The Anniversary Present Pope Francis Gave Himself, The Anchor, March 21, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
March 21, 2014

As the Catholic and even non-Catholic world prepared to celebrate the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election last week, he was having no public events. He was away on retreat, praying with all the leaders of the Roman Curia for five days at the Divine Master Retreat House in Ariccia, a town in the Alban Hills close to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

In one sense, being away on retreat during his anniversary was totally coincidental. This was the fiftieth consecutive year the popes and their principal collaborators have made a retreat during the first week of Lent. Pope Francis obviously wanted to continue that tradition.

But on the other hand it was highly fitting. For a pope who from literally the very beginning of his papacy on the loggia della benedizione has been leading the world in prayer and begging for everyone’s prayers, who has been calling on the Christian world in various homilies and speeches to make prayer a priority and create the time and the space for God, it was a poignant reminder to everyone that prayer comes before anniversary parties. Prayer is, in fact, the most important thing a Pope does and is the most important aspect of the reform of the Church that the 265th successor of St. Peter has undertaken.

There were some noteworthy changes in the retreat Pope Francis and the curial officials made. Past retreats had been held in the Vatican, most recently in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel within the Apostolic Palace. Retreatants would come for two-to-three preached meditations in the first half of the day and then return to their offices to work afterward. Pope Francis, who as a Jesuit has preached scores of retreats and guided thousands of retreatants in the past, immediately saw that that was not an optimal circumstance to make spiritual exercises, so he arranged for a retreat house outside the city to which he and the prelates could go to focus on the Lord and leave their work behind.

One of the major reforms of the Roman Curia he has said he wants to foster is that those in the administration have a chance to focus on “ad-ministration,” making their work a ministry, so that they don’t become bureaucrats but servants with a priestly, religious or faithfully lay Catholic mindset. In an interview on March 5 with the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, he was asked about many of the changes he was making in the Vatican and the first one he brought up was the change about retreats.

“In my way of action,” he stated, “I wait for the Lord to give me inspiration. Let me give you an example. There has been talk about the spiritual care of those who work in the Curia and they began to make spiritual retreats. Greater importance should be given to the yearly spiritual exercises: everyone has a right to spend five days in silence and meditation, while previously in the Curia they heard three meditations each day than then continued to work.”

This wisdom comes from his Jesuit experience. In his spiritual exercises, the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, strongly urged retreats to take place away from home and daily activities. The retreatant “will, ordinarily, benefit himself more the more he separates himself from all friends and acquaintances and from all earthly care, as by changing from the house where he was dwellin, and taking another house or room to live in, in as much privacy as he can, so that it be in his power to go each day to Mass and to Vespers, without fear that his acquaintances will put obstacles in his way.”

St. Ignatius said that there are three benefits from getting away from familiar places.

First, “Man, by separating himself from many friends and acquaintances and likewise from many not well-ordered affairs to serve and praise God our Lord, merits no little in the sight of His Divine Majesty.”

Second, “Being thus isolated and not having his understanding divided on many things but concentrating his care on one only, namely, on serving his Creator and benefiting his own soul, he uses with greater freedom his natural powers, in seeking with diligence what he so much desires.”

And third, “The more our soul finds itself alone and isolated, the more apt it makes itself to approach and to reach its Creator and Lord, and the more it so approaches Him, the more it disposes itself to receive graces and gifts from His Divine and Sovereign Goodness.”

So getting away is more meritorious, makes it easier to focus, and helps someone to be more open and docile to the work God wants to do within him or her.

By conspicuously going away on a retreat on his anniversary, Pope Francis is clearly setting an example for the whole Catholic world. “Everyone has a right to spend five days in silence and meditation,”  he said in the interview earlier this month. We all need that time away.

On March 3, Pope Francis addressed the Italian Federation of Spiritual Exercises, an association of retreat masters and retreat houses that provide the opportunity for lay faithful, religious, priests and even popes to get away from their familiar settings to spend time with God. He spoke very clearly about the fruits that come from retreats in the hope that more would take advantage.

The person, he said, who make a good “experiences the attraction, the fascination of God, and returns renewed, transfigured to ordinary life, to service, to daily relations, bearing within him the perfume of Christ.”

“The men and women of today need to encounter God,” he continued,. Retreats offer “space and time for intense listening of His Word in silence and in prayer and contribute to “renewing one who participates in them in unconditional adherence to Christ, helping him to understand that prayer is the irreplaceable means of union with Him crucified.”

When was the last time you got away to make a good retreat?