Passio in Cordibus


What do the Passionists have to Offer?
    (Talk given at an Assembly of Saint Patrick's Province, 1995)


On a winter evening in 1975, twenty years ago, I stood in Busaras (the main bus statuion) in Dublin waiting for the bus to Enniskillen.  Whom did I meet, standing there, waiting for the same bus, but Father Neil Convery, returning to the Graan after a mission.  He was carrying the mission box (with the cross inside), which meant that he had been the junior man on the mission.  He sat beside me on the way to the Graan and he told me that about ten years earlier the Passionist vocations director of the time had said to him, "When you're seventy, you'll still be carrying the mission box, because there'll be no one coming after you".  And here we are, twenty years later, and Father Neil, who was seventy last week, is still carrying the mission box.
A recent survey of the numbers and age-structure of St Patrick's Province[1] reminded us of the two possible futures for our Province: one is that we will go into a slow decline; the other is that we will go into a more rapid decline!  We have read all the books on the future of religious life, we know what is happening, and so we find ourselves reflecting on our own future extinction.
Now that we perceive ourselves in Europe as a congregation in decline, it is difficult to realise that in earlier times we were experiencing growth here, just as we are at present in southern Africa.  The old prayer in honour of St Paul of the Cross says "you willed that through him a new religious family should flourish in your Church".  It is easy for us to forget that at one stage we were a "new community", with all the attractiveness that newness holds for forward-looking, energetic people. 
We remember well the words of Benedict XIV when he approved the Rules and Constitutions: "This is the last congregation and it should have been the first".  There is a sense of enthusiasm in these words which reaches out to us across the weariness of two hundred and fifty years, as if to say: "But this was something new, something we had been waiting for!"  What was it that made Benedict XIV say that our Congregation should have been the first?
Of all the popes with whom Paul of the Cross came in contact, Benedict XIV, who was pope from 1740 to 1758, was probably the one who most clearly understood the value of our Congregation for the Church of his time.  He it was who gave the first approval of the Rules and Constitutions, by Rescript in 1741 and by an Apostolic Brief in 1746.  Of the popes known to Paul, he was also the one most attuned to the spirit of the age, understanding the profound changes in society caused by the rise of Absolutism and the beginnings of the Enlightenment, and willing to enter into dialogue with the men and women of his day in a way which would lead, in fact, to accusations of compromise.  He recognised the way the world was moving and tried to adapt accordingly.
What, then, made this "modern" pope say that our Congregation "should have been the first"?  His programme of pastoral action had three main points of contact with the mission of the first Passionists: the preaching of missions, catechesis and the teaching of prayer.  For this work, he showed a marked preference for those communities who practised poverty themselves and who worked principally among the poor and neglected.
From the beginning, Paul of the Cross had been engaged in this kind of work.  Already at Castellazzo, his ministry had consisted of teaching the people how to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation, promoting among them love and reverence for Jesus in the Eucharist, instructing them about the Christian Faith, and showing them how to meditate on the Passion of Christ.  The inclusion in the Rule, by the Church, of the preference for the evangelisation of those on the margins of society and the Church community, gave an institutional focus to the ministry of Paul and his companions, by which they concentrated their efforts on the maremma, the marshlands north of Rome which, largely for economic reasons, were pastorally neglected.  At the same time, Benedict XIV himself did not see this commitment to the neglected as excluding work in cities, as it was he who invited Paul to give the first Passionist mission in Rome.
Preaching of Missions: the Passion

The impact of parish missions on eighteenth-century Italy was extremely significant.  According to the Italian historian Mario Rosa, they brought about "new ways of understanding and participating in religious services" and "contributed to establishing a new relationship between the clergy and the faithful and to giving the Church at the parish level a new social function."[2]
The missions, then, changed people's understanding of the Church and their way of belonging to the parish.  They also proposed to people a new way of relating to God.  The purpose of the Passionist mission was to offer a living relationship with God to people who thought that this was beyond them.  Indeed, if you were to ask Paul of the Cross what was at the heart of his ministry, what was the core of the "newness" of his community, he might say that the Passionist is there to open up new spaces for God, and the means by which to do this is meditation on the Passion.  So in the oldest fragment of the Passionist Rule which has come down to us, dating from Paul's own Castellazzo Experience in 1720, he writes:

Dearly beloved, you must know that the main object in wearing black (according to the special inspiration that God gave me) is to be clothed in mourning for the Passion and Death of Jesus.  For this purpose let us never forget to have always with us a constant and sorrowful remembrance of him.  And so let each of the Poor of Jesus take care to instil in others meditation on the suffering of our Jesus.[3]
Teaching of Prayer

The idea of teaching meditation on the Passion is taken up again in the text of the Rules and Constitutions.  For example, in the text of 1775, drawn up fifty-five years after Castellazzo and just shortly before Paul's death, we read that the Passionists are to teach people how to pray, to do so using the Passion of Christ, and to promote the view that meditation is for everyone:

