FIRST PASSIONIST NUN

VENERABLE MOTHER MARY CRUCIFIED COSTANTINI

 
 

In eighteenth century Italy there was in every city and town one or more convents of religious women, called "nuns."  Ever since the Council of Trent such convents were strictly bound by cloister, which meant that no one could enter within the convent, nor could the nuns leave the enclosed area.  The nuns devoted themselves to prayer and penance within the convent walls.  They were supported by the charity of benefactors and by the "dowry" they brought with them when they entered.

There were also communities of sisters who engaged in ministries to  young girls and women. They took religious vows but they were not as strictly cloistered as were the nuns.  Usually their communities were under the complete control of the local bishops, and frequently their rule had not been approved by the Holy See.

From the very first years as a hermit Paul Daneo (later known as St. Paul of the Cross) began the ministry of spiritual direction.  Shortly after his forty days retreat he requested permission to give the spiritual conferences to the Augustinian Nuns of Castellazzo.   Later he wrote several letters of spiritual direction to one of the nuns.

Paul was aware of the holiness of many nuns, but he also realized some of the problems they experienced.  After his ordination and on his return to Monte Argentaro he would gladly give retreats to nuns when he was conducting a mission at the nearby churches.

In 1739 Father Paul was asked to give the retreat to the Benedictine Nuns at the convent of St. Lucy in Corneto (now called Tarquinia).  He came in the black habit and barefoot.  As in other convents, he spoke about the nun's call to the interior life of prayer, solitude and penance.  Of course, he also urged the nuns to meditate upon the sufferings of Jesus.  His presence and preaching stirred the nuns to  renewed efforts in striving for religious perfection.

In the course of this retreat one of the nuns, known then as Sister Mary Candida of the Crucified, opened her heart to him, to tell him the story of her life and the interior graces God was giving her.

Paul recognized in this young nun one whom God was calling.   He told her of his own "dream" of one day founding a convent of Passionist Nuns who would spend their life in prayer and penance in memory of the Passion of Jesus.

Paul had in fact for many years realized that women as well as men were called to live his spirituality of the Passion.  One of his first "converts" was a young woman of the Grazi family of Orbetello, Agnes by name.   Under Paul's direction Agnes advanced in prayer to mystical union with the Crucified Christ.  Paul felt that perhaps one day she would join his convent for Passionist Nuns.  When she died at an early age Paul accepted God's will but the dream remained.

Later he began the direction of a Poor Clare Nun of Piombino, Sister Cherubina Bresciani.  Again he mentioned to her the possibility of a community of women dedicated to the Passion.  Another holy woman whom Paul was directing received a vision of the "doves" mourning over the wounded Christ on the Cross.  Paul saw this as a vision of his future daughters.  But nothing eventuated although Paul continued to hope.

As she listened to Father Paul, Candida realized that it was he of whom the Lord had spoken to her.  With tears in her heart she told him of her "dream," of how God had been working in her life.

Sister Candida's (later known as Mother Mary Crucified) life story begins.

On August 18, 1713, the very year Paul Daneo had experienced his "conversion", a daughter was born to the Costantini family of Corneto.  She was baptized Faustina. When she was fourteen, she too felt the call to a life of prayer and penance.  But she had to help her father raise the family after the early death of her mother.  Later when she wanted to enter an austere convent, her father told her that the only convent she could enter was the Benedictine convent of St. Lucy in Corneto.  This she did, even though she felt the Lord really wanted her in a stricter convent.

Sister Candida made profession of her vows on November 22, 1734 (the 14th anniversary of Paul's reception of the Passionist habit).  As she handed the signed document of her vows to the Mother Prioress she whispered to Jesus: "In virtue of your most holy Passion, accept me as a victim of your holy love."  She prayed to Jesus to share in his Passion.  "I often repeated to  him, 'You are a spouse of blood; I want to be your true follower.'"   When tempted with fierce temptations she heard the invitation to "enter into the Sacred Heart" with the moving words of the Song of Songs: "Come, my love, hide in the cleft of the rock."

