Charism (1)

We are very familiar with the term CHARISM and use it frequently when speaking of religious life.  The charism is the originating, core inspiration of the Congregation and the wider Passionist Family.  It is the primary motivation of our life and mission. It is the charism that gives us our distinctive identity and mission in the Church.  The charism can be traced back to the founding intuition of St. Paul of the Cross, who always maintained that it was God who inspired the founding of the Congregation as well as its nature and mission.  The charism, then, is the animating spirit of the Passionists in every time and place.  The clearest expression of what the charism entails for us today is found in the Constitutions of the Congregation, 1984.

 Charism in General

Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium,

“The Holy Spirit enriches the entire evangelizing Church with different charisms. These gifts are meant to renew and build up the Church.  They are not an inheritance, safely secured and entrusted to a small group for safekeeping; rather they are gifts of the Spirit integrated into the body of the Church, drawn to the centre which is Christ and then channeled into an evangelizing impulse.” (No. 130)

Charism (2)

St. Paul used the term charism when referring to the many gifts given by the Holy Spirit for building up the Church.  These charisms are always for the good of the Church.  When applied to the religious life and the many religious families, the term charism also intends to show that religious consecration in its many forms is always for the sake of the Church.  The religious charism signifies the unique way a religious family participates in and embodies a significant aspect of Jesus life and mission.

The term charism became popular after the Council to refer to the uniqueness of the religious consecration when it was no longer possible to do so in terms of a supposed “higher calling” or “more perfect” way of life or a different kind of holiness.  These latter categories were dropped because they were no longer appropriate in the light of the universal call to holiness taught by the Council in Lumen Gentium, Chapter V.

The unique charism of a religious family provokes other questions.  For example, is it possible to discern the particular reason that God chose to offer this gift to the Church and at that time?  It is reasonable to suppose that God’s gift of a new charism is addressed to some particular need to which the charism is the response.  St. Paul of the Cross believed that the message of the Cross was the most powerful instrument for combatting the evils he perceived all around him.   He clearly understood the gift of God as a response to the needs of his times.   The religious charism is a gift of God to his Church as a response to particular needs.  It takes one aspect of Jesus life and mission and makes it the core inspiration of the religious community.

Original Inspiration

Charism (3)

St. Paul of the Cross insisted that he founded the congregation because of the inspiration of God.  He had a deep mystical experience of union with Jesus in his Passion.  He came to a personal conviction that the Passion was an ocean of divine love and a sure remedy for the ills of the world.  This experience of love moved him to heart-felt devotion as well as contrition and sorrow. He was also deeply aware of the sad condition of people who did not know the love of God.  He felt the call to devote his entire life to Jesus in his Passion and to bring others to the same life-changing experience of overwhelming love and compunction.   In the first place, he wanted to gather companions who had a similar experience of God’s immense love revealed in the Passion and the change of life it entailed.  Only then could they go out to the people in need and lead them to Jesus in his Passion.

Charism (4)His Rule of life and the community he founded had this vision at its core.  The Rule was designed to enable the members to live a life that was focused on the Passion of Jesus.  It was a life of prayer, penance and solitude.  This way of life presupposed a heart-moving and life-changing experience of God’s immense love revealed in Jesus’s passion and was designed to build on that experience and to deepen it.   In this way the religious were prepared to share their experience with others and lead them also to know the love of God revealed in the Passion of Jesus.

The early form of life was clearly contemplative in form and content but also had an inbuilt orientation towards the people who were in need of hearing the Word of God and experiencing his love and mercy.  The way of life had as its ultimate goal the mission to the people.  In the mid19th century there was a divisive debate about the primary end of the congregation and a great fear of straying from the original inspiration of the founder.  The contemplative and apostolic dimensions were set in competition.  As a result, the congregation lived with a debilitating inner conflict.

The apostolic dimension of the congregation developed and changed until it became primarily an apostolate of preaching which retained an emphasis on the passion of Jesus and teaching people to meditate on the passion (see Rule, 1775 chapters III, IV, V).  The apostolate also placed a strong emphasis on the sacraments of confession and receiving the Eucharist.  An interesting and practical aspect of the early missions was the healing of conflicts and the reconciliation of enemies.