Since one of the chief objects of our Congregation is not only to pray ourselves, that we may be united to God by charity, but also to lead others to the same point, instructing them in the best and easiest manner possible, those members who may be considered fit for so great a work, must endeavour, as well during Apostolic Missions, as other pious exercises, to teach the people by word of mouth to meditate devoutly on the mysteries, sufferings, and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom, as from a fountain, proceedeth all our good. (Chapter I "On the End of the Congregation")

Let them not only exhort, but also instruct the people how to meditate devoutly on the mysteries of the Life, Passion, and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let them teach and instruct them to accustom themselves to prayer, and at the same time lay open and refute the pernicious error of some who imagine that meditation on divine things is an employment proper only for Religious, and for the Clergy.  (Chapter XXIII "On the manner of preaching the Word of God")
In his preaching and catechesis, Paul of the Cross was interested in transformation, not information.  His aim was never to impress nor simply to inform but principally to change, or rather to open others to the possibility of that radical change which is conversion to the Gospel.  Just as his own life had been marked by an experience of evangelical conversion, so in his ministry he tried to bring others to the point of transformation.  This is how he understood the Passion of Christ: as the primary instrument of evangelical conversion.  In the Account of the Congregation written by him in 1768 we read:

The most efficacious means for the conversion of sinners and for the sanctification of souls is the frequent remembrance of the Passion of Jesus Christ, from the forgetfulness of which proceed deplorable evils and disorders.[4]
This idea, which we find also in the Rules and Constitutions, comes from his own personal experience.  Here we must remember that Paul's spiritual theology is a theology which begins from experience; he himself had been formed by the Word of God and the Experience of the Spirit.  For Paul, it was the remembrance of the Passion of Jesus which would bring about the transformation of hearts, and answer the deepest aspirations of the people of his time.
In the earlier Account of the congregation which Paul wrote in 1747, we find his analysis of the signs of the times and also his response.  He describes the age in which he lives as a "pitiable and distressing time when we now see openly at work every kind of iniquity, with harm also to our holy faith which is keenly affected in many parts of Christianity."[5]  He writes:

The world is sliding into a profound forgetfulness of the most bitter sufferings endured by Jesus Christ our true Good out of love, while the memory of his most holy Passion is practically extinct in the faithful.  For that reason this new Congregation aims to root out both disorders and endeavours to remove vice, to foster virtue, and to set souls again on the way to perfection to heaven, by promoting devotion to the Passion which is the most efficacious means for obtaining every good.[6]
This text puts before us, in the clearest possible terms, the apostolic purpose of the Congregation as Paul understood it.  He recognised, however, that an agent of evangelical transformation, if he is to be effective, must himself be open to the transforming power of the Gospel.  In other words, if the religious are to work for the conversion of others, they themselves must be converted.  So he writes in the same account: "This is the primary end of this growing Congregation: to qualify oneself by prayer, penance, fasting, tears and mourning so as to help the neighbour, to sanctify souls and to convert sinners"; and, he tells us, it is by these means that "the poor Religious accustom themselves for battle in order then to go out into the field to combat the common enemies so as to uproot vice and instill a tender remembrance of the most bitter Passion of Jesus Christ, our true Good, in the souls of the faithful".[7]
What becomes apparent here is that these things which today we tend to look upon as parts of a monastic structure - prayer, penance, solitude and poverty - have in Paul's mind an apostolic purpose.  They are pure Gospel values, but at the same time they are a programme of pastoral action, because these are the values which will make possible a ministry whose aim is to bring people into a real relationship with the living God.  For Paul, prayer is taught on the basis not just of doctrinal and spiritual studies, but of one's own experience.  We see this in the way he recommends (or does not recommend) spiritual directors to people[8].  For Paul, the teaching of meditation on the Passion, which is for him our most characteristic ministry, can only be taught by the one who has learned through praying at the foot of the Cross.
Conversion of Heart

How does penance fit into this programme?  For us today, penance is the most difficult of our characteristics with which to come to terms.  Because we have a more positive attitude to creation in general and the body in particular than was to be found in the past, a practice of penance which consists merely of external acts of mortification is experienced by us as devoid of meaning.  Consequently, there is a great need for a theology of penance which relates both to our tradition and to our modern mentality.  The point of departure for this is Paul of the Cross's understanding of penance as conversion of heart.  The call he experienced to a penitential life was a call to conversion of heart.  This brings with it the grace of compunction, the "wound of love".  This grace of compunction is expressed in the twofold compassion of which Paul speaks in the Diary: the tenderness of heart which he feels towards the God who is crucified for him and the tenderness which draws him towards poor sinners and those who do not experience the fruits of the Passion of Jesus.[9]
Poverty and Solitude - Keys to Effective Action