All this she told Father Paul. Years later she remembered that wonderful day: "A few years after my profession I got to know the Venerable Paul of the Cross on the occasion when he came to give the spiritual exercises to the religious of the convent of St. Lucy... After Paul gave the retreat, especially the first one, one could see the great reform of life in the convent.  All the religious began to treat one another with greater charity, to perform more frequent acts of humility, to stay away from the parlor-window and to observe greater silence."  She added: "The first time the Servant of God came to give the spiritual exercises at the convent of St. Lucy he was wearing a very poor rough tunic, with a mantle, but barefoot and without a hat or berretino.  Just to see him moved one to compassion and devotion."  From that date onward Mother Mary Crucified as she was now called, began a frequent and long correspondence with Father Paul.  Only 32 letters have been preserved and recently published in an English translation.  Most have unfortunately been lost.  Mother M. Crucified, testified that she even burned some lest others read about God's gifts to her.

Paul continued to direct her as one very special.  Years later Paul recalled their first meeting.  In his Christmas letter of 1764 he wrote of it: "I hope to see you clothed in the same habit of the Most Holy Passion of Jesus Christ which I wear.  God entrusted your soul to me many years ago."

Later he wrote again: "If God will give me life and strength to see the foundation through, it is most certain that you shall be the first to be clothed in the habit of the most holy Passion.  I hope to give it to you with my own hands for the glory of Jesus Christ and Holy Mary.  However, keep this as a secret in your heart..."(June 3,  1766).

But Paul saw the convent of the Nuns as belonging to the Institute of the Passion.  He wanted the Passionist Nuns to be the "Second Order" of his institute, as the Poor Clares are with the Franciscans and the Carmelite Nuns among the Carmelites.  This meant that the first convent could not be built until the male branch was firmly established as a religious order with solemn vows, clerical jurisdiction and exemption, subject only to the Holy See.  Until solemn vows were granted Paul did not take steps to found the Passionist convent for his many spiritual daughters.

But God had other plans.  When Mother Mary Crucified was sick in the infirmary in 1741 Jesus appeared to her and said: "Rise up now. I will restore your health, but on the condition that in due time you found a monastery of nuns who will have as their purpose the honoring of my sorrowful Passion.  You yourself will have to enter it, and you must cooperate in its foundation."

Paul continued to wait for solemn vows.  When a Portuguese priest, Don Joseph Carboni, invited Mother M. Crucified to establish a community devoted to the Passion in a convent he was building in Rome, she thought it was time to move. Paul warned against such an action.  Eventually Don Carboni's request fell through.

At this time her younger brother was killed by robbers in the family home.  Her two brothers, Dominic and Canon Nicholas, decided to build a convent in the memory of their slain brother.  But when the family became involved in the writing of the rule for "their" convent, Paul washed his hands of the whole affair!

Solemn vows were denied Paul in 1760 by Pope Clement XIII.   Paul's community would never become an Order with a female branch.  If the convent of nuns devoted to the Passion was to be founded, Mother M. Crucified felt that she herself should go to Rome to present her case to the Pope.  Paul wrote back that this is not how one proceeds.  Had he forgotten his own insistence on going to Rome in 1721 or had he learned from that experience? Mother M. Crucified did not go to the Pope.  In fact she did not have to go, for at the death of Pope Clement XIII (Feb. 28,1769) the new pope (Clement XIV) would be most kind to Father Paul.

Pope Clement invited Paul to visit him.  Paul told him of his many trials all these years in attempting to found a convent for the Passionist Nuns.   The Pope listened with fatherly concern. In a short time Clement XIV issued a papal bull giving Paul's congregation all the rights and privileges of a religious order, even jurisdiction and papal exemption.  He arranged that the Monastery of Sts. John and Paul be given to the Passionists.  Finally he approved the rule Paul had written for the Passionist Nuns and decreed the opening of the convent at Corneto.  Mother Mary Crucified was allowed to transfer from the convent of St. Lucy to this new convent, together with the other women whom Paul had been directing. 

