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Paul of the Cross, Founder of the Passionists (1694-1775)
Paul Danei (St Paul of the Cross) was born in Italy 300 years ago. He was the eldest of sixteen children, of whom nine died as infants. These early experiences with death clearly influenced his developing spirituality. As a layman, Paul was employed by his bishop to conduct retreats for priests and seminarians. Later he became a retreat director, spiritual guide, preacher, and even confessor to the Pope. He frequently established small prayer groups after his parish missions so that the enthusiasm of the occasion would not be lost. He saw ‘gathering companions’ and living community life as vital to his vocation.
Paul had to overcome many obstacles to gain full approval from Rome for his Rule of life. His outstanding hope for his Passionists was that they would be “totally God centred; totally apostolic; persons of prayer; detached from the world, things and themselves and be true disciples of Jesus”. He wanted Passionists to teach people to pray so that they could come to experience God's personal love.
Paul’s emphasis on an active apostolate and a self-emptying life enabled him to regard the Passion as the driving influence behind this style of life, since it is in the Passion that Jesus displayed the ultimate self-emptying (by totally giving over his life). Passionists were to see their primary ministry as ‘promoting the living memory of the Passion’ in the hearts (not the heads) of people. They were to do this by living a life like the apostles (going out to proclaim the good news and returning to solitude with Jesus), living together in joy, harmony and peace, assisting the mission of the church.
Because Paul and his followers preached among the poor and illiterate, he directed them "not to preach in a lofty manner that the people cannot understand". This resulted in Passionists deliberately seeking to be down to earth and practical in their instruction and apostolic preaching. Paul was a renowned spiritual director and he wrote very practical advice that reflected the confidence one must have in God.
- "If you fall into fault a hundred and ten times, do not for that, lose peace and trust in God
- "You can hear 'God loves you' a thousand times, but you can only know it in prayer".
- "Don't make a major decision on an overcast day"
- "Attend to your occupation and be attentive to God"
- "If you are a lay person do not try to pray and live like a monk"
- "You tell me you are having visions. I say 'forget them'.
Paul was described by some writers as "the greatest missionary of his time" and by others as "the greatest contemplative". It was the blending of these aspects of Christian tradition that made his Rule of life unique. Passionists were called to live in 'Retreats', where they prayed, studied and prepared for their labours or rested after them. They were called to pray and recreate in common and this strong bond of community life is central to their witness to people living in community. Paul saw that an active apostolic life can only be sustained by a life of prayer and contemplation.
There are many lessons for Passionist co-workers and those whom they assist in these basic elements of Paul's life. Live with a total openness to God's will and a seeking to shape one's life by reflecting the self-giving love of Jesus highlighted in his passion and death (in the Cross). In this way one seeks to hand everything over to God. These include developing a life of prayer and solitude which seeks to experience God's total and personal love and creating a 'retreat' environment where one can rest from labour, reflect on and share about God's loving presence, and prepare to enter work or ministry 'with the spirit of Jesus'. This environment (e.g. the home) is ideally built around 'community’.