The Birth of One Who Loved the Wounds of Christ: January 3, 1694

Updated: Jan 7

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


I have been in great battles without ever flinching at the roar of the cannon. But

when I listen to you, I tremble from head to foot.


These words, wrung from a seasoned warrior, witnessed to the power of the preacher, Paolo Danei. Clad in a black habit, arms outstretched, one hand grasping a crucifix, Paolo Danei spoke movingly to vast crowds about the passion of Christ. From a platform, he acted out the events of Christ’s suffering and death, even scourging himself until he bled. Though afflicted with rheumatism, Paolo painfully dragged himself to the center of the platform, where stood a large wooden cross. Embracing the cross, he intoned the Good Friday chant, Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit. (“Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.”)


Portrait of San Paolo della Croce over a side altar in Austria

Though such a dramatic style of preaching might seem odd to us today, it was most effective in mid-18th-century Italy. Not only the soldier but hundreds, thousands trembled at the words of Paolo Danei. Even hardened bandits (and in Italy there were many) were moved to tears and confessed their sins. For Paolo Danei was not playacting when he did such things as scourge himself. Thinking himself a great sinner, he was in earnest; he preached as much to himself as to the crowds around the platform.


Voltaire

Paolo was the eldest son of a businessman of Ovada, a town in Piedmont, a region of Italy that lay northwest of Genoa. Born January 3, 1694, he was only ten months older than Voltaire. But unlike the philosophe, who had learned impiety from his earliest years, Paolo Danei had been raised in a devout household. And unlike Voltaire—who from boyhood had mocked the Church—Paolo, from age 10, had meditated on the sufferings of Christ. It is told that in 1713, when he was 19, Paolo received a vision of hell. The place of torment opened before him, and he felt the terrors of the damned.


It may seem that with such a background, Paolo would have entered religious life; but he did not do so immediately. In 1714, he answered Pope Clement XI’s call to join the army of Venice against the Turks, who had crossed the Danube to invade Europe. But Paolo remained in the army only a year. Returning home, he refused marriage and his family’s inheritance. Instead, he followed a religious calling, but not as a member of a religious order or community. With his younger brother, Giovanni Battista (John Baptist), Paolo embraced a private life of prayer and contemplation.


Paolo was soon rewarded for his generosity to God. On Good Friday 1715, Paolo experienced in his own flesh the sufferings of the crucified Christ, and then the joy of the union of his soul with God. He had come to understand, more deeply than ever before, that the path to life and joy passes only through the cross. This message of the cross would be Paolo Danei’s lifelong theme, for which the Church remembers him as San Paolo della Croce—Saint Paul of the Cross.


Though Paolo Danei would not live to see it, the Catholic Church was about to suffer her own crucifixion—a revolution that would overrun France and then all of Europe. Would the Church survive? Many in the 18th century might have answered no. The Church of the 18th century seemed sick; she seemed to be growing ever weaker, while her enemies grew ever stronger. The philosophers had rejected her; science was ignoring her; and the rulers of Europe had broken her power. It seemed as if all the Church needed was just one more shock to topple her and then, on her broken foundations, build a new Europe based on reason and science, not faith and “superstition.”


Song of a Love-Lorne Shepherd


The Neapolitan composer, Antonio Scarlatti, composed the cantata, Correa nel Seno Amato in 1694, the year of Paolo Danei's birth. The cantata, from which comes this area, Ombre opache, tells the story of a shepherd afflicted by love.


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