The holy death of St Paul of the Cross


The death of a Saint
In early 1775, Paul began to grow weaker and from day to day the aged Saint lingered on, growing weaker in body, however continually stronger in soul; for it seemed from the spirit of his conversations that as the bonds of his earthly tenement were being loosened, his soul was becoming the more free to give itself to thoughts of heaven.

Father John Mary returned from his mission on the 7th October, and the Saint welcomed his confessor with the affection which the benefit he was to be to him inspired. He confessed on the same evening, and prepared himself to receive the sacrament of Extreme Unction on the next day. His end was evidently approaching, but somehow he contrived always to receive the rites of the Church on feasts of our Lady, and the illness itself seemed to conform itself in its attacks to the gratifying of these pious wishes.

The 8th October, 1775 was the Feast of the Maternity of our Lady, and he arranged that he should be anointed after vespers, when the whole community might, without inconvenience, be present. He recalled his confessor to request him to recommend his soul when in the last agony, and to give him absolution. On the morning of the 8th he called the Venerable Vincent Strambi (now a Saint -editor) to his room, and begged him to prepare him for the sacrament he was about to receive by recalling to his mind its efficacy and fruits.

When the sacrament was being administered, the Saint remained immovable with his hands joined before his breast, and totally absorbed in the great action in which he was engaged. As soon as the religious left his cell, he requested Brother Bartolomeo "I will allow nobody to visit him except the fathers and brothers; because he wishes to be alone with God and his brethren during the time that is yet remained to him." For some days he suffered intensely, but the calm and heavenly repose of his exterior gave no index of the pains he endured.

On the Feast of S. Luke, October 18th, 1775, he asked for holy communion, and received it fasting. He wished to have no strangers admitted on that day; but the lay-brother thought he should make an excep­tion in favour of the Bishop of Scala and Rovello, and a monk of S. Gregory who was accompanied by a gentleman from Ravenna. To these the Saint spoke a few words, gave a little brass crucifix, and pointed to it with a peculiar expression-for he would preach Christ crucified to the last. When the monk was retiring from his visit, he said, "That face breathes sanctity. Happy those religious-they have a saint. Yes, truly he is a saint."

Monsignor Stuzzieri, Bishop of Todi, and once our Father Thomas of the Side of Jesus, wrote a few days before this date, requesting the Saint not to die until he saw him. When he heard the letter read, he said, with a smile, "Yes, write to him to say that I shall wait for him." The Bishop arrived about midday, a few hours before the Saint breathed his last, When he came, he went straight to the cell of the sick man, who, feeble as he was, would have tried to show the external marks of respect which were due to the Episcopal character, had he not been prevented by his spiritual Son's kissing his hand. The Saint said, "I am delighted to see you in such good health," and then he gave expression to the affection with which he always regarded the zealous Bishop. When his lordship left the room, the Saint called the Rector, and told him to see that he and his attendants were treated with all attention.

About the time for vespers he began to feel the chill of death. He then asked to he turned in the bed, so that his face could be towards the crucifix. Then he said, "Call Father John Mary to assist me, for I am very near death." The brother said that the doctors had given a favourable opinion of him that morning, and that there was no appear­ance of immediate death. He replied, "Yes, there is; please call Father John Mary." The brother was still uncon­vinced; he sat down beside the bed, and rejoined, "But, Father, do you not die cheerfully for the love of God?" The Saint calmly but earnestly answered:
"Yes, I die most readily to fulfill the Divine will." He put out his hand then, and, pointing to the crucifix and the picture of our Lady of Dolors, said, "In these are all my hopes--the Passion of Jesus Christ and the Sorrows of Our Blessed Lady." The brother remained until vespers were over, and then he called the Father Consulter to judge of the real state of the patient. As soon as he entered the room, he said, "Let them come and assist me, for my death is at hand." The Consultor, not thinking that the chilliness he felt was the harbinger of death, said to him, " Perhaps you are cold on account of the change in the weather." He replied, "No, no; I am dying; let them come and assist me." His confessor was then sent for, and next came Mgr. Struzzieri; then the whole community came straight from choir to his cell. When they were all assembled, and a few privileged seculars with them, the Father Rector commenced the prayers for a departing soul from the Ritual, and those present responded. The Bishop and the Confessor suggested to him various acts of virtue, which he mentally accompanied. The Con­fessor seeing that death was approaching, gave him absolution, and this was followed by the papal blessing in articulo mortis, and the blessings of the various scapulars, by special delegation from the Pope, and the Generals of the Orders to which the scapulars belonged.