In the mind of St Paul of the Cross, both poverty and solitude also are related to ministry.  Paul recognised the great evil of his age as forgetfulness of God and saw the remedy as being the teaching of meditation on the Passion of Christ.  He understood that a life of prayer and penance, conversion and contemplation, was necessary for those who would speak of the transforming power of God's Word, not just from books but from personal experience.  But he also recognised the obstacles to achieving his aim.  We could say that Paul's programme of action had four stages.  The first two were recognising the challenges of his age and deciding on his response; the next two were identifying obstacles (including the obstacles within the religious themselves) and deciding how to deal with them.  The obstacles he singled out were "insane cupidity" and "excessive dealings with seculars".  These were what we would probably call today "social and economic factors impeding effective pastoral action".   Poverty and solitude were the means of dealing with them.
The rigorous poverty practised by the first Passionists had an apostolic purpose.  In the Account of 1747 Paul writes that poverty "in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ is one of the strongest and most effective helps of this Congregation, so that the religious, free of every affection for earthly things, might put all their thoughts on God, whose possession is their only desire".[10]  In the later Account of 1768, Paul tells us that an obstacle to growth is "attachment to temporal goods which sometimes and even ordinarily can fill the human heart...."[11]  He goes on:

The Religious, totally freed from temporal things, effectively detached from earth and dead to themselves, are better disposed to receive the impressions of divine grace so that afterwards in due time, and with hearts full of God's love they may undertake great things for the glory of God and for the defence of Holy Church even at the cost of their own lives, sparing neither privation nor any labour.[12]
We realise how important this radical poverty was for effective Passionist ministry when we examine the state of the clergy in eighteenth-century Italy, where in some places as many as five per cent of the population were clerics, but hardly any were involved in pastoral work.
The benefice system, by which a priest received an income from a pious foundation, that is a legacy set up to ensure the regular celebration of masses for a particular intention, usually for a rich person who had died, meant that the majority of priests were tied to a particular church by the obligation of celebrating such masses.  The celebration of these masses was usually their only pastoral duty, in return for which they received the money they needed to live on.  A consequence of this system was that large numbers of priests (most of whom were not pastorally involved) were found in towns, while in remote areas there was an acute shortage of priests.
By setting up poverty as the "standard under which the Congregation fights", Paul succeeded in cutting his religious off from one of the most destructive elements in Church life.  The religious who lived in strict poverty were not tied to a benefice, but had the freedom to move from place to place.  By refusing to accept a perpetual obligation of masses, the community would not be obliged to keep priests at home to fulfil these obligations when they could be going out to preach and catechise.  The fact that no stipend was taken for a mission (a practice which would continue well into the nineteenth century) and alms were refused during the mission set the Passionist religious apart from a Church structure which was bound up with the economic structure of society.  As Paul wrote in the Account of 1768,

To embrace holy Poverty in this way is very beneficial for the salvation of souls, because one of the necessary requirements sought in apostolic workers, if they are not to sweat in vain, is to keep far from every shadow of greed and every suspicion of self-interest.  Thus they show the people that the Religious of the Passion are not looking for their money, which they may not possess, but only for their eternal salvation.[13]
Another obstacle to pastoral action was the lack of a critical stance in relation to those elements in the culture of the time which were in opposition to the values of the Gospel.  Paul's way of dealing with this obstacle was the practice of solitude.  In the same Account of 1768 he explains the apostolic purpose behind solitude:

