St. Paul of the Cross (1694 - 1775) took his religious name from his fervent devotion to the Passion of the Lord. That deep devotion helped him to be an effective minister of the Gospel and to make it through a long period of spiritual dryness.
Early Life and a Calling
Paul was born to Luca Daniel and Anna Maria Daneoin in the Piedmont region of Italy. He was the second oldest child of sixteen born to the couple. (Although only six survived past infancy.) The family was pious and trained Paul in the ways of the faith. The father was particularly known for his devotion and a close uncle was a priest.
Around the age of nineteen, Paul had what he would call a conversion experience. Through this experience, he sensed a call to religious life and subsequently turned down the marriage which had been arranged for him by his family. Not long after that he also refused to accept a large inheritance from one of his uncles.
Instead, Paul, volunteered to fight in the Venetian army in a crusade against the Turks. However, Paul's military service was short-lived as the call to a religious life grew stronger, and he left the army to return home.
Then in 1720, when Paul was around twenty-six years of age, he had a series of visions that confirmed his calling. In one vision, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him wearing a black habit with a white symbol which bore the name of her Holy Son and the image of a cross. Our Lady directed him to found an order dedicated to preaching the Passion of the Lord and for the order to use the habit which she wore.
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A New Order is Started and Established
Paul approached his bishop and received encouragement to move forward with founding a religious order. During a forty day retreat, Paul wrote the rule for the order which he called the Poor of Jesus. Then with his first member beside himself, his own brother, Giovanni-Battista, Paul moved to Rome where he helped found a hospital. The two brothers assumed the habit that had been worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary in his vision. This order, which would eventually be known as the Passionists had begun.
Later, Paul and his brother would be ordained as priests and begin to serve as itinerant preachers who gave parish missions throughout a large section of Italy. The growth of the order was slow probably in part due to the rather strict ascetical practices prescribed by the rule.
However, they persevered, and, as word spread about their devotion, they became sought after for their parish missions and for spiritual direction. Paul, in particular, was known to be an effective preacher who through his meditation on the Passion of Christ was able to share the fruits of his contemplation in his homilies. It was said that many hardened sinners returned to the Lord through his preaching. And through over 2000 letters, we know of the spiritual direction which he gave to his directees.
In 1737, the order established its first monastery in Monte Argentario which lies on the west coast of Italy, and the rule of the order was approved by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741.
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The Years of Dryness
Early in his life, as has been noted, for almost twelve years, Paul had experienced the consolation of God starting with his conversion experience and including his vision of Our Lady. Then, for almost the next forty-five years, during the most fruitful years of his ministry, Paul experienced dryness and a darkness which seemed the complete opposite of his previous experience.
During those many years of a lack of consolation, Paul was tempted to be overcome by frustration, despair, and feeling abandoned by God. He had been so dramatically called by God to found a religious order, and yet the same signs and comfort that had brought him to his point were no longer given to him.
Paul's antidote to these temptations to give in to despair was to focus more intently on the Passion of the Lord and especially to Jesus' feeling abandoned by God the Father. In other words, he embraced what he was given and strove to trust more in the face of the lack of the signs that had formerly strengthened his trust in God.
Paul also took hope in his sufferings being a means of grace for those to whom he ministered to by helping them to obtain the graces which they needed for returning to Christ. The struggle was still there for all those difficult years, but Paul countered the temptations by striving to trust in God despite the lack of consolation.
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Consolation and the End
After his many years of being in the wilderness, Paul had about five years of consolation prior to his death. During those years, Paul founded a cloistered community of Passionist nuns and he saw the order grow to 180 members and five monasteries before he passed on to his reward at the age of eighty.
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Feast Day (Memorial): October 19th