Paul Francis Spencer C.P.

In the Passionist Constitutions we read that St Paul of the Cross ‘wished his followers to prayer without ceasing and desired our communities to become real schools of prayer, leading to a deep experience of God’ (par. 37). This desire to fulfil the Gospel teaching that we should ‘pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1) was for Charles an important part of the legacy of the Founder of the Passionists. Fr Columban Tyne recalled that ‘his spirit of prayer was remarkable: his union with God and spirit of prayer were continual. He realised the command of our Lord that we should always pray. This was the most striking characteristic of his life.’

Looking at the intense apostolic ministry which Charles exercised, we might be forgiven for wondering how he managed to pray at all; yet those who knew him affirm that he lived always in the presence of God. Patrick Hickey, who had been an altar boy at Mount Argus, gave evidence at the Apostolic Processes:

I recall Fr Charles especially as a man of continuous prayer. Wherever he was, passing along the corridors, etc., his lips continually moved: occasionally he would make an ejaculation aloud. We boys were greatly impressed by the sight of his continuous prayer. I never saw him but that he was praying. After his death, one of the religious here (I cannot recall his name) told me that Fr Charles’ knees were like huge knobs as a result of his long hours of kneeling in prayer.

The Practice of the Presence of God was a key element in Charles’ life of prayer, as we see from his writings:

‘I am with you till the consummation of the world’, says our Lord to his Apostles. The Apostles in all the trials they had to endure could well say with truth that the Lord was with them. Being so fervent, so careful in the practice of the presence of God, they considered God constantly before their eyes. Let us endeavor in all our trials to have God before our eyes; the neglect of this practice has been the reason of so many faults.

Let us have God before our eyes day and night and we shall advance in perfection.

For Charles attentiveness to God’s presence was expressed in the long hours he spent each day in meditation. No matter how busy he was, he was always present for the Divine Office and for the two hours of meditation, the one in the morning and the other in the evening. From time to time the doctor would forbid him to attend the Night Office of Matins, which took place at two o’clock in the morning and was followed by meditation until three o’clock, but unless expressly dispensed he was sure to be at Matins.

Charles left no prayer journal or spiritual diary by means of which we might examine his life of prayer to discover what was happening during those hours of meditation. However, in a letter written shortly after the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination, we are allowed for a moment to listen in as he reflects on the Incarnation and responds to God’s gift of his Son:

During these holy days of Christmas, my thoughts were constantly on the priestly state; I thought, too, of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the ardent wishes and desires with which the saints of the old law awaited the coming of the Messiah, since God in his mercy had promised to send a redeemer to man, fallen and condemned to hell. These saints of the old testament prayed without ceasing to hasten his coming. Had they the happiness of seeing him, what would they not have done to please our Saviour? How fervent they would have been in showing their love for him, how zealous in showing gratitude for all the graces and blessings he had come to bring them. The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in the stable at Bethlehem is a mystery, it is a miracle so great, abounding so much in humility and love, that it will be wondered at by the angels and saints in heaven for all eternity. What can I, a mere man, give the Divine Redeemer in return for such great and innumerable blessings -- so great that they cannot be explained -- which, for so many years, I have received from his mercy? When I consider this, I feel urged to thank God with greater fervour, to please him more, and to do and suffer everything willingly for his love and for his greater glory.

Contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, a ‘miracle so great, abounding in humility and love’, Charles felt moved to respond generously to God and ‘to do and suffer everything willingly for his love and for his greater glory’. In his later years he had frequent opportunities of suffering for the glory of God as his health continued to deteriorate, partly because he was getting older but also as a result of the constant demands being made on him both by the people to whom he ministered and by the rigours imposed by the Passionist Rule, with its emphasis on penance and mortification, fasting and vigils.

During the 1880s Charles was under the additional strain of living as a member of a community which was in crisis. The constant building work at Mount Argus, the construction of the monastery and later that of the church, had left its mark not just on the ground but on the men who lived there. For twenty years much of the energy of the community had been poured into the building and into trying to pay off the debt which, by the standards of the time, was enormous. In a report to the Superior General written on 5 December 1878, just seven months after the opening of the church, the Provincial, Fr Alphonsus O’Neill, said that the debt on Mount Argus was £24,331 and he informed the General the the community were barely able to support themselves and pay the interest on the load; the debt, he says, ‘is breaking the hearts of Superiors, occupying and I might say wasting lives and energies that should be employed in high and holier work’. Fundraising to meet the debt was a constant activity of the community during those years, often involving absence from prayer and other community exercises. According to Fr Salvian,

the fervour of our religious began to fall at the Bazaar and Grand Distribution of Premiums of 1869, when almost all our Fathers and Brothers were engaged in travelling ‘selling tickets’ for the Grand Bazaar. All observance [i.e. community prayer] was almost given up, in this REtreat especially. From that date to this we have not risen as yet to the level in which we were previous to that.