One of the impediments which delays perfection in the Religious is contact with the world and familiar dealings with seculars.  This takes away interior recollection and brings discredit on the apostolic workers.  To prevent this problem which can easily arise in a religious community, the Rule ordains that the houses be founded in solitude.  They are called Retreats in which the Religious effectively separated from the world and stripped of its principles, are enabled to receive heavenly lights for acquiring true wisdom.  The Religious assigned to apostolic ministries, after having toiled for the salvation of souls can, in those solitary Houses, regain that fervour which is sometimes diminished by the external works of charity.[14]
What then did the Passionists bring to the world of the eighteenth century?  They opened up to people the possibility of a relationship with the living God.  They did so by teaching meditation on the Passion of Christ, which they were able to do because of their own personal experience of prayer and of the conversion of heart which is brought about by contact with the Word of God.  Their ministry was backed up by a style of life which supported this particular apostolate, by poverty which distanced them from the economic structure of church life, freeing them for ministry, and by solitude, which enabled them to judge the culture of their day in the light of the gospel, and so acquire that true wisdom needed by those who wish to speak of unpopular or unfashionable values.
One of the most striking signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church in Europe today is the emergence of new religious communities.  Wherever the Spirit is at work, there seems to be a move towards community.  We see this in the groups with whom we ourselves work in our parishes and other ministries.  People today are searching for community, and the Holy Spirit is active in this.  This can be clearly seen in the number of new religious communities and congregations which have been founded in the last twenty years.  This phenomenon, and such indeed it is, is not so visible perhaps in Ireland and Scotland, but in other countries of Europe, in Germany, Italy and particularly in France, the "new communities" are having a profound impact on the church and on society.
Many of these have grown out of charismatic renewal or other prayer-movements.  All of them seem to have an ability to attract the vocations which the older orders and congregations had come to believe no longer existed.  In France alone, new religious congregations founded since the Second Vatican Council include:
La Congrégation de Notre-Dame d'Espérance;
Les Frères de la Résurrection;
La communauté du Mont Saint-Michel;
La Fraternité des Moines apostoliques;
Les Chanoines Réguliers de Marie, Mère du Rédempteur;
La famille monastique de Bethléem et de l'assomption de la Vierge;
La Fraternité monastique de Jérusalem;
La Congrégation de Saint-Jean;
La Communauté de la Nouvelle Alliance.[15]
The last of these has been founded by a woman who was helped and guided by French Passionists.  The spirituality of this Communauté de la Nouvelle Alliance is based on the writings of Saint Gemma Galgani.
Some of these groups have had an extraordinary growth. Take, for example, the Congrégation de Saint Jean which was founded in 1975 by six university students, who asked a priest who was teaching philosophy if he would help them because they wanted to commit their lives to Christ and do something for the Church.  He suggested to them that they should become Dominicans (he was one himself).  The Dominican provincial was unwilling to take them as a group and preferred to assess each application individually.  However, these young men wanted to stay together, so they decided that there must be another way of proceeding.  They asked the priest, Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe, to guide them and committed themselves to Christ.  Fr Philippe gave them some formation in prayer and theology and showed them how to live as a community.  Now, twenty years later, they are a congregation of diocesan right with over 350 men working in twelve countries, and with about a hundred apostolic sisters and seventy-five contemplative sisters.[16]
When we look at many of these new communities, our first impression might be that they are an attempt to turn the clock back: they often wear religious habits, spend long hours in prayer, and many emphasise devotion to the Eucharist (with adoration), devotion to Mary and loyalty to the Pope.  Their members are often young people who have come to the religious life from a background where Christian Faith and values were absent.  To us they can seem to reject their past in a way which makes them remote or "other-worldly".  These groups, even when engaged in ministry, favour a spirituality and life-style which draws more from monastic tradition than from our present-day understanding of active apostolic religious life.  However, they also have other important characteristics which could interest the older communities:
-a very strong sense of identity, and with that, a strong sense of commitment;
-a family spirit, welcoming others to share their life for a time, and inviting the families of the religious to share in the community's charism;
-an openness to laypeople, which includes different ways of belonging to the community, so that laypeople can find a way of belonging which is appropriate to their situation;
-a greater sharing of their life and apostolate with laypeople and at the same time, perhaps because of the strong sense of identity, a greater sense of boundaries, so that they can open the community to others without the community's life disintegrating;
-a very vibrant prayer life which is shared with others;
-they are explicit faith communities, where religious values are freely and openly expressed;
-they seek a strong theological basis to their way of life and a positive relationship to the "institutional church";
-a way of life which is very structured, where religious poverty and obedience are practised in what we might call a "literalist" way.[17]
At a conference for novice masters and mistresses at Minsteracres in September 1993, Jean Vanier referred to this last aspect of life in the new communities.  He pointed out that young people today have grown up in a society which is unstructured and with a family life which is unstructured, and added that perhaps people entering communities today have need of a strong structure to help them, a need which older religious do not experience as the world in which they grew up was already very structured.
One of the problems in the new communities is that often there are no older people, and this can cause a certain rigidity because the wisdom and experience which we know as an asset in our communities is not so readily available.  In an older community, on the other hand, a different kind of rigidity can arise.  As individuals grow older they can become more set in their ways.  The same thing happens in an ageing group; as a group grows older, it can become fixed in its way of doing things and in its way of thinking.  We can learn to live without young people; married couples sometimes do this, and we can learn to do the same in our communities, if we are not careful.  We could easily work ourselves into a situation where we are very happy not to have the discomfort of something new.  Timothy Radcliffe, the Master General of the Dominicans, brought this out in a talk published last year:

