St. Joseph’s Monastery History: The “Conflict” In America

The primary apostolate of the Passionists is to communicate “the vivifying word of God;” to be “devoted and worthy heralds of the Kingdom of Christ and Him crucified.” Simply stated: to “live and preach the Passion of Christ.” The Rule of St. Paul, which outlines their way of life in detail, forbids the performance of any work which would in any way interfere with this prime duty.

However, there is an exception to every rule. Such an exception to the Passionist Rule was necessary when the Order first arrived on American soil in the mid-Nineteenth Century. The year was 1852. Waves of Catholic immigrants were swarming into the country. There was a desperate need for priests and parochial organization. All the bishops were besieging Rome with requests for aid to meet the spiritual and social needs of a mushrooming laity.

The administration of the Order at this time was in the hands of the very capable and perceptive Father Anthony Testa. The Superior General was a man of vision and courage. Yuhaus attributes to him “remarkable goodness and prudent judgment,…devotion to duty and unlimited zeal.” Anthony of St. James, as he was known, could foresee the graces to be showered upon the world through the work of the Order, and had the faith and daring to accept the challenge of an invitation to establish the Passionists in America at a very critical time in their history. They had recently suffered a severe setback in Australia, were having their problems in England, and the unstable political situation in Italy made the whole future there uncertain. The Order was in short supply of men and money. Nevertheless, the “zeal and energy” with which Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh issued the invitation, overcame the hesitation of the General. Father Anthony simply could not refuse him his request for help and thereby deny the Order the opportunity to spread the blessings of the Passion to the New World.

However, this necessitated a grave decision. The invitation was to establish the Order in the land, but the immediate help sought was in the area of parochial administration. This was the critical need of the American Church at this time. Was this not sufficient reason to make a temporary exception to the strict adherence to the Rule in a particular situation? There was speculation at this time, possibly strengthened by the Australian failure, over the adaptability of the Rule to a land so different from Europe. Maybe the Passionist spirit and life could not be as effective among the unfamiliar environs and cultures of other continents. Throughout his entire tenure as General, Father Anthony held firm to the belief that the Order was adaptable to every nation and time. His vision was clear. The flourishing condition of the Order in the United States is evidence of this.

The final revision of the Rule, approved shortly before Paul’s death in 1775, clearly stated that “None of our religious shall undertake the duties proper to parish-priests.” Provision was made, however, for the Superior General to make exceptions in urgent situations. Such was the background of the situation which Anthony of St. James faced in accepting the American proposal. The General decided then that the crisis was supreme, and that the Passionists were justified in sharing some responsibility for alleviating it. Nevertheless, they must ever be mindful of the fundamental purpose of their coming: in the words of Anthony of St. James, “to establish the Order in America according to the prescriptions of the Rule.” This was so stated in the agreement with Bishop O’Connor. The constant prohibition, as Yuhaus puts it, was this: “Whatever works were undertaken, they could not interfere with, inhibit or destroy the primary purpose: that the Rule and spirit of Paul of the Cross in its entirety take root in the new soil. This could be done only through the orderly establishment of a fully operative monastic community.”

Having decided upon the necessity in this exceptional work, the General clearly admonished that it be done well: “…it is necessary that this office should be fulfilled in its entirety, so that neither bishops nor parishioners may have any just grounds for complaint.”

The situation called for keen insight into the problems of a country with which the Passionists were unfamiliar, continual re-evaluation of and periodic decisions on a constantly changing situation, a delicate and proper sense of balance and a finely developed sense of tact and diplomacy. Possibly no lesser man than Anthony Testa, rightly renowned as the “Second Founder” of the Order, could have accomplished so successful a movement from such a set of circumstances.

So it was in this context that the pioneer Passionists labored in the initial foundations in America. Parochial duties were accepted until a monastery could be erected, then the life of the Rule was firmly established, after which additional “exceptional” work was accepted whenever and wherever it clearly would not interfere with either the monastic life or the mission apostolate. The enormity of their task and the success these men achieved in this primary apostolate is all the more remarkable when viewed in terms of the language barrier. Not only were they shouldering the additional responsibility of parish work, but they were laboring in a country whose language was completely foreign to them.

An additional major prohibition which endured was the insistence that the administration of no parish was to be accepted on a permanent basis. Naturally, this policy caused some hard feelings, due both to misunderstanding of the purpose and Rule of the Order and to anxiety over the serious plight of Catholicism in this part of the world at the time.

Worthwhile and necessary work performed under difficult and trying circumstances always adds lustre to the history of any group. Only Almighty God, and the Passionist Fathers to a lesser degree, can appreciate the peculiar conditions which encumbered the Order’s initial contribution to the American Church. However, it is not difficult to understand the scruples of conscience which can burden a dedicated man bound up in an apparent contradiction. Anthony of St. James had grappled with the problem long and intimately before reaching his decision. His correspondence of the time showed the depth of this introspection, the firmness of his conviction that he had embarked on the right course, and his clear understanding of the limitations of his decision on the parochial apostolate.