Throughout this long period from 1720 until 1965 the personality and experience of the founder were felt to be directly accessible in the Rule that was handed down from him.  After that, it became increasingly clear that the forms and structures of life according to the Rule were no longer suitable for Passionists working in large cities, and missions in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  The founder’s intuition needed to be translated into new forms for today.  It is sometimes suggested that we can know the mind and intention of the founder from his writings and actions and so all that is needed today is to mine these writings, discover his intention, and put it into practice.   This naïve view chooses to ignore the complexity of the study of history and the demands of hermeneutics.  The interpretation and re-presentation of the original inspiration of the founder in the new context and idiom of the contemporary world is the challenging hermeneutical task facing every new generation of Passionists.  Since the Council, the Congregation has devoted a lot of energy to the study of our origins but we are not strong on the study and affirmation of the authentic developments of the charism through the ages.  This is particularly true of the new understandings and expressions of the charism that inspire us today in the different cultures of the world.

 History and Change

Until recently most of the categories we used in the study of theology were essentialist and emphasized the abiding and non-changing nature of all things theological.   The charism given to the founder was also understood as something unchanging, inherently valuable and eternally relevant.  As a result of the crisis within the General Council in 1862-1878, the idea of fidelity to our origins took hold in the Congregation as a way of safeguarding the patrimony of the founder.  It was at this time that the first serious requests for greater flexibility and adaptation of the Rule to suit local circumstances were made but were strongly resisted by General government.  It was feared that adjusting to the needs of different societies and countries would alter substantially the nature and character of the congregation.  This cautious approach continued well into the twentieth century.

Today, however, we see things differently.  Theology has a greater appreciation of the historical nature of its categories and concepts.  Revelation is understood as God speaking to us in the particularity of historical languages and events.  There is a greater awareness of inevitable and legitimate change and development that depends on circumstances and situations.  The charism is a theological and evangelical reality and as such it is ever new and surprising.  Today we affirm that the Passionist charism has something of the vitality and newness of Jesus and the Gospel.  It still contains unexplored energy and potential.

Charism (5)

Fidelity does not imply rigidity or inflexible repetition.  Our fidelity today implies sharing in the creativity of the founder.  We too must show something of his openness and originality.  Today we readily acknowledge the need for fidelity to the original inspiration of the founder and accept the challenge to respond creatively to the new circumstances and opportunities of our changing world.

The Congregation has worked hard to find a contemporary and attractive expression of the charism for today.  This has resulted in the approval of the Constitutions 1984.  It will be important for us and useful for all the members of the Passionist family to explore and appreciate more fully the  ‘magisterial ‘ expressions of our charism and spirituality that are found in our fundamental documents.  Here I refer in particular to the Rule of 1775 and the Constitutions of 1984.  I would add to these the General Program and Decrees of the 42nd General Chapter 1988, “Passionists before the Challenges of Today’s World’, which is a significant attempt to express the fullness of our charism in a new idiom for a new situation.  This 1988 document is heavily dependent on the Constitutions of 1984 but adds some important new elements about the mamoria passionis and the option for the crucified of today.  This General Chapter is a significant example of how we can explore the as yet unknown resources and possibilities that are within the charism.  Theology tells us that the Son of God made man wants to be our contemporary.  He asks us to give him the language and clothing he needs to be our contemporary.  I think we must say the same about Paul of the Cross.  In so far as the charism is a gift of the Spirit for the good of the Church, it has the freshness of the Gospel for today.

One of the most significant developments in recent years has been the affirmation that the Passionist charism can be shared with lay men and women.  Already, there are many groups of lay people in every part of the world associated with the Congregation of professed religious in living the charism in a distinctive way.  They not only share the charism with us but also have helped us to appreciate new dimensions of the charism and new ways of being Passionist.  The implications of this greater sensitivity to history and development are revolutionary.  We now affirm that the charism can be lived in different ways.  Not all Passionists live as religious with vows and in community.  The lay members of the Passionist family have shown us that the essential elements of the charism can be expressed and lived in a form outside of the structures and practices of the religious life.

Vatican II and the Call for Renewal

The call for a renewal of religious life at the time of the Council was an acknowledgement that there was need for change.  It was no longer enough simply to repeat or reproduce the writings, rules teachings from the past.  There needed to be a new interpretation and a new presentation of the original inspiration.  The old Rule that could be traced back to the founder was no longer seen as sufficient or adequate as the basic document of the Congregation.