While all the religious were engaged in these beautiful prayers, the Saint was casting his eyes alternately from the crucifix to the picture we have spoken of-our Lady of Dolors, and his countenance was marked with joy and tenderness. His last words, as far as we can gather from the circumstances -for they are not given exactly-seem to have been, "Read me the Passion of our Lord." The Rector began the reading of the Passion, and the Saint lost the use of speech. The impressiveness of the scene before the religious, and the profound calm suffused over the holy patient, made the reading of the simple gospel narrative more touching than usual. All was still, all was quiet, and everyone was waiting for the last agony. Suddenly a glow of celestial brightness lit up the countenance of the dying Saint; he beckoned with his hand as if motioning to somebody to approach, and then closed his eyes never to open them again.

Persons versed in spiritual things said it must have been a heavenly vision, and that when he once had a sight of messengers from heaven he could no more endure to look upon earthly objects. This opinion was confirmed by a vision which a holy soul was honoured with after the Saint's death, in which he was pleased to say that shortly before his death our Lord, His Blessed Mother, St. Paul, St. Luke, St. Peter of Alcantara, Father John Baptist, his brother, the other departed members of the Order, and a multitude to whose salvation he had been instrumental in his ministry, came to escort him to his throne of glory. When his eyes were closed, that expression of happi­ness which his countenance wore was brightened up by every word of the Passion of Christ according to St. John, which the Rector was reading.

The Bishop could not help feeling the importance of the moment, and the long and deep love which he had for the Order, which taught him the way of virtue and nursed him for the position he held in the hierarchy, made him put forth a petition for its in­terests, He said to Father Paul- "when you are in Paradise, remember the congregation which has cost you so many labours, and pray for us your poor children." The Saint made signs to express how gladly he should comply with the request.

The countenance of the man of God assumed a placid calm appearance; he seemed gradually to lose every faculty except that of thinking of heaven, and as the words sublevatis oculis in coelum were read from the Gospel, his soul sweetly departed and went to its rest. He died towards the evening of the 18th October, 1775, at the age of eighty-one years, nine months, and fifteen days. Thus passed out of this world the soul of the holy founder of the Passionists. His life teaches us how to live, and his death animates us to a holy death.

All present, with one voice, exclaimed, "Well, we have now seen how the Saints die." And although the religious were sorrowful at the prospect of losing him, as soon as he was departed, the joy which ac­companied his soul seemed to communicate itself to all who were present at its happy passage.

A messenger was dispatched at once to bring tidings of his death to the Pope, who, when he heard of it; clasped his hands, and exclaimed, "Oh, how happy he! Happy he! He has died on a beautiful day; for we read of St. Luke that he bore in his body the mor­tification of the cross, and this servant of God has been eminently his imitator." He then ordered that his body should not be interred in the common burial­ ground; but that a special sepulchre should be prepared, and coffins of lead and wood; and, moreover, that he would defray all the expenses of the funeral himself.

The body was then clothed in the religious habit, a stole placed about the neck, and a crucifix in the hands; it was then placed upon some bare boards, with a few bricks under it, and ashes sprinkled upon the head, according as the Rule [of the Passionists] directs.