Do we dare to accept young men and women who might wish to venture a bit into the unknown?  What do we look for in vocations?  Do we wish them to be nice and safe, people who will not rock the boat?  Do we dare accept the rather difficult ones, who will certainly be a problem but who might, just might, be saints?  It is good to imagine how we might have reacted if some of our great predecessors had applied to join our province.  What would we have written about them after their novitiates.  St Thomas Aquinas: "Eats and thinks too much.  Refuses to join in communal sport and play basketball."  Jordan of Saxony: "Always writing to a Sister Diana; he will have problems with chastity."  Catherine of Siena: "Too fond of the brethren and thinks she hears voices.  Bad start."  Fra Angelico: "We cannot afford the paint."  Savonarola: "We cannot afford the books; he keeps burning them."  Las Casas: "He stirs things up too much."  Martin de Porres: "His obsession with people at the door upsets community life.  No sense of obedience and said that it was less important than charity.  Troublemaker."  And what would we have said of Dominic?  Would we have let him in?  Would we?[18]
We can ask ourselves the same question in our own context.
In an ageing community, as we settle down to our securities, there is a danger of ceasing to be challenged by what is happening outside of our own world.  It seems to me that there are two problems as we "image" ourselves into the future of religious life.  One is that of negative reactions to our past and the lack of inner freedom that this can bring about. There is still an inability to examine in an objective way certain elements of our tradition which have disappeared.  As a consequence, the struggle to find a new identity for today can be carried out in such a way that there is discontinuity between past and present.  The other problem we face is the lack of a serious injection of new life  caused by the decrease in vocations.  A consequence of this is that much of the writing about the future of religious life is being done by old people, because there aren't any young people.  In the religious life today, change is often motivated by reading, by ideas; it is not motivated by young people coming into the community and transforming it from within, as was the case in the past.  In the past we did not have ideological change; we had a static ideology, but change was constantly going on because of the continual flow of new members into the community.  That is not the case today.
What is the Spirit saying to us?  The absence of vocations is one of the signs of the times.  Through this, the Spirit is speaking to us about ourselves.  New communities are another sign of the times.  We can sit in our ivory tower, looking at the new communities and saying, "They've got it wrong; there might be 350 of them, but they've got it wrong", but we are dying and they are not.  It is "The Emperor's New Clothes" in reverse: he is wearing them and we say he isn't!
The new communities are a grace for the Church and, consequently, for religious in the Church.  Some communities and provinces of some of the older orders have begun to catch on to this and have started learning from the new communities.  For example, in France, the Avignon province of the Discalced Carmelites began a process of renewal based on a commitment to contemplative prayer and community living.  They attribute this to the fourth centenary of St Teresa of Avila which they had celebrated in 1982.  At the time the process began, there had been a scarcity of vocations for years and the province was reduced to only thirty members.  They had already closed their overseas houses because of lack of personnel and had only two houses left in the home province.  The result of their renewal was a rediscovery of their own core values which, in turn, attracted candidates to their community.  Now, there are eighty-five religious in the Province, of whom forty are in formation.  They have had to buy a student house from the Jesuits and another one from the Redemptorists to accommodate all the people who want to join them.
Those provinces or houses of the older orders which are flourishing show the same characteristics as the new communities.  We should not be in any way surprised by this, as history shows us that in times of renewal and adaptation, new communities have always played a significant role in pointing the way forward.  Whether in the urbanisation of the later Middle Ages, the Counter Reformation or the aftermath of the French Revolution, the new communities gave the new "predominant image" which responded to the aspirations of the age and helped to shape the renewal of the existing orders.
There is a wind of change blowing through Europe. It has not yet blown across the English Channel or the Irish Sea, where people are largely unaware of what is happening.  Perhaps in our own province we are not yet ready to respond to this call of the Spirit.  Is it that the "challenge of secularism", as the Pope calls it[19], is not yet strong enough?  Perhaps the situation has to get worse before it gets better.  But we should be prepared for the possibility that when it does get better, it may not get better in the way we expected.  It may get better in a different way from the one suggested by the books, which we have come to expect.  It is just possible that our projections about future forms are mistaken.  Perhaps we have to be as willing to let go of our new certainties as we think other people should be to let go of their old ones.
What can we learn from the new communities?  The first thing to learn is that God still calls people to the religious life.  The Gospel is still capable of capturing the imagination, and the lives, of young men and women today, and ancient values can in fact speak to modern minds.  The fact that young people do not come to us does not mean that there are no vocations.
The next thing we can learn is that a clear sense of identity helps people to be committed.  At the same time, other supports are necessary.  The freedom to express oneself on a faith-level, a strong community life of prayer with the liturgy celebrated with care, and an ongoing theological reflection on the meaning of the community's charism are all helps to a greater sense of belonging.
The role of prayer, liturgical and personal, in the new communities is, in my opinion, crucial to their growth.  In giving people the possibility of growing in the life of prayer, they respond to one of the strongest signs of the working of the Spirit in our century.  Linked with this is a particular ecclesial sense which gives their members a warm and loving relationship towards the Church.
As we consider our own present situation as one of the many congregations whose numbers in Europe have plummeted in the last twenty years, we can see in the new communities an example of the power of the Gospel to take hold of people's lives.

Having considered the originality in his own day of our founder, and examined some characteristics of the new communities, we return to our central question: What do the Passionists have to offer?  What do we as Passionists have to offer to people today who are living through what the Pope, in his letter on the Third Millennium, has called "the crisis of civilisation" which, he says, "has become apparent especially in the West, which is highly developed from the standpoint of technology but is interiorly impoverished by its tendency to forget God or keep him at a distance"?[20]
Forgetfulness of God

In its reading of the challenges of our world, the 1988 General Chapter highlighted the twofold challenge of (a) conditions of injustice and the hunger for justice and (b) the absence of God and the hunger for God.  The Chapter itself recognised that the second of these is "a relatively modern phenomenon... which is especially acute in the developed First World".[21]  However, the Superior General, in his report to the 1994 General Chapter, noted that "the catechesis (on the 1988 Chapter) has been centred on the challenge posed by injustice whilst forgetting the other great challenge which is the absence of God".[22]  He went on to stress the intimate connection between the two challenges highlighted by the previous Chapter, while acknowledging that one had overshadowed the other: "We have failed to grasp the fact that injustice and the denial of God represent as it were two logs of wood, forming between them a cross upon which Jesus continues even now to be crucified....  We have spoken and discussed a great deal about injustice, but very little about the absence or denial of God, which is certainly the major problem of the first world."[23]   In a study presented to the 1994 General Chapter, Ernest Henau C.P. reflected on our present-day European context and suggested that since Paul of the Cross' option for the marginalized "was animated by a religious purpose..., our activity should be aimed at the religiously illiterate who constitute the great majority of our society."[24]
Isolation and Pain