To a young priest, who had written directly to the General, so anxious was he over the resolution of the problem in his own mind, he reflected:

“…The bishops invite everyone to come to their assistance; how can we refuse them? …the considerations… are not new to me; I have already pondered them well before God, and they are not sufficient to let me come to the determination of forbidding the taking of parishes…in America we are still in the beginning and in the beginning there are always difficulties to meet expecially (sic) in things which have for object the glory of God and the salvation of souls.”

In another instance, he wrote to Father John Dominic Tarlattini, the first Provincial in the United States: “Keep in mind the two great purposes expressed in the beginning of the Rule: personal sanctification and the salvation of the neighbor. The one must help, not destroy, the other.”

The record is proof of the dedication with which the Fathers carried out this directive. Yuhaus states the meaning and effect of the “solid establishment of the Order in America”:

“The fundamental principle of the entire achievement was that blending of the Passionist spirit with the American temperament and character, an ideal so desired and insisted upon by Anthony Testa. Without sacrificing anything of the Passionist life, Tarlattini accepted and developed what was strong and good in American youth, producing no mere mimic of an Old World institution, but a new, vital extension of the Passionist Congregation in a new society.”

As details related in previous pages have shown, the establishment of the Baltimore foundation at St. Joseph’s followed the procedure formulated by Father Anthony and continued by his successor, Father Peter Paul Cayro, who was the General at the time of the Fathers’ arrival in Baltimore. Nevertheless, since the first Passionists to come to the Archdiocese were members of a mission band from an already established American foundation, local Catholics were exposed to the primary work of the Order before the Baltimore foundation was even established.

On March 5, 1865, Archbishop Spalding presided at the formal opening of the first of literally thousands of parish missions which have been conducted by the Passionist Fathers for the people throughout the Archdiocese. In 1855 some 120,000 Catholics were entrusted to the care of the Baltimore See. Thirteen years later there was a mere handful of priests and brothers at the first St. Joseph’s Monastery to meet the need of preaching Christ Crucified to an ever-increasing Catholic population. Today, 38 priests and three brothers make up the local community, helping to serve the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s half million Catholics in some 129 parishes, 23 missions and 177 chapels (1965 figures).

The primary apostolate—to communicate the Word—has been accomplished most extensively through parish missions and retreats. The distinct nature of the Passionist parish mission is outlined in the official anniversary book for the American centennial in 1952:

“There is no mistaking a Passionist mission from its solemn opening to its dramatic closing—pastor bearing the mission Cross up the aisle of the church—enthroning the large Crucifix on the mission platform under the shadow of which the missionary preaches sermons on the Eternal Truths and the Commandments; Communion and Confession; God’s Mercy and the Passion of Christ—concluding each sermon with an appeal to the Crucifix—the mission closing with the faithful, lighted candles in hand, renewing their baptismal vows—and the Apostolic Blessing with the image of Our Saviour.”

In this apostolate, too, the liturgical renewal of Vatican II and other significant trends in the church are having their impact. Consequently, there is at present much study, experimentation with adaptation of the traditional Passionist Mission. All of this is calculated to make the mission a more effective instrument for communicating the saving Word of God.

Just as much a part of the apostolate as the preaching of parish missions is the conducting of retreats -for the laity and the Religious. Paul of the Cross always insisted that facilities be available at all of the Order’s foundations for those who desired to “retreat” from the outside world for a period of private contemplation and prayer. Closed retreats and days of recollection have been a part of St. Joseph Monastery’s activities since the beginning of the foundation, but only on a modified basis until recently because of a lack of adequate facilities. Through the new addition of the Spiritual Center, these are now weekly events.

Both the late Pope John XXIII and the present pontiff, Paul VI, have instructed the Order to increase the specific work of its primary apostolate. With the opening of the new Spiritual Center, St. Joseph’s has been able substantially to heed this wish of the Holy See, thus the Center has been widely used for experimentation with new forms of spiritual exercises.

The varied programs of the Center now include retreats and days of recollection for men, women, married couples, priests, Sisters, high school and college students and single young adults. The facilities and personnel of St. Joseph’s Spiritual Center have also made important contributions to other programs, such as the Cursillo movement, the renewal of the Holy Name Society, and the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Men. During the first year of its existence, Father Earl Keating, Director of the Center, reports that some “1,500 people: men, women, boys, girls, Sisters, Brothers, priests and ministers, Catholic and non-Catholic have participated in different religious experiences at the Center.” Special events during this time included a retreat for the deaf and the previously mentioned ecumenical retreats for priests and ministers.

A very important segment of the Passionist retreat work is the area of retreats for Religious-a highly specialized field. In this work the Passionists have distinguished themselves not only by their preaching, but also by their kindly counseling, in and out of the confessional-a most important part of this apostolate.