News of his death soon reached the city, and although the Retreat is a considerable way out in the suburbs, crowds came to pay their devotions before the body of one they regarded as a saint. Only a few special friends were allowed to see the venerated body on the first evening, as it could not be removed into the church until about midnight. The religious prayed and watched by the bier all night. It was placed before the high altar in the church in the manner we have mentioned, and four lighted candles were placed around. No sooner were the church doors opened than a crowd assembled, which, in a short time, left scarcely standing-room for a single person in that large basilica. Nobles and plebeians, ecclesiastics and laics, religious and seculars, came with eagerness to approach the corpse, kiss the hands, or take away with them portions of his habit or hair as relics, The devotion and enthusiasm of the faithful would have stripped the body altogether, did not a German cavalier, a great friend of the Saint's, make a barri­cade with benches, and stand inside to touch the body with objects of devotion, such as rosaries and medals etc., and give such relics as he judged expedient.

Masses were said by the fathers and various priests all through the morning, and at ten o'clock the Requiem was sung, at which Cardinal Boschi, titular of the church, the Cardinal Vicar, and several digni­taries assisted. There was a perpetual stream of people flowing through the church all the day long, who wept and prayed alternately as they looked upon the placid corpse, which showed an angelic beauty that made all exclaim, "He was a saint; and oh, how beautiful he is in death!"

On the evening of the 19th, a cast was taken from his countenance, and it was with difficulty, as the day closed, that the Vicar of Rome could clear the church. The venerated remains were then placed in a coffin and carried to a little room at the bottom of the basilica, near the door on the left, where the bones of Cardinal Macchi are now laid. There, in the presence of a notary, who read the act of recognition, the body was stripped of the habit, and it and the linen which touched the sacred remains were cut into pieces, and distributed amongst the people. The body was found to be as flexible as when he was alive, a fragrant odour was emitted from it, and the sacred name of Jesus was found engraven over the heart. All were struck by the beauty of his countenance- it was like nothing they ever saw; it was something heavenly. The body was then clothed in another habit, enclosed in the coffin, with a few bricks under the head and a brass crucifix upon the breast; with it was enclosed a sealed phial covered with lead, containing a Latin inscription, and a short account of the Saint's life. The lid was then screwed down and sealed with six seals-four of the vicegerent's, and two of the congregation's. The room of sepulture was then shut, and the key consigned to the vicegerent.

On the following morning the church was again crowded, and great was the disappointment of the people at finding the body had been removed. Even the Pope, when he heard the coffin was sealed up, appeared displeased, and said they were too much in a hurry about it. It was his intention, it seems. to have the precordia removed; but the fathers, not being aware of this, did not think it right to deviate from the usual custom. Throngs were still seen to come and spend hours before the room in which they knew him to be buried, and when they could get nothing which belonged to him, they cut chips off the door, and treated them as relics.

On the evening of October 21, Mgr. Marcucci and the vicegerent supervised the removal of the coffin into a leaden case, which was sealed like the first. It was then placed in another case of wood, and deposited in a room beneath the spot where an inscription was made in his honor. The sacred remains of St Paul of the Cross remained there until his beatification was decreed in 1852. It was then exhumed and the remains taken to an artist-expert who assembled them and placed a wire gauze mask over the skull. They were then clothed in the Passionist habit and placed under a special altar that was dedicated to him in the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome.

On January 7, 1777, the process of Canonization was opened, remarkably only 2 years after his death. On December 22, 1778, the first of many biographies of Paul of the Cross was written by Passionist friend Vincent M. Strambi (now a Saint). On February 18, 1821, the Formal proclamation of Paul's' heroic virtues were declared, thereby being officially listed as "servant of God". On May 1, 1853, the formal Beatification was declared by Pope Pius IX. On June 29, 1867, St Paul of the Cross is formally Canonized by Pope Pius IX, only 92 years after his holy death. On April 25, 1880, the holy relics of St. Paul of the Cross are transferred in a Solemn procession to a special chapel dedicated to him in the basilica of Saints John and Paul, Rome.

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