The great day finally came, May 3, 1771.  The ten women, together with Mother Mary Crucified, were given the Passionist habit and entered the new convent of the Presentation.  The bishop and the entire town of Corneto celebrated.  Father John Mary Cioni, Paul's confessor, preached the homily. Some miles away in Rome Paul lay on his sick bed in the hospice of the Crucified.  He never got to Corneto to see Mother Mary Crucified and the first Passionists.  He himself did not give her the habit.  Four years later he would be dead.

From his sick bed he assisted her with letters and with his prayers and sufferings.  Two years after the solemn opening he wrote: "May you be the model for the Daughters of the Passion.  They should mourn perpetually for the love of the Crucified Lord, not only by the habit they wear, but even more so in their hearts, their minds and their actions.  In this way they shall heal his holy wounds by the continual practice of the virtues, since this is the purpose for the foundation of their Institute" (May 12, 1773).

In the founding of the Passionist Nuns' community Paul's role is clear.  The "charism" was originally the Holy Spirit's gift to Paul. His was the task of arranging for the canonical foundation, by reason of his friendship with Pope Clement XIV.  He too had written the rule which the pope "welcomed" as God's gift to the Church.

Mother Mary Crucified had her own role to fulfill as the first novice mistress and superior.  It was left to her to explain the spirit of the rule to the first nuns.  And it was her role to serve as model and example of the Passionist way of life for her small originating community and for all Passionist Nuns in the centuries to follow.  She was interpreter and model of the Passionist charism as shared and lived by these cloistered religious women.

And cloistered the Passionist Nuns were.  St. Paul insisted on this.  For according to the Canon Law of the time (since the Council of Trent) only cloistered women were truly "religious."  Cloister was very important for Paul.  He knew the abuses in so many convents of his times.  He knew the requirements of Canon Law.  To assure that the "female branch" of his institute would be recognized as "real" religious and would perdure in the Church, he even inserted in the rule legislation for the "vow of enclosure."   For Paul, however, the enclosure was more than a necessary legality. For he wanted the nuns to be truly contemplative, "Brides of Christ" he calls them, "Daughters of the Sacred Passion," "Doves mourning over the wounds of Christ."  The cloister would enable them to devote themselves to contemplative prayer.

Paul also realized the needs of his times.  The nuns were to take "the vow to promote devotion to the Passion of Christ" as did the fathers and brothers.  Of course, they could not fulfill this vow by preaching.   Paul wanted them to fulfill it by their life of contemplative prayer and penance.   Their prayer would continue throughout the day and into the middle of the night.   Their penance consisted in perpetual fasting and abstinence, in going barefoot, and in other austerities.

The Second Vatican Council almost seems to be speaking of Mother Mary Crucified's fervent community when it states:  "Let no one think that by their consecration religious have become strangers to their fellow men and women or useless citizens of this earthly city...In a more profound sense these same religious are united with them in the heart of Christ and cooperate with them spiritually" (The Church, #46).

Zealous man that he was, Paul also discovered other ways for the nuns to fulfill the Passion vow.  He left norms for one of the sisters to teach Christian doctrine to "young girls seven years of age or older," to prepare young girls for the reception of their First Communion (then normally received at the age of 12).  He provided, however, that those to be thus instructed would remain "outside the cloister."

Paul's zeal led him further.  He knew that women, as well as men, need the helps of the spiritual exercises.  He had already provided for rooms to be set aside in his monasteries for men to make a retreat from time to time.  He put this same provision in the nuns' rule, even allowing such women to enter "within the enclosure" with the permission of the bishop.

All this St. Paul of the Cross did to establish the Passionist Nuns in the Church.  Paul is indeed the "founder".  Mother Mary Crucified as  the superior and guide of the first convent has earned the title of "foundress of the first convent".  Through this role and precisely because of her profound sharing in Paul's charism she is also called   "co-foundress" with St. Paul of the Passionist Religious Family.

Mother Mary Crucified died November 16, 1787.  In 1982 Pope John Paul II approved the document declaring that she had practiced heroic virtue and should be called "Venerable."  Passionists everywhere await the day of her beatification.

 

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