Charism (6)

The Council gave as a principle for the renewal of religious life the return to the original sources in the Gospel and the life of the founder.   A significant development during this period was the belief that the true spirit and meaning of the charism could be found through a study of the founder’s personal writings other than the approved Rule of life.   The argument seemed to be that the old Rule was no longer adequate or relevant because it was the product of a time and place that were far removed from the people of today.  It’s language and structures failed to communicate adequately the true meaning and intention of the founder, which could be discovered in his personal letters and other sources.  Many men were engaged in studying the writings of the founder as well as the early history, the development and growth of the congregation with a view to uncovering the true spirit and intention of the founder.  These writings and translations have been available for many years.  There is a problem of translating this material into some Asian languages, which should be remedied.  Despite the abundance of material available there are still persistent and repeated appeals for more information and knowledge about the founder and the charism. I think this points to a problem about our assimilation of the material rather than a lack of information.

In the post World War II period, there was a greater appreciation of the historical context and conditioning of all forms of life and expressions of belief.   This was true of basic religious beliefs as well as the forms of religious life.  Of course, there was no suggestion that the founding beliefs, inspirations and teachings were no longer valuable or necessary.  The point was that, in this new atmosphere of the modern world, many people could no longer understand and receive the message because the forms of expression were so alien on account of historical distance and great cultural change.  This argument was strongly contested by some people at the Vatican Council who became a formidable minority.  There were also some religious who refused to accept the need to adapt our life in the ways suggested by the Council.  It was claimed that a departure from the traditional and original forms of expression and life would be a betrayal and would lead inevitably to a loss of the original inspiration.  Many point to what has happened within religious life since the council as a confirmation of those fears.

Charism (7)

Another factor that contributed to the new thinking at this time was a growing appreciation of the dignity and freedom of the individual as well as a greater acceptance of the need for a warmer, fraternal community life.  In this context the traditional monastic style of life, with its emphasis on external forms, austerity and frugality, the impersonal and cold nature of life in common, the stern and often military style of authority and obedience, as well as the silence and lack of interpersonal contact and dialogue, was seen as missing something essential for an authentic Christian community of brothers.

Charism (8)

Developments in the study of the scriptures, advances in patristic studies, as well as the liturgical reforms, encouraged by Pope Pius XII, also influenced peoples approach to prayer and spirituality.  There was a new emphasis on personal as opposed to communal prayer.  Older forms of meditation in common were experienced as unhelpful or even oppressive. The austere and penitential way of life, which had once been attractive to some Catholics, was now seen as unnecessarily harsh and in some respects inhuman.  Traditional forms of penance such as fasting, public corrections, use of the discipline or scourge, rising for the night office etc. were no longer self-evidently meaningful.

The needs of the apostolate also put pressure on the older forms of life.  We were living in an increasingly urbanized society.  Both men and women were working and also very busy.  The times they were available for prayer or church activities were the times the community was not available.  Some change was needed.  The traditional forms of Passionist apostolate were also coming under pressure. The once popular parish missions were becoming less so. Parish priests were finding new ways of evangelizing and renewing their parishes.  People were no longer responding to these events as they had in the past.  Parishioners were looking for new ways of deepening their faith.  They were being invited to participate in prayer groups, bible study groups, as well as parish councils and other forms of renewal.  The traditional parish mission no longer responded to the needs of parishes or people.  It was no longer seen as a useful pastoral instrument.

In the pre-conciliar Church, the number and kind of popular devotions had multiplied to such an extent that many had degenerated into a form of pious sentimentality.  With the growing appreciation of the liturgy and liturgical prayer, as well as the discovery of the bible by more and more people, these devotions were losing their appeal. This was also true of popular devotion to the Passion.

The combination of these and other factors forced the Passionists in many places to rethink and reimagine the forms of community life and apostolate.  This work was undertaken in the years following the Council. It led in 1971 to the promulgation of the Chapter Document, which served as the Rule of Life until 1984 when the new Constitutions of the Congregation were promulgated.  The Chapter Document of 1971 and the Constitutions of 1984 present more or les the same vision of Passionist life and mission.  This is a vision rooted in the experience of Paul of the Cross and is focused on the Passion of Jesus as the centre of our life and mission.  It also embodies the new appreciation of fraternal community and a greater flexibility in apostolic service.