Bernard Mary Silvestrelli CPA succession of Rectors had tried to lower the debt and raise the fervour but it seemed very difficult to succeed in both. At one stage Fr Alphonsus, in an attempt to take some of the weight off the shoulders of the Rector and Vicar (i.e. the Vice-Rector, who also acted as Bursar), had separated the debt on the buildings from the ordinary income and expenditure of the community and had made Fr Sebastian Keens, who had formerly been Vicar, responsible for this new account. This decision was later to cause its own problems, as we shall see.

In 1879 the Superior General, Blessed Bernard Mary Silvestrelli, had visited the Province. At Mount Argus he had met Charles and, according to Fr Eugene Nevin, the General was ‘deeply impressed by his spirit of prayer and the degree of his union with God’. However, his overall impression of the Province was less favourable. In a circular letter written at the end of the visitation he says, ‘Whilst on the one hand we do not accept as true, and we do not believe all the reports that have been spread abroad regarding the Religious of this Province, on the other hand we cannot deny the evident fact that many things said have had foundations.’ above: Blessed Bernard Mary Silvestrelli C.P.

Three years later, in August 1882, Fr Bernard Mary was still concerned about what he saw as the absence of religious life among the Passionists of Britain and Ireland. At a meeting of the General Curia in Rome he spoke of the lack of leadership on the part of the superiors of the Province who, he said, were the first to neglect the Rule; he suggested that the only way to raise standards in the Province would be to bring the students, immediately after the Novitiate, to Rome where they could be formed in a more prayerful atmosphere, far away from the ‘laxity’ of Ireland and England.

Within this general context Charles’ insistence on fidelity to prayer, a frequent them of his letters, takes on a fuller significance. The single-mindedness and determination which had helped him during his schooldays were needed once more if he was to keep his head when all around were losing theirs. Writing to his uncle in August 1883 he says,

Pray at all times, desiring that God’s will be accomplished complete in your regard. From the Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, we learn to ask our good, merciful God for these graces: the graces of prayer and perseverance; prayer and a happy death. As St Augustine says, be sure that the divine mercy will never abandon you provided that you persevere in prayer.

The situation at Mount Argus had been difficult for some time, but what actually brought matters to a head began at the Provincial Chapter on 21 July 1884 when Fr Jerome Smith was elected Rector of St Paul’s Retreat. Fr Jerome was forty years of age at the time; ordained fourteen years earlier, he had been working as a missionary in Bulgaria since shortly after his ordination. Described by those who knew him as a ‘true man of God’, who had ‘a noble, unselfish nature which enshrined many a trait of which the best might boast’, he was unfortunately ill-suited to the role of superior and had virtually no administrative ability. His obituary says that his ‘chief characteristic was zeal for souls’; this is borne out by the fact that he spent a great deal of time preaching missions, an unfortunate consequence of which was that the community was often left to stand on its own feet, which it was scarcely capable of doing.

According to Salvian, Fr Jerome began well: ‘At the Friday Chapter Fr Rector spoke about the observance which is very much neglected.... If it was not for the Students, we might nail up the Choir door. Many a time the poor students are alone in the Choir.’ The new Rector also employed a man to answer the doorbell because, Salvian tells us,

Complaints from our friends, and strangers, were reported constantly of being left in the Parlour for hours, or for having been ringing the bell for a long, long time before the door was opened.... Over and over again the Fathers have complained to the Superiors or to the Provincial, who spoke to the Porter of the time being, but they might have spoken to the pillars outside the Hall Door. It is true that the bell is ringing almost continually and it requires the patience of a saint to attend at every call. It is also true that the poor Porter has to ring or sound the gong 3, 4, 5, 6 times before the Religious who are called go down which indeed in very provoking. During the time that the Porter is waiting for the Religious who is called, the bell is ringing perhaps three or four times, and of course the people who are ringing get annoyed and go away. Hundred of people come every day for the blessing by Fr Charles.... Two smart men would scarcely be enough to attend properly our Hall Door.

