Saint Paul of the Cross

On this beautiful morning here in Rome, I had the chance to visit the tomb of the saint that we celebrate today.  Now, not being in upstate New York, I was not able to go to the shrine of the North American Martyrs, who feast also falls today, October 19.  So, Saint Paul of the Cross it is!

Paul of the Cross is an 18th Century Italian saint, and founder of a religious community called the Passionists, whose priests and sisters also have a presence in the United States.  He is buried at the Basilica of Saints John and Paul, on the Caelian Hill in Rome, built on the site of an old Roman house-church.
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Lets get a few names right: Saints John and Paul do not refer to the Apostles John and Paul.  They are Roman martyrs from the 4th Century, whose names are mentioned in the Roman Canon/Eucharistic Prayer I (John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian).  At the Basilica is buried Saint Paul of the Cross, the 18th Century saint (not to be confused with Saint John of the Cross, the 16th century saint).  Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing!

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Saint Paul of the Cross, then, was born in Liguria (north-western Italy) in 1694.  After a vision and consulting his bishop, he took the habit and formed a religious community dedicated to the Passion of Our Lord, especially dedicated to care for the poor and sick.  He came to Rome in 1721 to work on approval from the Holy Father, which he obtained 20 years later.   He worked throughout Italy and established a community at Saints John and Paul Basilica.

As I walked into the Basilica to pray at the tomb this morning, I was struck by the painting which is above the high altar (the altar in which the saint is buried).

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What strikes me the most about this image is that it is not our Saint who is embracing Christ on the Cross, but rather Christ on the Cross embracing him.  Saint Paul of the Cross was very much aware of his great need of Christ, of his dependence on the Love of the Crucified.  He lived a life of great humility about himself at the same time as God worked great things through him.

Saint Paul of the Cross lived the same experience that Mother Teresa lived, as recounted to us in the book Come Be My Light.  Mother Teresa’s powerful, foundation experience of Christ’s invitation to be His light was followed by an intense period of spiritual darkness that lasted 50 years.  In that book, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk notes that the only other saint with that kind of a prolonged “dark night” was Saint Paul of the Cross, who lived for 45 years in the same condition.

Indeed when the cross of our dear Jesus has planted its roots more deeply in your hearts, then will you rejoice: “To suffer and not to die,” or, “Either to suffer or to die,” or better: “Neither to suffer, nor to die, but only to turn perfectly to the will of God.”  –Paul of the Cross

Reading about this experience can make us wonder why Christ would allow something like this.  Why does God not only allow us to experience His presence, but also his absence?  This seeming injustice could seem to lend fuel to the fire of those atheists who reject God because of the great suffering that He allows (but if He doesn’t exist, I don’t know how He could allow it).

It is not fair for us to judge these saints from the outside, though.  Reading the book about Mother Teresa’s experience, we see that while her experience of darkness continued, she did not grow resentful or angry with God.  Her love increased, which is the sign that God-who-is-love was present.  Even if she was not allowed to experience this light for so many years, we are all amazed at the amount of people who did experience the light of God through her.

And so that phrase “Come be my light” is really apt: the light-bulb does not enjoy the light it gives off, but the rest of us do.  Mother Teresa or Paul of the Cross did not feel “cheated” by this experience of darkness.  They knew that they were united to the God who took on not just some of the darkness of this world, but all of the darkness.  In their experience of the Cross, they fell deeper in love with Crucified, who held them and embraced them during their extra-ordinary mission.

The “proof” of the origin of this mission in and for the Church comes from the fact that the darkness and dryness did not shrivel these saints up, did not make them closed in on themselves–as so often happens with us, with me.  Let us listen to Saint Paul of the Cross from today’s Office of Readings:

Live in such a way that all may know that you bear outwardly as well as inwardly the image of Christ crucified, the model of all gentleness and mercy.  For if a man is united inwardly with the Son of the living God, he also bears his likeness outwardly by his continual practice of heroic goodness.

Of course, all of us encounter the Cross in our lives.  We cannot avoid it, and it generally gets worse when we do try to avoid it.  Whether or not that Cross becomes a Holy Cross is up to us co-operating with the Love of the Crucified, the giver of every good thing.  Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Paul of the Cross, pray for us!

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