Sometimes a friendship with a saint begins in a most unlikely way. For me, it started on a Friday afternoon, as I walked the campus of the large state university where I was a freshman.
My eyes were drawn to big, colorful posters on the lounge windows of one of the dorms: P-A-R-T-Y-! they spelled out—and a big one, too, with college girls coming from all over the state!
That evening I got dressed up in my best blue jeans and angora sweater. as I looked at myself in the mirror, I decided to add a sterling silver cross and chain, a gift from my mom as I left for college. It glistened in the light as I slipped it on over my sweater.
I knew there was something special about the cross—I’d been born and brought up Catholic—yet at that time in my life, I treated it as a kind of lucky charm. I was hoping it would separate me from all the other guys at the party. I wanted some sweet young thing to see it and think, Well there’s a nice Christian guy. Maybe I should talk to him.
The party was packed, as advertised. I was soaking in the music and scanning the crowd for possibilities, when, across the room, I saw her: She had long blonde hair and was drop dead gorgeous. And she was staring at me and my cross! This thing is working like a charm, I thought. They write books about how to pick up girls—this ought to be on page one! Next thing I knew, she was making her way across the lounge in my direction. My pulse quickened.
The beautiful coed came right up to me, looked at my cross, and then looked me in the eye. “Do you know what that cross means?” she asked. “Or are you just wearing it to look good?”
I gave a nervous laugh and began to back away. “Of course I know what it means!” I protested. But really, I had no clue. I was wearing the most powerful symbol of love and holiness—just so I could pick up a girl.
Meeting St. Paul. Through that encounter and many other people and events, God called out to me until I finally surrendered to him. Soon after, I had a dramatic conversion. I was assured of the saving power of the cross for me personally, and I was filled with the Holy Spirit. I had seen crosses and crucifixes all my life. My mother had taught me how to make the Sign of the Cross when I was a little boy. But somehow, I had missed its central message: Jesus died so that I could be forgiven. At the cross, he saved me from sin, destroyed my death, and opened the way to eternal life with God. And he sent the Holy Spirit so that even now, I could enjoy a foretaste of the glories yet to come!
During the months following my conversion, I began to come alive spiritually. I developed a regular prayer life and a personal relationship with Jesus. I began to sense the Holy Spirit working in my heart. And to top it all off, a few years later, God led me to St. Paul of the Cross—a saint whose devotion to Christ crucified would shape my life from that point on.
My introduction to Paul of the Cross happened one summer, a year after I graduated from college. I was spending a month working with the poor in Mexico in a program that was run by the Passionist religious community.
I learned that the founder of the Passionists was a man named Paul Daneo. He grew up in Italy in the early 1700s and, like myself, had a conversion at age nineteen. Hearing a priest preach a simple sermon on the sufferings of Jesus, Paul was so moved that he went to Confession. And during his confession, he had an overwhelming experience of God’s mercy that changed his life.
Daneo was so drawn by the cross that he meditated on the Passion constantly and spoke about it every chance he got. For him, Jesus’ suffering and death were the greatest sign f God’s love. “Immerse yourself in the sea of God’s love,” he would tell people. And he would urge them to go to Confession, where he knew God would touch them as he had been touched.
Shout from the Housetops! Paul Daneo’s experience struck a deep chord in me, for I too had been saved by the cross and felt a burning desire to share its message. In fact, I felt I would burst if I held it in! Now keenly aware of God’s great mercy, I wanted others to receive forgiveness and be transformed, too. It saddened me that many people, especially in my age group, were not going to church and getting to know Jesus in a personal way. Even those who did go to Mass seemed inattentive and uninspired.
Paul Daneo was no stranger to such problems, I found out. In eighteenth-century Italy as well, many had fallen away from the faith. Some of the clergy, too, were affected by malaise and mediocrity, and struggled spiritually. Paul, on the other hand, felt compelled to help others encounter God and received a call to raise up a religious community for that purpose.