The hundreds of people coming every day for the blessing of Fr Charles were tiring not just the porter but of course Charles himself. Just two weeks after Fr Jerome’s arrival, we read in Salvian’s diary:

Poor Fr Charles is not well at all and should not be allowed for some time to get up at Matins, and even to say the office at all, being extremely weak, and his poor head, as he says, ‘is going round’. When he says Mass he trembles and shakes, as if he was affected by the ague. He should not be put down for public Masses, not being really able, part for scruples, and part for weakness. To give communions to the people is out of the question entirely, he would shake and tremble, as to let the ciborium fall from his hands. When he has to say public Masses, I always attend him in surplice and stole, and give the communions to the people myself. If I was not there, he would take more than an hour to say Mass. It is true, he is not put down for public Masses except in extreme necessity, but even hen he must be attended by some priest to prevent an accident. The saintly man never complains when he is appointed to say public Masses or to act as Deacon at High Mass every Sunday. He, generally speaking, says Mass on Sundays and weekdays at the altar of St Mary Magdalene, and some priest or other is near him, but if he should be entirely alone, with a boy server, he would spend on the altar an hour or so, as it has happened on several occasions. It is wonderful how poor Fr Charles can stand the going up and down fifty-nine steps, hundreds of times every day, to bless people, who come by crowds for his blessing. Many are the cures and real miracles which take place, but we never take notice of them, and much less Fr Charles take any any notice. Every Sunday after the High Mass, and again in the afternoon after Vespers, he goes into the Church and blesses with the Relic of St Paul of the Cross, at the average of seventy or eight people, besides those which he blesses in the Parlour. The fame of Fr Charles’ holiness is spread throughout Ireland, England and Scotland, and even in America. Several persons came to Dublin from American, and England for his blessing and to be cured from some disease or other. Enough at present about Fr Charles. For the future I intend to take notices about him, as they will be interesting for the Chronicles.

A fortnight later Charles, who was obviously much run down, became very sick; as a consequence he was not able to say Mass or do any work for about three weeks.

Fr Charles was ill the whole day, being tormented with diarrhea, sickness of stomach, and lightness in his head. He could not eat any nourishing food, but only an egg and a few spoonfuls of brandy. There is no mistake, the dear poor Father is getting weaker and weaker every day, and unless he is sent away from home, even for a fortnight, or a month, we shall lose him. Like a Saint, he never complains, and never tells any one what he suffers, only that we find out by the way he walks, and the appearance of his countenance. After the evening service, as I did not see him, I went to look for him, and found that he was in the Closets, sick as could be. I brought him to his room, gave him a little brandy, and put him into bed. Father Vicar ordered him to obey me, and so he did, without delay.

Towards the end of the month Salvian notes that ‘Fr Charles is getting better, but he will not be able to say Mass as yet. No Matins last night, nor the night before. I said it alone at the usual hour [2 a.m.].... When Br Isidore was here, he sounded the rattle and rang the bells, for the sake of keeping up the observance, at least externally, for in reality only Fr Charles, Isidore himself, Br Mark and I attended the Choir.’ StairsIn spite of his poor health, Charles continued to struggle on, trying to be faithful to his ministry without in any way neglecting his prayer. Listing the works of the community in his summary for the year 1884, Salvian includes ‘the blessing of hundreds of people by poor Fr Charles although the saintly man is very feeble, and has sores in his legs, and ache in his head and teeth.’ right: stairs from near Father Charles’ room to the front door

In this condition, his going up and down the fifty-nine steps from the parlour to his top-floor room and back again many times a day and his constant fidelity to prayer, especially the night Office of Matins, were a concrete living out of his desire ‘to please God more and more, and to do and suffer everything willingly for his love and for his greater glory’. Charles epitomises that quiet heroism which we could describe, borrowing words from another writer and another context, as a ‘lonely fidelity to an abandoned ideal’. We can picture him during these years of tried as he was remembered by Mary Cooke at the Apostolic Processes:

He was very spent-looking, thin and bent with infirmity, or rather as a result of his habitual attitude of prayer. I remember Fr Charles’ infirm appearance, which suggested that he really should have been in his sick bed: instead, he laboured incessantly, praying and blessing the people.

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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - 2020 - all rights reserved

From the Web publisher:
This biography, paper-published in 1988 at the time of Father Charles’ beatification, was how I became acquainted with the life of Father Charles. Although you will find the entire text at this site, I encourage you to look for the new paper edition of the book, which will be available in bookshops in mid-2007.