“I’m looking forward to a season of retreat and contemplation,” I told a Dutch priest upon my arrival to Italy.
“And you’re moving to Rome?” he asked incredulously. “Have you been there before?”
Of course I had been to Rome before and I knew exactly what he meant. Rome is extremely chaotic, noisy, and bustling.
But I have the great privilege of living in a place known as a “retreat” of the Passionist Congregation – a beautiful site atop the Celian Hill – about which the founder of this religious community wrote in 1747:
It is one of the most solitary places in Rome, a place of great silence and recollection, almost a mountain, with good air, a garden, with water […] There are cabbages, enough fruit for summer and winter, at least partially, figs, grapes, artichokes, beans, broccoli, enough even to give to your novices. […] It is a fine location, not a better one is to be found in Rome with delightful air – a place prepared by our Great Father for his servants.
I live with other students at the Lay Centre, which is a small portion of the broader monastery-like setting.
Tonight Fr. Lawrence Rywalt, C.P. gave us residents a brief historical overview of where we are living before celebrating mass for us.
He led us to a room and began the story with an ending, telling us that “St. Paul of the Cross died in this room on October 18, 1775.”
I had never heard of this founder of the Passionist congregation before, but was interested to learn about him.
Fr. Lawrence said to us, “St. Paul of the Cross chose this place and that’s why we (and you) are here.”
How amazing to be entered into such a story!
We learned that Paul of the Cross underwent a conversion to an ardent life of prayer in his late teens. In his early twenties, he was a soldier, a caregiver, and helped in a family business.
Eventually, he was inspired to establish a religious community with the specific charism of reminding people of the love of God as expressed through the Passion.
“This is what touches us and then we share it. It really is that simple and that great,” Fr. Lawrence explained.
We learned that St. Paul of the Cross wanted this place on this hilltop in Rome because it’s in the heart of the city, but it’s quiet. It’s accessible to people, yet there is space for yourself.
The nearby Basilica of Sts. John and Paul was constructed over Roman houses of the 3rd and 4th centuries and contains the tombs of the 4th century martyrs for whom the church is named.
We learned that St. Paul of the Cross intentionally did not use the word monastero or convento, but rather retiro because it was his intention for the site to be a place of retreat, a place to withdraw.
Accordingly, in his homily during the mass, Fr. Lawrence exhorted us to seek to grow in silence and solitude so that the Passion of the heart of Christ crucified could also touch our hearts.