ST. PAUL OF THE CROSS AND ENGLAND
From the Passionist Bulletin of the Holy Cross Province, Number 7, July 1944
Few of us have ever seen England. Despite all the modern facilities of travel, fewer of us ever expect to see it. Fewer still actually will. In other words we are in the same boat as a certain young Italian “self-made” religious, hidden away from the world in a damp cold cell underneath some stairs adjoining one Church of San Carlo in a little town called Castellazzo, Italy. He certainly had never seen England; he didn’t expect to, and actually he never would. Actually, he knew very little about England, this small island far, far to the North, certainly much less than we know about it. He knew only that it was heretical, and that was sufficient for him. For God was singling him out to lead the way, by his prayers, to that country’s conversion. We, as sons of Paul of the Cross, this youthful religious of Castellazzo, have been singled out to follow in the same tradition. Today indications seem to point that England is being disposed for another movement to-ward Catholicism. Our devotion to her cause bears a special significance. The history of Paul of the Cross’ devotion to the cause of England’s reconversion is not long, although, in time it lasted for over a halt century of his life. In his old age, he was to relate to his sons: “It is now fifty years since I began to pray unceasingly for the conversion of England to the faith of its fathers.”
Undoubtedly, it all began early in his youth. Paul as a boy had a great, love for heretics, and his prayers for them were as continual as they were fervent. There was the amusing incident of the young Paul bringing home two abandoned heretical French women, boarding them at the Danei household. Though Paul afterward converted one of the women, the incident, as one of his biographers re-marks, must have caused a good deal of surprise in the village, because Paul was known never to speak to women. The first mention of England as the object of Paul’s love comes in the diary which Paul kept during the retreat immediately after his reception of the habit. This forty-day retreat took place in the Church of San Carlo mentioned above. The entry for Thursday, December 26, 1720, records: “I had the special desire for the conversion of heretics, and especially of England with its neighbouring kingdoms, and I made special prayer for this during Most Holy Communion.” Again, three days later, Paul writes: “… and I had a special motion to pray for the conversion of England; especially since I would that the standard of the Faith be exalted, that devotion and respect, homage and frequent adoration of the most Blessed Sacrament, the ineffable mystery of the Most Holy Love of God might be extended, so that His Holy Name might be glorified in a most special manner.
The desire to die as a martyr, especially for the Blessed Sacrament, there where they do not believe in it, never leaves me.” That it was that God was calling Paul to spend his whole life praying for the return of “Mary’s Dower.” From this time to the end of his life, Paul was to pray “unceasingly” — his own term — for England. This constant devotion of Paul is brought out very emphatically by Venerable Dominic in his introduction to Blessed Vincent Strambi’s “Life of St. Paul of the Cross:” “England was always the country of his predilection. It might almost seem to some who knew him well, as if he had no heart, no feeling but for England. England was always in his thoughts; England was constantly the subject of his discourses; England was always before him in his prayers. For the space of fifty years he prayed for England without intermission.” Elsewhere it is related that throughout the years Paul’s frequent reminder to his children was: “Ah, England! England! Let us pray for England.”
Were all these prayers and exhortations of no avail? As far as we can ascertain, Paul’s constant intercession was not answered in any way, until he had persevered in it for fifty years! Even then the answer was not a glorious conversion of the English; that was many years away. His only consolation came from the fact that God permitted him to see that one day his children would be in England, labouring for the salvation of that beloved country. This was a grace accorded him during one of the last Masses he was able to celebrate. He had obviously been wrapt in ecstasy during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. When Mass was over, he exclaimed in reply to questioning, his face still radiant with joy: “Oh what have I seen? — my children in England, — my religious in England!” If Paul of the Cross had lived many more years, he would have received another very consoling answer to his many prayers. It would have been the joy of seeing that his own love for the return of England to the Church’s fold had taken firm root in the hearts of his sons. They were to consider it as one of the ends of the Congregation, as one of the early commentators expressly states: “God, Who willed to make use of Paul and his Congregation for the conversion of England, put before him the sad condition of that country and incited him to pray for it. It is lawful therefore to infer from this that Paul of the Cross had a special mission to occupy himself with the return of England to the Church, and that this is to be one of the ends for which his Institute is to come into being.” Foremost among the sons of St. Paul with this devotion planted in their hearts comes Venerable Dominic of the Mother of God. This saintly Passionist, whom Cardinal Manning was to call “an Apostle to England,” looked upon his Passionist vocation as appending the special mission to pray and labour for the con-version of England.
Any one of his many letters, written during the thirty years of patient waiting and hoping prior to his arrival in England, is sufficient testimony of this. His labours and triumphs in England, once there, need no recounting. They have well earned him the title of Apostle. This same idea is repeated, even more emphatically, by the biographer of Ven. Dominic: “With the Passionist, this devotion to the great cause of England’s conversion is not a matter of choice, but an integral part of his vocation.” This is what their vocation meant to Passionists before us. Our own vocation likewise entails some devotion to the same cause, for we have received it as an inheritance directly from our Holy Founder. This fact assumes special significance today, for there are many indications pointing to another movement in England toward Catholicism, similar to that of the last century in which other Passionists played so great a part.
The Sword of the Spirit movement, inaugurated by the late Cardinal Hinsley, echoing in as full cooperation as possible with the Religion and Life movement among the Anglican and Free Churches, has opened the eyes of many Protestants, and is leading the field in dispersing existent prejudice against Catholicism. More-over, the Sword of the Spirit, co-operating on all the Social Reforms, will create an amity and understanding that may well influence the predicted and long-awaited Protestant Revival after the War. Then, of course, there is the war. War time, asserts one prominent authority, is nearly always a time for a return to God. That is the basis of the predicted Protestant Revival to follow the War. And we might say, the more intense the struggle, the more far-reaching the revival. If that be true, England’s return to God should be as far-reaching as some think, for few peoples have ever suffered what the British were subjected to earlier in the War. The outstanding work, during this time, by the English Catholics and the Church, will have more influence in drawing converts, perhaps, than any other factor in the whole War.
And so, times and circumstances are disposing England very favourably to return to the Faith, which God may deign to send her through the instrumentality of our prayers. Moreover, praying for England is a duty in some way incumbent upon as all, since it is included in the complete spirit of our Holy Founder. It is for England that we say the single “Ave” at the end of night prayers. Recited with devotion, this beautiful petition will not fail to have its effect. In conclusion, let us once again recall Paul’s vision, toward the end of his life, of his children in England. Although diligently questioned as to his vision, Paul would say only that he had seen his children in England: “Mi figli in Inghilterre!” But, as his commentators wisely add, he must have seen more than this solitary fact. Did he see the future conversion of that country for which he had so ardently prayed? Perhaps that vision extended up to the present, and he saw England disposed for another movement toward the Faith of its Fathers, — England once again to become “Mary’s Dower,” to glory in the ages of its Faith!