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Paul Daneo

Paul Daneo (St. Paul of the Cross) was born on the 3rd of January, 1694 and his Feast Day is celebrated on the 19th of October each year. 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.

The changing year in Paul's life was 1713 when he was 19 years old. He was deeply touched by a sermon he heard in his parish church in Castellazzo. Paul tried to explain that he had an overwhelming experience of God as a person loving him as a person. Over the next few years he became more and more convinced that God was calling him to a life of poverty and solitude, and to gather companions.

One day in the summer of 1720, Paul was walking home after receiving Communion in the Capuchin church in Castellazzo, when he experienced a vision. Paul wrote:

When I came to a street corner to turn towards home, I was raised up in God in the deepest recollection, with complete forgetfulness of all else and with great interior peace. At that moment I saw myself clothed in a long black garment with a white cross on my breast, and below the cross the holy name of Jesus was written in white letters. At that instant I heard these very words spoken to me: "This signifies how pure and spotless that heart should be which must bear the holy name of Jesus graven upon it". ... Shortly afterwards, I saw in spirit the tunic presented to me with the holy name of Jesus and the cross all in white, but the tunic was black. I pressed it joyfully to my heart.

On November 22nd of that year, Paul commenced a 40 day retreat in the small sacristy of the church in Castellazzo and his Capuchin Director, Monsignor Gattinera vested him in a black tunic. This is often regarded as the foundation date of the Passionist Congregation.

In late September 1721, Paul set off to walk to Rome with the intention of seeing the Pope. However, upon his arrival at the Pope's summer palace, dressed in his black habit and sandals, an official turned him away saying "do you know how many loiterers come here every day? Be off with you". Dejectedly, Paul walked away and wandered into the Chapel of the Madonna in the Basilica of Mary Major where he knelt before the icon of Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms. This icon, known as Salus Populi Romani, is said to have been painted by St Luke. After praying for understanding, Paul made a vow before the icon of Mary to promote the memory of the Passion of Jesus and to work to gather companions for this purpose. Thus today, we are blessed to have the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ - the Passionists.

 
 

Paul then sought permission from his Capuchin Director to gather companions but this was refused. However, the Monsignor did vest Paul's brother, John Baptist in a simple black tunic - the first companion.

Initially the two brothers worked as laymen; they were invited by the Bishop of Gaeta to assist with catechesis in his diocese and later by the Bishop of Troia to work in his Diocese. Paul also gave retreats to seminarians. After working at the hospital of St Gallicano in Rome, the brothers were encouraged to become priests and after studying for some time with the Franciscans in Rome, they were both ordained by Pope Benedict 13th on the 7th of June, 1727.

Paul had to overcome many obstacles in the ensuing years to gain full approval from Rome for his Rule of Life. In his first rule, Paul called for Passionists to promote the living memory of the Passion in the hearts of people, to live a life like the apostles (going out to proclaim the good news and returning to solitude with Jesus), to live together in joy, harmony and peace, and to assist the church in its apostolic mission.

Paul spoke of the Passion of Jesus as “the most overwhelming sign of God’s love”. Rather than nominate particular pastoral activities as the ‘works of the congregation’, Paul saw the primary ministry of Passionists as “promoting the living memory of the Passion”, and in fact this is their first vow. In order to do this, Paul spoke of the need to establish an effective relationship with the person of Jesus, in his suffering.

He frequently established small prayer groups after his parish missions so that the enthusiasm of the occasion would not be lost. As Paul and his followers mainly 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 renowned spiritual director and he wrote very practical advice that reflected the confidence one must have in God, eg:

• “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.”

• “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 “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 living a community life as vital to his vocation.

Paul believed that an active apostolic life can only be sustained by a life of prayer and contemplation. There are many lessons for all of us 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.

Develop a life of prayer and solitude which seeks to experience God’s total and personal love.

Create 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’.

Perhaps one of the significant influences on Paul and his spirituality was his many illnesses. He had an attack of rheumatic fever in 1719 and a severe attack of malaria in 1727. As he aged, he was troubled with conjunctivitis, deafness, dizziness, loss of appetite, gout and a racing heartbeat. Nevertheless, he was a tireless worker, undertaking long journeys and missions rather than deprive people of the word of God. In 1772, he was confined to bed for 18 months and while he regained a degree of health, he remained in Rome.

In 1773, Pope Clement 14th transferred the monastery known as Saints John & Paul to the Passionists. It is believed that the Pope made a great effort to secure this house for Paul in honour of him and of his brother John Baptist who had died in 1765.

Paul moved from the Hospice of the Holy Cross where he had spent three years and lived the next two in John & Paul's. During those last five years, Paul underwent great suffering but he also achieved a great deal. He was responsible for the foundation of the first convent of Passionist nuns, by a Benedictine nun, Mother Mary Crucified, on 3rd May, 1771.

Paul died at the Monastery of Saints John & Paul on 18th October, 1775. Fittingly, his last audible words were, "read me the Passion of Our Lord'. He was canonised on 29th June, 1867.