Are all Passionists Saints?

A November 1, 2001 All Saints Day Sesquicentennial reflection on reading and summarizing obituaries of deceased Passionists in St. Paul of the Cross and Holy Cross Province

Think of a Passionist who has died. Would you consider him to be a saint? November 1, All Saints day is an opportunity to recall the saintly lives of people who normally do not have a place in the holy calendar of the Catholic church. What determines sanctity? Is it a life of prayer? Is it a living with a life of suffering? Is it offering a life of service? Is it raising a family? Some time ago I heard the statement that Pope John Paul II has named the most saints ever.

While these thoughts might be worth pondering on All Saints Day, I would suggest that as the United States Passionists prepare to celebrate the Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia on Labor Day 2002 we stop to reflect on who might be a Passionist saint? However, rather than be tempted to fall into the trap and name such a person I wish to stimulate reflection on Passionist sanctity by offering a short reflection on what it has been like to read and summarize the obituaries of deceased Passionists from St. Paul of the Cross Province and Holy Cross Province. To date I have had the chance to conduct this exercise on Passionists who have died during the months of September, October, November and December. To read these I wish to remind you that you can go to the Passionist Historical Archives website at

The point of this sesquicentennial reflection is to point out that Passionist obituary writing has changed from the 1800s to the present. This has surprised me. For example, we must remember that up until 1906 all Passionists in the United States belonged to one province. It appears that obituaries up until that time, and to some extent, until the 1920s were written and preached for internal use only. There were only several hundred Passionists during these founding years. There were few monasteries. Though traveling was not easy, chances are that many Passionists had met one another. A key element was determined by the fact that the monastery in Pittsburgh was the novitiate. It served as a common experience. At the same time it is very clear that for those Passionists who were to study for the priesthood, the study period after profession of vows until ordination was conducted in several monasteries. The expressed purpose was to keep the common prayer and office vibrant. In general, priests and missionaries went out while the students, priests and brothers at home kept the prayer life active. This process continued until the immediate post-Conciliar period of Vatican II in the 1960s. From my perspective it seems to emphasize that many Passionists did have a chance to meet each other during their life time. So what?

My impression is that, over time, the level of familiarity about deceased Passionists changes. While more in depth study is necessary, I have picked up some themes that may be appropriate meditation for All Saints Day. The pre-1900 obituaries indicate familiarity with the individuals. For instance, a person’s intense anger or moody temperament was not hidden. It was stated along with the statement that prayer helped ease those moods. Catholic family was important. Immigration was a key experience. Families were for the most part working class. Grade school education is noted. Many future Passionists were trained in the Passionist Prep Seminary High School at St. Mary’s, Dunkirk, New York prior to 1900. Piety, devotion, common prayer, preaching, public acclaim, and ethnicity mattered a great deal. It was important to be a good confessor. There is a marked distinction in tone between an obituary of a priest and a brother. Both did have character, but it is clear that the priest held more social status. Disease such as the flu or tuberculosis often cut short the life of a priest or brother. Death more frequently than not took place in the monastery. There is an intimacy of death that comes through the obituaries. The elderly Passionists, by 1900 are esteemed because of their link to the early founders. It was important in the obituary to note how the man first heard of the Passionists. Clearly one was leaving the world.

Between the 1920s and the 1940s Passionist obituaries describe the importance of ministry. Beginning in 1908 the United States ceased to be a mission territory under the care of Propaganda Fide in Rome. The Passionists of the 1920s and 1930s had the zeal necessary to plan and promote growth. Vocation was a gift to possess and share. Religious life was life giving for the religious community itself and the church. Their escapades as preachers, military chaplains, or Passionist superiors and leaders are woven throughout the obituaries. There is a sense of drama that makes them bigger than life as compared to the pre-1900 period which tends to reflect the intimacy of life in the monastery and outside.

From the 1940s until Vatican II the cult of priesthood predominates. A kind of proof-text Scripture is employed. The priest is the other Christ. The Mass and priest are the center of attention for almost the first page. Knowledge of the religious appears to develop a secondary role to the sacredness of the priestly office. References to St. Thomas Aquinas are common. Still, once this ritual of obituary respect is completed there is a realization that professionalism of the priest in administration, preaching, wider service to the church and the apostolate carries weight. Based upon these obituaries it is clear to see the dominant and sacred theology of priesthood which was at its height by Vatican II in the 1960s.

From the 1960s until the 1980s there is a sense of lived reverence for the Passionist priests and brothers. Catholic culture still matters, but it is plain to see that an era is ending. Passionists are living longer. Passionists often had served the province in numerous capacities.

Obituaries of Passionists who have died between 1990 and 2001, in my opinion, have been less fun to read. In some cases one gains little insight into the deceased. His life is presumed. One gets the impression that scriptural reflection supercedes understanding of ministry. One is sometime left with the realization that some sense of overall life perspective is missing.

I have written enough. Be clear that I am not making a judgment on what type of obituary is more appropriate. My point is to note that Passionist obituaries do offer a keen insight into the sanctity of Passionist life. On this All Saints Day we might think about the relationship between Passionist life and sanctity.

Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Historian and Director of The Passionist Historical Archives.
November 1, 2001

Please contact me at [email protected] if you have any comments.

Copyright Passionist Historical Archives 2001. All rights reserved. Permission of Archives needed for publication.