The renewal inspired by Vatican II grew largely out of the experience and reflections of Catholics in Northern Europe after World War II.  They had experienced the situation of the Catholic Church in conflict with the churches of the Reformation as well as with the new movements of thought that were shaping modern Europe.  Bishops and theologians in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, in particular, felt the need for reform and renewal in the Church.  Among the bishops we remember are Suenens, Koenig, Willebrands, Alfrink.  We think of theologians like Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeks, Kueng, Ratzinger, Danielou, Philips and others.  They became the leaders of the Council and left their stamp on the entire conciliar movement.

Charism (9)

The Church today has moved beyond the needs and hopes of 1960s North Europe.  Now we feel the movement of the Spirit coming from Africa, Asia and Latin America.  We can expect that the same Spirit will inspire a new reform in the Church and show us new ways of working for the coming of the Kingdom. This is also true of the Congregation that looks to the Global South and the new generations of Passionists in Africa, Latin America and Asia to bring new life and energy to the whole Congregation.

The Passionist Charism Today

The Passionist charism draws us to the passion and death of Jesus as the source and inspiration of our life and mission in the Church.  Through our commitment to the memoria passionis, we dedicate our lives to making the passion and death of Jesus actual and efficacious for the good of the Church and the world.  The charism is a living force that enables us to see and respond to the needs of people today.  The founder, St. Paul of the Cross, was the first to experience the transforming power of the charism.  He remains a constant inspiration for all passionists.  Through his example and writings, he helps us to read the Gospel in the original and inspiring way he did.

Charism (10)

In the last fifty years, we have had lots of debate and discussion about the Passionist charism and identity, as well as a flood of publications on the subject.  The reason for this is worth exploring.  It seems to me that in the pre-conciliar church, the Congregation did not need to verbalize so much about charism and identity.  The Congregation was more at peace with itself because it enjoyed a greater degree of self-confidence and its core values and practices were accepted and appreciated in a largely unreflective and spontaneous way both within the community and by the Church in general.  It was self-evident to all Passionists that they had a strong identity and a valuable mission in the Church.  The nature of the charism was not discussed so much because it was clearly evident in the way of life and the particular ministries that defined our identity.  We lived a life that was characterized by austerity and penance in remembrance of the suffering Christ.  The daily horarium expressed our commitment to prayer, silence and mortification. Our apostolate of preaching and teaching prayer was inspired by the same remembrance of Jesus Passion.  We lived in this way and undertook these ministries following the example and teaching of the Founder, Saint Paul of the Cross.  Our identity as Passionists was clear, strong, definite and distinctive.  It wasn’t written about or discussed very much because it was expressed and embodied in a distinctive set of practices and the way of life described in the Rule. There could be no doubt about our distinctive identity and mission.

All that changed in the years leading up to the Council and after.  The turmoil brought about by two world wars as well as the social, economic and political changes of the twentieth century that challenged traditional values and ways of life, affected all aspects of society.  The universal Church and religious life in particular had to respond to these new challenges.  The anti-modernity and world-rejection that characterized the Catholic Church since the French Revolution was lived in a particularly intense way by religious, including the Passionists.   Unresolved tensions about the apostolic nature of our life that first appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century flared up once more. These issues demanded attention and could no longer be swept under the carpet. The protracted debates about the end and mission of the Congregation express a genuine desire for greater understanding but they may also show how hesitant and unsure we had become about our identity, mission, value and relevance.

Charism (11)

A changed world and a changed Church were calling for the Congregation to change too but we were not sure how this could be done.  For almost two hundred years, we were guided by a repeated insistence on fidelity to the founder and a strong resistance to change.  There was a fear that any change to the Rule would endanger our heritage.  The lively debates and discussions of recent years, the different interpretations of what is essential to our life, even the occasional conflicts are all signs of vitality and creativity.  At the same time, they point to a break down of a structure that had been taken for granted as self-evident, unchanging and beyond question.