In seeking a ministry which reaches out to the "culture devoid of faith" produced by our "modern technological civilization"[25], we must recognise two aspects of modern life which are linked with the phenomenon of an absent God.  The first of these is the experience of aloneness which is part of life in the "urban desert", where the breakdown of family life is only one aspect of a profound change in human existence.  In a world where a person's life is often divided into compartments of work, relaxation, social life and sleep, lived out at a frenzied pace in spots which are miles apart from one another[26], where relationships can be carried on by means of a computer screen, without ever seeing a face, hearing a voice or seeing something as individual as the handwriting of the other, there can be a fragility caused by isolation which makes a relationship with God seem almost impossible.
The second aspect of life today which can keep God at a distance is our desire to avoid pain or hardship of any kind.  In the developed world there is an attitude to suffering which says that it is to be avoided at all times, as having absolutely no positive value.  Advances in technology and higher standards of living in the developed world have opened up new possibilities for people, and have given rise to a belief that there is no difficult situation in life which cannot be avoided (for example, the "unwanted pregnancy" of the advertisements on the London Underground).  A god who is experienced simply as the one who limits my possibilities is not very attractive in an age in which, in theory, everything is possible.
The Gospel of the Passion

We know from our Constitutions that the mission entrusted to us by the Church, a mission which "still retains all its force and authenticity"[27], is that of "preaching the Gospel of the Passion by our life and apostolate".[28]  The Gospel of the Passion was read by St Paul of the Cross as the story of the God of Love who reveals himself on the Cross, where the Passion is seen as "the greatest and most overwhelming work of God's love"[29], the manifestation of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus.[30]  In the letter to our Congregation quoted above, the Pope highlights the main elements of the perspective of St Paul of the Cross on the Passion of Christ:

He had a deep understanding of the teaching, particularly vivid in John's Gospel, that Jesus' Passion is also his glorification, his exaltation, inasmuch as it is his obedient acceptance of the Father's infinite love and his sharing it with all men and women.  In Jesus crucified, according to the expression in the Letter to the Colossians (cf. 1:15), he also saw the living image of the Father, the perfect icon of the invisible God.[31]
As Passionists we believe that the answer to the challenges of today is the Memoria Passionis, but just as we accept the twofold nature of the pastoral challenge (the hunger for justice and the absence of God), so we must understand the twofold nature of the Memory of Christ's Passion.  Our "Passion-remembering" is a refusal to distance ourselves from those in our society who suffer and at the same time an opening of ourselves to relationship with the One who has already come close to them through the Cross.  Our own Constitutions remind us that "the Passion of Christ and the sufferings of His Mystical Body form one mystery of salvation".[32]  For those whose sufferings take the form of life without ultimate meaning or value, lived in isolation from the One for whom they were created, the "promotion" or communication of the twofold remembrance of Christ's Passion takes on a new urgency, which in practice it can often seem to lack.  For what is the Memoria Passionis if not the dynamic making present of that event which opens up the possibility of meaning in human life, putting an end to isolation and bringing about a transforming union.  In our day, can we rediscover that sense of urgency, that sense of the essentials which we see in St Paul of the Cross, where he recognised his own powerlessness to deal with all the evils of his day and opted for a ministry which promoted a transformation which would transcend structures?
A God who reaches out

Saint Paul of the Cross said at the end of his life that if he had his life to live over again, he would preach nothing but the love and mercy of God.  In our ministry, can we present to people of today's world a God who reaches out to them in their isolation and who stands close to them in their pain?  The profound link between the Crucified Christ and the "crucified" of today spoken of in our recent documents can only be fully understood in relation to the profound link between love and suffering which is revealed on Calvary.  In reaching out to technological man and woman, fragile and alone, can we open up the possibility of a relationship with the God of love and mercy who comes close to us in the suffering Christ?
Teachers of Prayer

Our role in the Church as teachers of prayer seems to offer a way of responding to the deepest needs of the society in which we live.  The "loving and sorrowful remembrance" of the Passion of Jesus, of which St Paul of the Cross speaks so often, is both the way out of isolation and the key to the mystery of suffering.  In keeping with the example of our founder, it would seem that perhaps the greatest contribution we can make in responding to the needs of people in Europe today is to specialise in the teaching of prayer rooted in the mystery of the Passion.  Our recent General Chapter states: "Passionist houses must be schools of prayer (cf. Const. 37; 80).  In this way they will sustain each Passionist and enable him to work in his world with confidence."[33]  However, our houses should be schools of prayer not only for Passionists but for others too, just as we ourselves are called to be not just people who pray but teachers of prayer.[34]  The Constitutions remind us that "our Founder urged us to be tireless in teaching others how to meditate in the best and easiest way upon the Passion of Christ" and, recognising the constant need to adapt such a ministry to changes in cultures and mentalities, they recommend that "we should use loving initiative to find new and creative ways of deepening the prayer life of others as well as our own".[35]
Tenderness of Heart