At first, Paul wanted to call his new congregation “The Poor of Jesus.” Barefoot and clad in black sackcloth, he appeared on the pope’s doorstep bearing this proposal; he was taken for a derelict and thrown out. After some discernment, Paul realized that he was to focus his community on the very message that had changed his own life: the riches of God’s love, as revealed in the Passion and death of Jesus.
Paul wrote his Rule in just six days, and some years later Pope Clement XIV confirmed it. In the meantime, the eager evangelist was given permission to preach and to gather companions. He was also ordained to the priesthood, so that he could celebrate the Eucharist and hear Confessions—two of the greatest ways that people could meet Jesus personally and experience the love of the One who gave himself on the cross for them.
Energetic and impassioned, Paul traveled throughout the country, finding ways to reach the poor, the sick, and the forgotten with the message of the cross. A fiery and effective preacher, he gave countless retreats and more than two hundred parish missions. He used theatrical effects, movement, and visual aids to hold people’s attention, and he loved pointing to the cross as the centerpiece of his proclamation. “The cross is the miracle of miracles! It is the most astounding work of God’s love!” Countless conversions occurred through his preaching, many of them in the confessional.
Compassionate Guide. As I got to know St. Paul of the Cross, I felt drawn to become one of his companions. I am grateful that this was indeed the path God had planned for me, and I have been a Passionist for twenty-five years and a priest for nineteen. I am especially blessed with many opportunities to preach the cross, including on TV and radio. And sometimes, like St. Paul, I see God’s grace at work to draw people to himself through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Once a man came to me for Confession in New Orleans. “I was surfing the channels and came upon your TV program,” he began. “I tried to switch away and the remote wouldn’t work. I listened to your message about change. I realized that I had drifted far from God, and my life was a travesty. I am here this evening because I want to change.” We celebrated a wonderful Confession with absolution. The grace of God was palpable. That man is on a marvelous journey of conversion. As he was leaving, he smiled at me and said, “I know God wanted me here tonight. As soon as your program was over, the channel changer worked again!”
Since the cross is at the heart of our life, we Passionists profess a special vow. In addition to the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, our first vow is to meditate on the Passion of Jesus and proclaim its meaning. Paul of the Cross knew that the meditation part is crucial. It was in his own contemplation that he grew in intimacy with God. And it was this deep relationship that was the source of his tireless preaching and labors.
Marked by struggles and perseverance, Paul’s prayer life also made him an attractive and charismatic teacher of a spirituality centered on the sufferings and death of Jesus. He was convinced that since salvation came to us through the Passion, meditating on this Passion was the best way we could achieve holiness, draw closer to the Lord, and come to know him personally and intimately.
Paul made this insight practical by teaching people how to meditate on the cross of Christ. He’s the one who taught me how to quiet my spirit and imagine myself present at the Passion, and to ask Jesus questions and talk to him as he lived through these events. I discovered that as you open yourself to his sufferings, you can receive intimacy and passion in ways you had not known before.
I also found St. Paul to be an understanding and merciful guide. His own spiritual life was marked by great penance, discipline, and rigorous austerity, yet he was amazingly gentle with everyone else.
Paul died in 1775, at the age of eighty-one. He died as he lived— surrounded by his brothers as the Passion according to St. John was being read aloud.
Love’s Greatest Sign. St. Paul once had a vision of Our Lady in which she appeared wearing a black robe with a white cross on it. The Passionist habit was inspired by that vision. It is black, in remembrance of Christ’s sufferings. The cross surmounts a heart, and in the middle of the emblem are Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words that mean “The Passion of Jesus Christ.”
This is the sign that I, as a Passionist, wear over my heart today. By the grace of God, I who once treated the cross as a lucky charm have come to know it as the instrument of eternal life and the sign of God’s tremendous love. We Passionists have a saying, and I offer it as my prayer for all of you: “May the Passion of Jesus be ever in your heart!”
Fr. Cedric Pisegna, CP, preaches parish missions across the United States, has written fourteen books, and produces a TV and radio program, “Live with Passion!” that airs in numerous cities. For more information on his ministry, visit www.frcedric.org See also: www. passionist.org