Today we are learning to live more peacefully with a less rigid definition of our identity and with fewer absolutes.  We also realize that no amount of books or studies can replicate the kind of clarity and confidence that was there in the highly structured way of life of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  That level of order was enforced and maintained by a form of authority that is no longer appropriate.  Conformity was the accepted form of obedience and fidelity meant resistance to change.  Today the human person seeks meaning and value and this is also true in religious life.  The personal appropriation of meaning and value is accepted as part of a legitimate psychological and spiritual need.  Now personal conviction and understanding are seen as essential.  There is a new emphasis on the interior dispositions of the religious and less on conformity to external forms of expression.  It is generally accepted that values and convictions can have different expressions.  So today, when we talk about our shared values or our Passionist charism and identity, we are more likely to focus on personal convictions, beliefs, insights, inspirations, and less on external practices and forms of living.  At the same time, it is also generally accepted that convictions and beliefs cannot be sustained without some concrete forms of expression.

The Constitutions of the Congregation of the Passion (1984)

The Constitutions of 1984 are the Congregation’s response to the Council’s call for renewal.  They offer us a new and rich interpretation of the charism as the source and inspiration of our personal, community and apostolic life.  In tune with the working of the Spirit in the universal Church, the Constitutions take the originating inspiration of our founder and the early Rule of Life and confront them with the signs of the times and the challenges of the world today.  It is this fruitful dialogue that gives us the creative and original interpretation that is articulated and affirmed in the Constitutions.   The Constitutions affirm the community and contemplative dimension of our life and give a fuller and richer sense of our mission to a suffering world.  The General Chapter of 1988 built on this and gave us an even sharper focus on the Passion of Jesus as a response to the twin challenges of a world that denies God and a world where injustice leads to the suffering, poverty and neglect of so many people.

The Charism in the Constitutions 1984

Charism (12)

It is interesting to note that the term “charism” appears only twice in the Constitutions. In the chapter on Formation there is a reference to “the charism of Saint Paul of the Cross” and in the chapter on Government, when speaking of the responsibility of the Superior General, the phrase “our Passionist charism” is used.  In neither case is there a definition of the term charism nor is there a reference to other sources to explain its meaning.  It is strange that the term charism is not used more frequently when speaking of the nature, end, and mission of the Congregation since the Constitutions were finalized almost twenty years after Vatican Council II.

Charism (13)

The Constitutions refer to our “mission”, our “consecration to the Passion”, our “participation in the Passion”, the Passionist “vocation” and “Passionist spirit”.  There is also a reference to “the patrimony and evangelical spirit of our founder”. A very important statement affirms that,  “the Gospel is the supreme rule and criterion of our life.” We are called to “unite ourselves to the life and mission of Him who emptied himself.”  Each of these expressions and all of them together give us a rich insight into the Passionist charism.

Our special vow, once known as the fourth vow, is the way we express our ‘participation in the Passion” and by it we keep alive the memory of the Passion of Jesus.  It is also by means of this vow that we take our place in the Church and share her mission.  I take it that all of these expressions are referring in general to what we mean by the Charism of the congregation.

In one sense, the entire Constitutions are the expression of the charism.  Here, I would like to highlight a number of aspects of the Constitutions, which mark a significant change from the Rule and give a contemporary flavor to the charism for today.

  1. The person, example, and teaching of the Founder are at the heart of the new Constitutions. We affirm our fidelity to the patrimony and evangelical spirit of our founder St. Paul of the Cross (No. 2). There are at least 21 other references to the Founder in the Constitutions.
  1. In the original Rule, the fourth vow was directed to the apostolate. In the Constitutions, our consecration to the Passion expressed in the special vow informs our whole life and mission. We seek the unity of our lives and mission in the Passion of Jesus. By means of our special vow, we participate in the Passion of Jesus in a personal, community, and apostolic way (No. 5).
  1. The Rule saw our apostolate mainly as instilling in the hearts of the faithful a fervent devotion to Jesus crucified. The Constitutions do the same but also call for the active building up of God’s Kingdom in various ways. Our mission is to preach the Gospel of the Passion by our life and apostolate and so work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. (No 2) The Passion of Jesus reveals the power of God, which penetrates the world destroying the power of evil and building up the Kingdom of God (No. 5). We believe that the Passion of Christ and the sufferings of his mystical body form one mystery of salvation. We want to familiarize ourselves thoroughly with the Passion of Jesus both in history and in the lives of people today (Nos. 3, 65).
  1. The Constitutions place a new emphasis on meaning and helping people to understand the mystery of Jesus Passion as well as the passion of the world. We will guide people to a deeper awareness and understanding of this one mystery of salvation and so bring them to a closer union with God, greater knowledge of themselves, and a more sensitive response to the needs of others (No. 65). We keep alive the memory of the Passion of Jesus by word and deed, and strive to foster awareness of its meaning and value for each person and for the life of the world (No. 6).
  1. There is a more positive attitude to life in the world and a greater awareness of human suffering and a commitment to relieving suffering as integral to our mission. The mission of the congregation is to make Jesus, who emptied himself and gave his life for us, present in the Church and in the world today (No. 5). Inspired by our consecration to the Passion of Christ, we strive to make our lives and apostolate an authentic and credible witness on behalf of justice and human dignity (No. 72).

