Saint Paul of the Cross was born in 1694 in the town of Oavada, in northern Italy, to a wealthy merchant family, the second of sixteen children. At age 19, after a normal childhood, he experienced a conversion that drew him to a life of prayer.
When he was 26 years old, during a period of intense prayer and solitude, Paul of the Cross had a series of prayer-experiences which made it clear to him that God was inviting him to form a community of men who would live together and dedicate themselves to preaching the Passion of Christ. His main aim in the community was, as he wrote, to form a man totally centered on God, a man of prayer who is detached from possessions so that he may be free to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
His first companion was his own brother, John Baptist, who was ordained to the priesthood with Paul by Pope Benedict XIII in 1727, in St. Peter’s Basilica. After ordination they devoted themselves to preaching missions in parishes, particularly in remote country places where there were not enough priests. Their preaching and retreats gained the attention of others and gradually the “Passionist” community began to grow. The Passionist community was in great demand in many areas of Italy, in part because of the community’s success in bringing lapsed Catholics back to the Church, and in their ministry to the sick and dying.
During his lifetime, Paul of the Cross was best known for his preaching and spiritual direction. More than two thousand of his letters, most of them letters of spiritual direction, have been preserved. He died in Rome in 1775, at the age of 81. He was canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1867. His feast day is October 20.