Let Us Pray for Passionist Vocations! A Summary of the Circular Letters on Passionist Vocations by Provincials Stanislaus Grennan (1925) Ernest Welch (1954) and Gerard Rooney (1964)
by Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
On November 1, 2001 Province Vocation Director Leo O’Boyle, C.P. wrote that, based upon on a variety of advertisements and promotions, his office receives approximately a hundred inquiries a year. These three circular letter summaries on Passionist vocation serve as a reminder that attention and concern about making known Passionist religious life and ministry has remained consistent throughout the twentieth century. Several themes link these circulars.
First: While Passionists tend to be described as an apostolic/contemplative community, mature reflection and discussion should lead us to speak of these values in the same breath in a complementary fashion. These are not opposites. Attention has always been given to linking these values.
Second: The twentieth century development of religious life has offered more attention to the vocation of a priest than that of a brother. The 1954 circular brings balance in this area.
Third: The life, prayer, preaching and thought of St. Paul of the Cross has been the inspiration for understanding Passionist identity.
Fourth: Vocational encouragement can be assigned, as in the case of a province vocation director; however, each Passionist needs to be reminded that personal presence, prayer, zeal for the Gospel and the Passionist Congregation is a gift to be shared, not a task imposed.
Fifth: Each circular speaks of crisis. We always need more men! Remember that in 1931 St. Paul of the Cross Province ordained thirty priests. They were known as the “thirty thieves of 1931.” By 1964 the concern is for sustaining the number of Passionists who can minister in an era of dual expansion. On one hand, there is an expansion of Passionist life span, on the other hand there is an expansion of foundations and ministries. It remains worthwhile to reflect on these points. -Editor
1925 Provincial Stanislaus Grennan, C.P.: Mission and Spirit of the Passionist Congregation.
This thirty page pamphlet emphasized “the peculiar spirit” of being a Passionist. Divided into three sections, it was a clarion call to remember the “careful blending of active and contemplative lives” so necessary in living out a Passionist vocation in the 1920s. Using military imagery so familiar in the post-World War I culture, section one urged religious orders to “work for souls” and to see themselves as the “grand auxiliaries of the hierarchy and clergy.” Passionists were to see themselves as “picked battalions.” This was the Corinthian Pauline understanding of the body in Christ. Employing the Passionist Rules and Constitutions, Customs and Traditions, and life of the Holy Founder, St. Paul of the Cross, as the “sources” Passionists were “to preach by our life as well as by our words the hard lessons of the Cross.” For Grennan this was expressed first by the “Active Element.” Living out this aspect of Passionist life meant following the directions for missions and retreats, instruction of Church doctrine, caution against “worldly diversions” and zeal for the world-wide overseas missions. With St. Paul of the Cross and then Blessed Vincent Strambi as models, Passionists were to be “preeminently, preachers of the Gospel, missioners, apostles of Christ and Him Crucified.” Second was the “Contemplative Element.” which entered the very pulse of Passionist daily life through relationships with “seculars,” as most certainly through fast and abstinence, sleeping on a straw bed, the midnight observance of solemn chant and stress on mental prayer. Only through the “interdependence” of the Active and Contemplative would the Passionist vocation come to fruition. Passionist monasteries or “retreats” were to serve as places of “rest and recuperation” so as to “refresh our souls and revive our spiritual strength for “new labors” and “new battles.”
Section two stressed that especially priests should know the “union” between the active and contemplative. Only by “prayer and union with God can he preserve his own soul pure from the contamination of the corrupt world midst which he must labor.”
Section three exhibited the wisdom of Stanislaus Grennan. Living out the above values would be “no easy task. There is, therefore,” wrote Grennan “special danger in our Congregation of neglecting our distinctive mission and of losing our peculiar spirit.” Practical suggestions included: “There is no provision in the Rule for a type of priests who are to do nothing but keep the choir observance. Our Congregation is not divided into two classes, Contemplatives and Apostles.” In addition, priests not preaching missions were still to promote the Passion of Jesus. Passionist seminarians were to “acquire sound learning and higher education needed to speak effectively to the enlightened age and country in which we live” in the distinct houses of study. Passionist brothers stressed a life or prayer and manual work with an emphasis “to give the missioners a comfortable home after their labors abroad.” Grennan considered preaching the “distinctive ministry” of the Passionists. Such was the calling card of the Congregation among the clergy, hierarchy and laity. Because effective priests needed to be prepared, this required time for both prayer and study. While promoting preaching, Grennan did not wish to be “misunderstood.” Knowing that all were not gifted preachers, or others, to their “regret” had other responsibilities he urged each to be “faithful to the work or office assigned to him–superiors of Communities, professors of students, chaplains and pastors as well as missioners.” Moreover, Passionist parishes should be noted for their preaching. Among his practical suggestions for a successful contemplative life was not to become lax or shorten time of prayer. While “there is a danger of exaggerating the importance of the contemplative” it is a greater “distraction” to be more active. The 1925 pamphlet concluded with three points. First, continue to “keep the monastic observance at home.” Second, Passionists were obligated to “zealously” preach the Gospel. Finally, Stanislaus Grennan promoted his own love of the Passionist vocation: the China missions. “Let us be big and fearless in planning and energetic in the execution of our plans for the development of our mission field in China. If big expenditures are necessary, then big begging must boldly be had recourse to.”