The same Constitutions recognise that "Contemplation of Christ's Passion spurs us on to that continual conversion and penance implied in our Lord's challenge: 'If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me'."[36]  We can only be effective as teachers of prayer if we allow the Word of God to wound our own heart, remembering that "a life of prayer demands that we compare our manner of living with what is required by the Gospel".[37]
Saint Paul of the Cross spoke of the Passion as a remedy for the evils of his day.  It is true penance, conversion of heart at the foot of the Cross, which draws from our hearts that twofold "com-passion" which responds to the challenges of today, a compassion which is tenderness towards God and tenderness towards those who "live in darkness and in the shadow of death".[38]  It is an option for relationship with the God of tender mercy and at the same time an option for tender compassion towards those to whom he seems absent, who often are seeking him without realising it.  By allowing the Word to wound our heart, living in this way a penitential life, we open ourselves to the twofold compassion which flows from the Cross.
Poverty and Solitude lived in Community

Our recent General Chapter calls for a community life which is a "defence against the individualism, activism and consumerism that pervades much of the world today (cf. Const. 69)".[39]  In our own communities, we are aware of the forces of "individualism, activism and consumerism" which cloud our witnessing to Gospel values.  Poverty and solitude lived in community provide a way of overcoming these obstacles to our ministry?
When it comes to the living out of religious poverty, we are often faced with a choice today between effective action and effective witness.  Most congregations began by opting for effective witness, just as many of the new communities do today.  However, with the passage of time, we decide that, in order to act effectively (and efficiently), we need more equipment.  Is it naive to suggest that simplifying the approach would lead to a more effective witness?  According to the Constitutions, "as individuals and communities, we have to avoid whatever does not correspond with the real need for our life and apostolate".[40]  Can we find an approach to pastoral ministry for today which is rooted in the values we profess and supportive of our aims in ministry?  St Paul of the Cross said of poverty that it was "essential for the observance of the other counsels and for maintaining fervour at prayer".[41]  At the heart of our life and our ministry is Passion-prayer, but there is also a Passion-poverty which underpins it.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy today to give a counter-witness by the way we structure our life and the words we use when referring to it.  According to Timothy Radcliffe,

Even the language we use suggests we are sucked into an alien view of the world.  The Prior Provincial becomes part of "the Administration", a sort of chief executive; the brethren become personnel, and instead of a love of poverty we have endless discussions of budgets.[42]
Some years ago, the Conference of Major Superiors of Ireland was able to negotiate a special price for oil for religious communities when it was realised that, put together, the religious form one of the biggest customers in the country.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but are we just another big company, another multinational?  If our poverty is to be a defence and a witness against consumerism, we may have to begin by learning a new language, but we will also have to find new symbols which speak to the people of our day (and to ourselves) of a personal worth which is not based on income and a sharing which does not count the cost.
Another "pervasive" force named by last year's General Chapter was "activism".  Living today surrounded by noise and activity, many people do not know what to do with silence.  In no previous age has artificially-created noise been so omnipresent.  Consequently people can seek solitude simply as a means of recovery from the pressures of modern life.  Our Constitutions tell us, however, that our solitude is to be more than that, because in solitude "we can draw closer to the Father, understand his saving plan, and appraise more objectively secular trends and standards".[43]  Whereas the experience of modern men and women is often one of isolation, we have discovered that solitude is a place of encounter with the Father.  This understanding of solitude means that we do not need to use activity as an avoidance, keeping busy because of a fear of being alone.  We know too that it is this encounter in silence which enables us to look at the society in which we live and see both the seeds of the Gospel which are there and the weeds which would choke the Word.
We are called to live these values in an evangelical community.  It is community life which challenges the individualism of today.  Our communities, if they are places of communion, will provide an environment which supports a life-style that is profoundly counter-cultural.  Through poverty and solitude lived in community, we can give a clear witness to a culture of individualism which would promote self-fulfilment rather than self-transcendence as the aim of human existence.

Prayer, penance, poverty and solitude formed the traditional hallmarks of our way of life.  However, in recent years they have tended to move from being problematic to being largely irrelevant.  We have learned how to let them remain on the pages of the Constitutions and be spoken of in the novitiate, without being brought into any discussions of "real life situations".  But our eighteenth-century hallmarks have a value beyond that of identifying antiques.  These are values which were crucial to our founder and which we need to learn to reinterpret for today.  If we fail to do this, we risk either ceasing to exist or simply keeping our name and becoming another congregation.  But perhaps rather than forgetting all that has gone before and starting again, we can rediscover our life-giving roots, learn from what is being born in our own day, and begin to build a future for our Congregation.

The 1994 General Chapter asked the question: What is the message of St Paul of the Cross for today?  Our task, as Passionists, is to express in our day the lifelong conviction of St Paul of the Cross that God who is love has revealed himself in Jesus Crucified and invites people to enter into a relationship with him.  This is the message our world is waiting to hear, but we can only bring it to others if it has first penetrated our own hearts.[44]  At the heart of our vocation in the church lie certain values which are beyond the conditioning of a particular moment in history, values whose purpose is to enable that message to penetrate our hearts, to fit us for our mission by allowing the Mystery of the Cross to transform our lives.
Can an old community become a new community?  We find that question in the Gospel, where Nicodemus asks, "Can a man go into his mother's womb and be born a second time?"[45]  We know from the words of Jesus that we can be born again, communities as well as individuals, but only if we are open to the work of the Holy Spirit.


