Passio in Cordibus


Saint Paul of the Cross and Restructuring
(Homily given at First Vespers of the Feast of Saint Paul of the Cross, during the General Chapter of 2006)


In the course of this General Chapter, we have heard people speaking at various times about the importance of a spirituality of restructuring. What kind of spirituality is that? Above all, it is a spirituality of “Transitus”, of passage (Passover). The Transitus of Saint Paul of the Cross, which we celebrate this evening, was lived by him as a sharing in the passover of Jesus recorded in Saint John’s Gospel, the Gospel which was being read in our Founder’s cell as he was dying. Saint John says: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father” (Jn 13:1).
The Transitus, then, is the hour, the moment for leaving the world in which we find ourselves (for Saint Paul of the Cross, this earthly world; for us in the Chapter, the setup we have known in the Congregation) – passing from this world to the Father, which for us today does not mean going to heaven – at least not yet – but moving towards the Father’s plan, trying to point ourselves in the direction of his programme. In this way, the Passover of restructuring demands from us a movement from the known to the unknown, from light to darkness, from security to adventure, recognising that while death is not the same as life, it does hold within it the promise of life.
The Transitus of restructuring, like the death of a Christian (including the death of a saint) is made possible, bearable, by means of faith, that faith which is defined by the apostle Paul as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
Looking at the life of Saint Paul of the Cross, we can find several keys which will open doors for us on our way of restructuring; I would like to highlight three of them.
The first key is detachment. Saint Paul of the Cross had a clear idea that he himself was not the founder of this “poor and least Congregation” – and this was not just a way of speaking; it was his profound conviction. He always said that the Congregation was founded by God, and that he had got in the way of God’s work by his sinfulness.
There is also an incident recorded in the Canonisation Processes where he discovered, towards the end of his life (although he was almost blind at the time) an inscription which spoke of him as founder, which he insisted must be changed. In doing the work of restructuring, we too have to remember that the Congregation is the work of God, not of human beings.
We hold the second key in our hand when we remember that on his last visit to Monte Argentario, Paul burned the original text of the Rule because, according to Father John Mary of Saint Ignatius, he said “that he would never have peace of mind if he knew that there was anything in the Congregation that would cause the praise to be given to him.” For scholars, this act of Paul’s seems almost a mortal sin, but for him it was an act of detaching oneself from the past and also from exercising an undue influence on the future, and it expressed the conviction that the Congregation was still a “work in progress”.
The third key I wish to refer to, which in our context is perhaps the most important, is the distinction made by Saint Paul of the Cross between “essential” and non-essential. On various occasions when he presented the Rules and Constitutions to the Pope for approval, it happened that the Church wished to change certain things. Here, Paul could distinguish clearly between what was essential and what was non-essential. In a letter to Father Fulgentius of Jesus (after a revision of the Rule by what today we call the Holy See), he says: “The Constitutions are in good shape, and nothing essential has been touched.”
Where did this conviction about the essentials of our life come from? It was already present in the Preface to the First Rules, written in the sacristy at Castellazzo in 1720. Here he says: “After the visions of the tunic and the sign, God gave me a stronger, compelling desire to gather companions and, with the approval of Holy Mother Church, to found a congregation called The Poor of Jesus. And after this, God infused into my heart in a lasting manner the form of the holy Rule to be observed by the Poor of Jesus and by me, his least and most unworthy servant.” We should notice that Saint Paul of the Cross, being an eighteenth-century person, never speaks of “Charism”. However, here, in the first days of his journey as a Passionist, he speaks of the “form of the holy Rule” infused into his heart by God.
What was this form of life which God infused into the heart of Saint Paul of the Cross? We find it in his last testament, still there at the very end of his life: the spirit of prayer, of solitude, of poverty, love for the brothers (“fraternal charity”), the salvation of the poor souls of our neighbours, promoting in the hearts of all the devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ and the Sorrows of Mary. Here we see the essential which Saint Paul of the Cross was able to distinguish from the ephemeral. In the process of restructuring, we too have to ask for the gift of discernment, to be able to “test the spirits to see if they come from God” (1 Jn 4:1) and to be able to point out what is essential, like our holy “non-founder”, Saint Paul of the Cross.
May this celebration of the Transitus be for us an invitation to follow Christ on his journey to the Father, as Saint Paul of the Cross did throughout his life but particularly on this holy day.