These essential elements constitute a kind of Passionist theology and spirituality and are then applied with greater detail to the various dimensions of our life – prayer, community, apostolate, formation and government.

The Constitutions affirm that there is a personal, community and apostolic dimension to our consecration to the Passion of Jesus.  Our charism inspires and gives rise to a whole way of life and mission focused on the self-emptying love of Jesus on the Cross.  In contrast to the Rule of 1775, the constitutions are remarkable for how they are rooted in and draw on the scriptures (57), especially the New Testament, as well as the many references to the life and inspiring writings of Saint Paul of the Cross (21).  There are also many references to the relevant documents of the Magisterium. The Constitutions are a treasury of biblical quotations and references to inspiring and helpful texts.

Resources to study the charism

The aim of the Secretariat for Formation is to help all our members to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Passionist charism.  In this way it is hoped that the charism will be a source of new vitality for us all.  Some people have lamented the lack of resources, in the form of books or published studies, on the charism and asked that the secretariat provide more material.

In truth, the secretariat can add very little that is new or interesting to the vast amount of published material on the history, spirituality and charism of the congregation.  There have been many very stimulating and enlightening debates and discussions on the nature and identity of the congregation in the last few decades and many of these have been published in a huge variety of sources.  Large quantities of these books and pamphlets, n different translations, are piled high in the basement of Sts. John and Paul.  We can draw upon the great store of riches contained in the research and published works of our historians, theologians and other scholars.  The letters of the founder as well as other significant writings have been circulated widely and are easily available.  We are blessed to have lots of material on the life and writings of the founder.  These have been a great help in studying the origins of the congregation and have been the basis of the main approaches to the study of the charism until now.

Charism (14)

 Among those who have contributed to this work I want to mention and pay tribute to Enrico Zoffoli, F. Gorgini, C. Brovetto, A. Lippi, Stanislas Breton, Max Anselmi, Paul F. Spencer, James Sweeney, Sylvan Rouse, Martin Bialas, Antony Artola, Tito Zecca among many others.  The Studies in Passionist History and Spirituality series runs to  at least 66 in Italian, 60 in Spanish and 32 in English. Many of these have been translated into other languages.  We can find in these works a rich variety of interpretations and points of view, all adding to our appreciation of the history and spirit of the Congregation.

These writings and translations have been available for many years.  There is a problem of translating this material into some Asian languages, which should be remedied. The persistent and repeated appeals for more information and knowledge about the founder and the charism seems to be pointing not to a lack of information but rather our difficulties in accessing it and assimilating it.  We already have a great deal of high quality published material available to us. I don’t think it is necessary to add significantly to the many publications we already have on the founder and our origins but rather to make them more widely available, to draw on them and allow ourselves to be stimulated and provoked by them. It will always be necessary to hear new voices and new experiences of living the charism, especially from Africa, Asia and Latin America. We need to do more to encourage young Passionists from these regions to share their reflections and insights with the whole Congregation.


Our experience of renewal since Vatican II gives us confidence that we have the capacity to meet the challenges of a changing world and Church.  The Passionist charism has within it the resources to enable us to proclaim the message of he Cross in every place and time. St. Paul of the Cross reaches across the centuries to speak to us. He inspires us to look at Jesus on the Cross and to see and love what he sees and loves, that is, the God of unfathomable love and mercy giving his life for us.