    [1]Brian Mulcahy, "Numbers and Age-Structure of Religious of St Patrick's Province - Revisited 1994".

    [2]Mario Rosa, "The Italian Churches", in W.J. Callaghan and D. Higgs (eds.), Church and Society in Catholic Europe in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge, University Press, 1979, p.72.

    [3]Words from the Heart - A Selection from the Personal Letters of St Paul of the Cross, ed. Mercurio and Rouse, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1976, p.14.

    [4]St Paul of the Cross, The Congregation of the Passion of Jesus - What it is and what it wants to do (Studies in Passionist History and Spirituality 1), Rome, Passionist General Curia, 1982, p.16.

    [5]ibid., p.9.


    [7]ibid., p.13.

    [8]cf. Silvan Rouse, Reflections on Spiritual Direction in St Paul of the Cross (Studies in Passionist History and Spirituality, 12), Rome, Passionist General Curia, 1982, p.18.

    [9]Words from the Heart, p.22.

    [10]St Paul of the Cross, op. cit., p.11.

    [11]ibid., p.17.


    [13]ibid., pp.17f.

    [14]ibid., pp.16f.

    [15]cf. Frédéric Lenoir, Les Communautés nouvelles - Interviews des Fondateurs, Paris Fayard, 1988; Pascal Pingault, Renouveau de l'Eglise: Les Communautés nouvelles, Paris, Fayard, 1989.

    [16]Marie-Dominique Philippe, Les Trois Sagesses, Paris, Fayard, 1994, p.386.

    [17]This is my own analysis, based on personal contact with some of the new communities.  After having given this talk, I noticed on re-reading James Sweeney's The New Religious Order that according to a survey of 55 members of St Patrick's Province conducted at the Province Congress of 1988, the three most pressing problems facing religious life were lack of personal commitment, unclear role/identity as religious, and lack of prayer/spirituality (James Sweeney, The New Religious Order - The Passionists and the Option for the Poor, London, Bellew, 1994, p.209), the opposite of which I had listed as characteristics of the new communities.  For another analysis of new religious communities, see Albert DiIanni S.M., Religious Life as Adventure, New York, Alba House, 1994, pp.131-154.

    [18]Timothy Radcliffe, "Inculturation", Review for Religious, September-October 1994, p.654.

    [19]John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 52.


    [21]Passionists before the Challenges of Today's World, 42nd General Chapter, General Program and Decrees, Rome, Passionist General Curia, 1988, p.35.

    [22]José Agustín Orbegozo, Report on the State of the Congregation, Rome, Passionist General Curia, 1994, p.9.

    [23]ibid., p.14.

    [24]Ernest Henau C.P., "The Message of Paul of the Cross for our time", Litterae, sermones et homiliae praecipuae ad Capitulares, Rome, General Curia, 1994, p.36.

    [25]cf. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "Christ, Faith and the Challenge of Cultures", Osservatore Romano (English Edition), 26 April 1995, p.6.

    [26]cf. Henau, op. cit., pp.32f.

    [27]Constitutions, no.2.


    [29]Lettere di S. Paolo della Croce, II, 499, quoted in Constitutions, no.1.

    [30]cf. 2 Cor 4:6.

    [31]Osservatore Romano (English Edition), 19 October 1994, p.13.

    [32]Constitutions, no.65.

    [33]43rd General Chapter, Epistola ad Sodales, p.11.

    [34]Constitutions, no.54.

    [35]Constitutions, no.66. 

The Pope writes in his letter to the Congregation of 14 September 1994:

Faithful to the tradition that they should be masters of prayer (cf. Const. 37), the Passionists will continue to cultivate a strong spirituality that communicates to the many other souls thirsting for perfection a desire to participate in the self-abasement of Christ, in order to be reborn every day to a higher life (cf. Redemptionis donum, 10).  This presupposes attentive listening to God, a task that St Paul of the Cross, in his spiritual testament, meant to safeguard and preserve through poverty, solitude and prayer.  It is precisely by listening to God that we can listen to man, to his suffering, to his hunger for God and for justice.  (Osservatore Romano, p.13)


Passion-prayer lived and taught has always been an important characteristic of our Congregation.  In his letter on "The Spirit of Prayer", written in 1938, the General Fr Titus of Saint Paul of the Cross said of the teaching of meditation on the Passion: "An apostolate of this nature is so proper to our Congregation, that if it is lacking, we are missing the end of our vocation and our Institute has lost its reason for being in the Church."

    [36]Constitutions, no.56.

    [37]Constitutions, no.40.

    [38]Lk 1:79.

    [39]43rd General Chapter, Epistola ad Sodales, p.12.

    [40]Constitutions, no.11.

    [41]Words from the Heart, pp.13f.

    [42]Timothy Radcliffe, "Inculturation", p.651.

    [43]Constitutions, no.54.

    [44]Constitutions, no.9.

    [45]Jn 3:4.