1954 Provincial Ernest Welch, C.P. Circular Letter on Fostering Vocations
“It is not to be wondered at, that in an age in which the Church experiences a serious dearth of vocations, our own Congregation should also reflect this need.” Yes! A vocation crisis! So did the Provincial write, after paying brief respect to the Mystical Body of Christ, in his circular letter on vocations. This fifteen-page letter, divided into eighteen subtopics, served as a means to “point out some of the errors which can impede our proper growth” as a religious order. It was a call for Passionists “to unite in a crusade of prayer and action” in order to seek future priests and brothers. While there was an overall need for vocations throughout the Church, due to the “condition of the modern world,” Passionist “expansion” into “vast cities and huge parishes” and other ministries required more members. Still, Passionists had to accomplish this by maintaining enough members to carry on the full monastic observance and continue their legacy of preaching missions and retreats. Only with more vocations could all the requests for priestly ministry be fulfilled. Furthermore, more brothers’ “lives of obscurity and humility” would be an “invaluable asset to every Monastery” both spiritually and manually. To insure this Provincial Welch called for a novel idea. A new formation program for Passionist brothers!
Five errors had to be addressed. Some in the province were thinking vocations were more properly gifts of the Holy Spirit. “It is a delusion, then,” stated Welch “to imagine that priestly and religious vocations do not need to be fostered and encouraged.” Another incorrect notion was that a Passionist vocation would “interfere” with diocesan or other vocations. It was simply not so. Moreover, seeking vocations by way of the sports or other interests was a mistake. “We make a grave error if we underestimate the sacrificial enthusiasm of modern youth.” It was also a fallacy to keep thinking that the Passionist community should be “Few, but good!” On the contrary there should be as many members as possible. Lastly, beware of “indifference” and “apathy” about promoting vocations. It was the responsibility of all, not just a few.
Perspective could be gained by taking St. Paul of the Cross as an example. Due to his zeal and compassion he was known as “The Hunter of Souls.” In addition preachers should take care to remember that encouragement to altar boys and other young men they met on the parish mission was essential. Preaching on the topic of vocations was a must. Of course, such attention was a direct desire to keep sending high school age students to Holy Cross Seminary in Dunkirk, New York. While other religious orders might have recourse to high schools or colleges, Welch believed that Passionist retreat houses were a place of similar opportunity. They should discuss the religious vocations in their talks and have at least a yearly day of recollection for those interested in the topic. Parish priests had a similar obligation as did Passionist seminarians. While “a crusade of prayer and action” was of value, it meant little without “a unified program.” Therefore a Vocational Director was appointed for each monastery. “We will,” summarized Welch, “take advantage of every opportunity to cultivate vocations to our Congregation, on missions and retreats, on Sunday work and other exercises of the ministry, even in our correspondence.”
1964 Provincial Gerard Rooney On Recruiting and Testing Vocations
In response to the First Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations on April 12, 1964 Provincial Gerard Rooney wrote this circular letter. The introduction spoke of a renewed missionary impulse since “Europe and the Americas have been deeply touched with the grace of Jesus.” Still waiting to hear the Gospel were the people of Asia and Africa. In 1964 Passionists in St. Paul of the Cross numbered 598 members: 434 priests, 83 professed students. 81 professed brothers. Still there was “no room for complacency.” While there had been a thankful increase in the number of Passionist brothers, concern was beginning to mount because of the 434 priests more than half, 230, were over age fifty and 96 were over age sixty. Rooney then offered some statistics projecting the number of future ordinations and deaths. A “slow rate of growth” was predicted. This was true even with the advancement of a past life expectancy of forty years as a Passionist after profession to a 1960s expectancy of forty years of ministry after ordination. Again, the reminder of the letter was to be a wake up call. Vocation recruitment was not exclusively the responsibility of vocation directors. Such an “attitude could be catastrophic.” After all, vocations is the concern of all Passionists.
The 1964 circular letter admitted that the desire of one to enter the Passionist Congregation is more of a choice. Intention is critical. “Why does he want to join our Congregation?” Reference to papal documents and the tradition of Paul of the Cross indicated that the answer to the question should not be the pursuit of “fringe benefits” that come with being a priest or religious. Rather the candidate’s answer should reveal a desire to strive to be a saint by means of participation in the daily Passionist life and ultimate love of God. The aim of this is “for the common good of the Congregation.” Clearly, Rooney understands that Paul of the Cross sought out “apostolic men” based upon “the primacy of prayer and contemplation.” Even Paul of the Cross would turn those candidates away who lacked depth to deepen in religious, apostolic and spiritual maturity.
As for the work ahead, Rooney admits that many other options looked attractive to a young man in the 1960s. Still he offered the interpretation that the “Passionist way of life, while asking everything of youth–their courage, stamina, zeal, and loyalty–returns to them…” the charge, “to change and remake the world!” Readers were then reminded of the many effective vocation strategies, such as preaching about vocations, and full-time province vocation directors which had been spelled out in the 1954 vocation circular by Provincial Welch. The circular letter concluded with a twelve point examination criteria written by St. Paul of the Cross in 1752.