FATHER FRANK’S LOG: 25th JUNE – 2nd JULY
This week, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we also celebrated the 150th Anniversary of the Canonization of Saint Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists. During my diaconate year in Rome (1982-83) I had the privilege of visiting most of the places connected with St. Paul of the Cross including the house in Ovada where he grew up; the church sacristy in Castellazo, where, during a 40-day retreat, he kept a spiritual diary and wrote the first Passionist rule; the peninsula of Monte Argentario where the first ever Passionist Retreat of the Presentation was established; and of course, throughout that year, I lived in the Passionist Retreat of Saints John and Paul in Rome where Paul spent the last years of his life, and where he died on 18th October 1775. It was a wonderful opportunity to steep myself in the story of our holy founder before coming home to be ordained in St. Mungo’s on 18th June 1983.
My most vivid memories revolve around little rooms. The first little room was in Ovada where he lived and grew up with his family, the room in which his mother used to frequently hold up a crucifix for him to gaze on and talk to him about how much Jesus loved him and suffered for him, and of how the cross was a remedy for all sorrows; the second little room was that tiny sacristy in the Capuchin Church of St. Charles in Castellazo where Paul made his 40-day retreat. The diary he kept, recording his physical and spiritual experiences during that time, has become a spiritual classic, and he also wrote the first rule of the Congregation before he ever had any companions to live it, but the words came from the heart, he said, and it was as if the Holy Spirit were dictating it all to him. It was a cold and damp little room, but it fascinated me, and what captured my imagination most was the little desk and chair where he actually did the writing that was later to become so much a part of my own life.
The third little room was on Monte Argentario, in the first ever Passionist Retreat. I had gone there to make my own retreat before being ordained a deacon in December 1982. There was a cell (which is what monastery rooms are called, just in case you think he was in prison), and it bore the name of Paul of the Cross on it, a tiny little room no different from the rooms of the other religious, and very sparsely furnished, just as it was in his own time. Of course, I could contrast that with the wide-open space of the mountain and, as it so happened, the week of my retreat was one of dramatic thunder and lightning storms, and I would go out onto the mountain and feel the power of God, and imagine Paul himself on that mountain crying out to God in the face of the many struggles he faced in getting that first monastery built.
The fourth little room was back in Saints John and Paul’s in Rome, the ground floor room to which Paul was moved during his final sickness unto death. In an alcove leading from that room there is an altar, and each day, while he was still able, Paul was helped by his brethren to that altar to celebrate Mass. One of the things a fledgling priest has to do in his diaconate year is to practice celebrating Mass, so that you know what you are doing when the time comes, and can do it with due respect and reverence. And so, perhaps the greatest privilege I had, was to be able to retrieve the key to that little room whenever I wished, and practice celebrating Mass in the very same little space, and on the very same altar, where St. Paul of the Cross celebrated Mass daily, and indeed celebrated his final Mass before his death.
Out in Bishopbriggs where our Passionist community now live, I occupy a little room, the smallest of the four bedrooms, but you know, wonderful things can happen in little rooms.
“When you are alone in your room, take your crucifix, kiss its five wounds reverently, tell it to preach to you a little sermon, and then listen to the words of eternal life that it speaks to your heart; listen to the pleading of the thorns, the nails, the precious Blood. Oh, what an eloquent sermon!" (St. Paul of the Cross)