St. Joseph’s Monastery History: Purpose and Nature of the Monastic Life

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Prayer—Solitude—Penance—these are the primary characteristics of the Passionist life. The tenor of the monastic life is still somewhat austere, even since the changes effected by Vatican II; however, the purpose is great—the sanctification of the apostolic missionary. When the Holy See, after careful study, gave final and solemn approval and ratification of the Rule of Paul of the Cross in 1769, the Order was officially charged with a specific apostolate: to preach the Word. As Yuhaus relates, Paul always considered this the primary role of the group of followers he founded. But the perpetual preparation for that role was and is all important:

…the apostolate of the order was entrusted to men whom he formed in a very careful and exact manner. ‘File supreme qualification for his apostolic missionary was not his ability to preach, but rather his ability to pray.…The Passionist life could not be a disjointed effort to preach and then to pray. Nor was it a divided-work project: so many preach while so many pray. The complete ideal of the Order was to be expressed in one and the same man. In Paul’s expression he was to be an apostolic mystic. Paul himself told his Congregation in 1746 that his aim was: “…to form a man who is totally a man of God, totally apostolic, a man of prayer, detached from the world, from things, from himself, a man who can in perfect truth declare himself a disciple of Christ and thus render himself fruitful.”

Against this background, it became obvious that a monastery is absolutely essential to the true following of the Rule. It thus becomes clear why the date of the dedication of the first monastery, September 13, 1868, is recognized as the official establishment of the Passionist foundation in Baltimore. For, until the monastery was opened, the Order had not truly “arrived.”

As Father Anthony Testa, Superior General at the time, had clearly explained to the Fathers who pioneered the establishment of the Order in America, the success of the apostolate is dependent upon the prior formation of the complete Passionist life and spirit. The systematic establishment of the monastic life must necessarily precede the beginning of the mission apostolate. The “life” must come before the “work” if the work is to be effective and lasting. Further, the monastic life, continually lived without undue interference or diversions, is necessary to sustain a truly fruitful apostolate.

A writer for the Baltimore Catholic Review in a 1964 article clearly and concisely expressed the interrelation of the monastic and apostolic life of the Passionists:

“The ideal of a Passionist Monastery . . . is that the Monastery he a nerve center of intense spiritual activity, where the Religious live a life of close union with God through the full liturgy, long periods of mental prayer and constant study, and then serve as adequately equipped preachers, teachers, counselors and spiritual guides for all classes in the Church.”

The austerity of the monastic life has diminished considerably in the Twentieth Century, particularly since Vatican II. However, when the monastery was first opened in 1868, the complete traditional Monastic Horarium (daily schedule) in use at the time was put into effect. This meant rising at midnight for the chanting of matins and lauds (the midnight office), followed by an hour of mental prayer; the chanting of the entire Divine Office, spread throughout the day, and several additional lengthy periods of mental prayer and meditations. When he dedicated the new monastery in 1886, Cardinal Gibbons spoke these poetic words about the monastic life of the Fathers:

“…Remember, the Passionist Fathers are not only apostles by preaching, but also by prayer. They are accustomed to rise at midnight to recite their devout prayers. When the city of Baltimore is buried in slumber these holy men are raising their voices to Almighty God to protect us from all evil and to shower His blessings upon us, …and, much as we are indebted to them for their ministry, we owe them even more for their prayers. They are our moral police, protecting us by their prayers from those spiritual enemies which go about like the roaring lion, seeking whom they may devour.”

Gradually, as the normal pace of life quickened and the work of the apostolate increased, the rigorous monastic routine was lightened. Nevertheless, until recently, the midnight office was a daily feature of monastery routine; the chanting of the Divine Office and extensive mental prayer are still required in every Passionist monastery.

Today, in view of the spirit of renewal permeating the life of the Church, the horarium is currently in a state of flux. Experimentation, re-evaluation and adaptation are taking place in all areas of the Passionist life in an effort to determine the most suitable and efficacious manner in which to live the Rule within the context of the modern world.

Always present during these various periods of adjustment was the admonition not to effect any changes which might violate the true spirit of the Rule as it was conceived by Paul of the Cross. Great care was taken not to diminish the contemplative aspect of the life to the resultant detriment of the apostolate.

According to the monastery’s current rector, Father Flavian Dougherty, the current experimentation within the Order is an attempt “to meet the apostolic demands of this age and at the same time preserve the necessary spirit of liturgical prayer and contemplative spirit.”

It is interesting to note, in the light of the current emphasis on the efficacy of liturgical prayer, that the Passionists in the practice of their monastic horarium, have always stressed this. Their training and life have traditionally interpreted their role as that of “representatives of the entire People of God.” Their emphasis has always been on the welfare of all mankind as well as in personal sanctification. This is the whole reason for the sanctification of the day through services in the community.

The rigors of the Passionist monastic life, even today, are not to be denied. But from this life are the souls of missionaries formed. A century of dedicated service bespeaks the values of living the Rule. The spiritual lives of thousands of men, women and children have been enriched by the spirit and zeal pouring forth from the minds and hearts of these men whose lives are daily fulfilled in this stately building on Frederick Avenue.

The words of the Most Reverend A. G. Cicognani, D.D., then the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, on the occasion of the Passionist centenary in America in 1952, are appropriate here: “Only the Almighty fully knows and appreciates the good that has been accomplished for His glory and the salvation of souls.…”