swamplands in the 20th century, the region became a tourist destination. The world loves Tuscany now. Many would love a villa there.

In Paul’s time, though, the place was known for disease, poverty, beggars and the homeless, and bandits. Year after year things never got better. Year after year the future never got bright. Year after year Paul and his companions went from town to town, set up a cross in a church or town square and spoke of the “abiding hope” promised by Jesus Christ to the people who gathered there.

His preaching of the Passion of Jesus brought an abiding hope to them. God was with them, no matter how dark things were, or how long the darkness lasted.

Are we living in a humbled church and a humbled world today? I wonder, as we struggle with politics, pandemics, climate change, if we’re becoming like the Tuscan Maremma. Some say it will all be over when the political scene settles, when wars are over, or when science produces a new miracle that makes everything perfect. But I don’t know.

I think we are going to need an “abiding hope” to keep us going. I think the Passionists still have something to do.

May God send laborers into our vineyard with that message. St.Paul of the Cross, pray for us.

In the United States October 20 is the feast of St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists. You can find more out about him and the Passionists here and here.

Passionist Saints

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 The Passionists, are a small and relatively new community in the Roman Catholic Church, but we have a good number of canonized saints and members proposed for canonization. Beginning with our founder, St. Paul of the Cross, who died in 1774, each generation of Passionists has produced men and women recognized for their holiness.

We’re hoping Father Theodore Foley who died in 1974 may join the ranks of Passionist saints such as Paul of the Cross, Vincent Strambi, Gabriel Possenti, Dominic Barberi, Gemma GalganiCharles Houben, Isidore DeLoor and Eugene Bossilkov.

Saints are God’s answer to the poison of their times, and it’s important to see them as they oppose it. Saints are firm believers and examples of heroic virtue. They’re signs of God’s power in a sinful world and God marks them out as saints through miracles performed through their intercession.

For example, St. Paul of the Cross was an antidote to the forgetfulness of the passion of Jesus which followed the Enlightenment, a 17th century movement that denied or minimized the role of faith and religion in human life. We’re still feeling the effects of the Enlightenment today.

St. Vincent Strambi opposed the Enlightenment as it was expressed in the political schemes of Napolean Bonaparte, who tried to subordinate religion to his own dreams of European domination. Vincent was a brave Italian bishop who resisted the emperor and suffered for it.  Like him, the Bulgarian Bishop Eugene Bossilkov suffered and died under an oppressive Communist government in Bulgaria in the 20th century.

Gabriel Possenti resisted the lure of the Enlightenment in the 19th century. As a young man, he chose religious life rather than the inflated promises of success that tempted so many of his contemporaries.

Saints like Gemma, Isidore de Loor, Charles Houben seem to be people who fit St. Paul’s description of those called by God. They were not wise by human standards, they don’t have a lot of human power, they’re not of noble birth. They’re “the weak of the world God chooses to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1, 23-28)

Our Passionist saints tend to be ordinary people, of no special note, easily unnoticed and misunderstood, subject to the sufferings, disappointments and failures that come in life. God chooses them to be signs that he does not abandon his people and, in fact, can do great things through them. Charles Houben was a healer. Gemma bore the signs of Jesus’ passion in her body.

It takes awhile to know saints like these. That may be because we often don’t understand our own times and the poison afflicting it.

St. Paul of the Cross

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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.