Browsing News Entries

From Pius XI to Pope Francis: A history of Spiritual Exercises at the Vatican

Vatican City, Feb 22, 2021 / 07:00 am (CNA).- For nearly 100 years, popes have set aside time for an annual retreat and meditation on spiritual exercises. 

Pope Francis and the Roman Curia began a weeklong Lenten retreat Sunday, but for the first time since the Second Vatican Council, this retreat is not taking place as a time of communal prayer due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, the pope has asked the members of the Roman Curia to make their own arrangements for a private Lenten retreat this year on Feb. 21-26. All papal events, including the Wednesday general audience, are canceled for this week.

Pope Pius XI began the practice of annual spiritual exercises at the Vatican, inviting Jesuit priests to lead the Ignatian exercises for himself and the Curia in 1925. Pius XI was a great admirer of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, proclaiming him patron of spiritual exercises in 1922.

In his encyclical on promoting the practice of spiritual exercises, “Mens nostra,” Pius XI officially established the Vatican’s spiritual exercises as an annual practice in 1929.

He wrote: “For, long since, this Apostolic See, which had often commended the spiritual exercises by word, taught the faithful by its own example and authority, converting the august Vatican temple into an Upper Room for meditation and prayers; which custom We have willingly received, with no small joy and consolation to Ourselves.”

“And in order that we may secure this joy and consolation, both for ourselves and for others who are near us, We have already had arrangements made for holding the spiritual exercises every year in the Vatican.”

The spiritual exercises at the Vatican originally took place during the first week of Advent. Among the Jesuits who preached the Ignatian exercises at the Vatican was Fr. Paolo Dezza, who led the meditations in 1942 for Pope Pius XII. Dezza would later become St. Paul VI’s confessor. 

While Jesuits typically led the annual papal spiritual exercises for 30 years, Pope John XXIII invited other Italian clerics, including a parish priest and a bishop, to lead the meditations for the curia. He also suspended the exercises completely in 1963 due to the meetings of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope St. Paul VI moved the annual meditations from Advent to Lent and was the first to select non-Italians to preach the spiritual exercises. He notably invited a young cardinal from Poland to lead the Lenten retreat: Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, who preached in 1976 on “Christ, a sign of contradiction” two years before he was elected pope.

Pope St. John Paul II invited Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, to preach the spiritual exercises in 1983 and in 2000 Msgr. François-Xavier van Thuân preached the year before he was made a cardinal.

Benedict XVI invited cardinals from Africa to preach the spiritual exercises, among them Cardinal Francis Arinze and Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya.

Pope Francis was the first to move the spiritual exercises from the Vatican to a retreat house outside of Rome. For the past seven years, the retreat has taken place in a retreat house in the town of Ariccia in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome, although the pope was unable to participate in 2020 due to a cold.

Last year, Pope Francis took part in the Lenten retreat “from home,” following along with the spiritual exercises and reflections from his Vatican residence, the Casa Santa Marta.

According to the Pauline priest who runs the Casa Divin Maestro retreat center, where the papal retreat has taken place since 2014, a typical day during the retreat begins with Mass. After breakfast, the bishops and cardinals listen to the first meditation in the chapel. 

The second meditation is heard after lunch, Fr. Olinto Crespi told CNA in 2017. Other time is devoted to prayer. The retreat house also offers internet access, so dicastery heads who need to answer emails or do some work during the week may do so.

As there is no preacher for the curia’s private Lenten spiritual retreats this year, Pope Francis gave each member of the Roman Curia a book to include in their spiritual reading.

The book was written by an unnamed Cistercian monk in the 17th century and is entitled “Abbi a cuore il Signore,” which means “Keep the Lord in your Heart.” It was originally written to aid monks in the Italian monastery of San Bartolo to grow in their spiritual lives.

In the text, the “Master of San Bartolo” wrote: “God will meet you where your humanity has descended all the steps of weakness and you will have reached the awareness of your limitation. If you yourself do not choose the path of abasement, life will take you where you would not want because, as the Lord teaches, only those who live their weakness with humility will be exalted.”

Vatican cardinal reflects on the value of penance in a time of pandemic

Vatican City, Feb 22, 2021 / 05:30 am (CNA).- The penance called for in the Christian life, and accentuated during Lent, can help us make sense of the sacrifices we have been called on to make during the coronavirus pandemic, a Vatican cardinal has said.

In a letter for Lent 2021, published in L’Osservatore Romano on Feb. 18, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza reflected on “penance in the time of emergency.”

Piacenza is major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a tribunal of the Apostolic See which has jurisdiction over indulgences and the absolution of the gravest sins.

He wrote that the 40 days of Lent and Christ’s victory over evil have “an incomparable importance for the life of man, because they concern not only the temporal good of bodily health, but the much more radical one of eternal salvation.”

He said that, unlike what has been emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lent is about “not only healing or immunity from contagion, but the victory over sin, which makes man a slave, and over death, which puts an end to any aspiration that is only human.”

With Lent, we can see beyond the periods of lockdown and pandemic to “time as a whole,” with a perspective “illuminated by the light of the resurrection,” the cardinal said.

He noted that the health emergency appeared “just when renunciation, sacrifice, and penance seemed banned from the lexicon of a West that has become deaf to all forms of mortification.”

Now, he explained, people around the world have been asked “to renounce, at least in part, the exercise of personal freedoms” to follow health safety protocols and obey the indications of established authorities.

According to the cardinal, during the pandemic, the mass media have been sending a threefold message: denouncing an imminent danger and emphasizing one’s responsibility for oneself and others; indicating a future point at which everything will be resolved for the best; and setting a deadline for the required waiting and sacrifice.  

“In part, these have also always been the coordinates of Christian penance…” Piacenza said, “which, in holy Lent, is proposed and offered to all.” 

He added that in the world, there is always “an imminent danger,” the spirit of evil, in front of which Christians are called to “arm” themselves with penance.

The positive horizon is “the victory won by the Cross of Christ and shared by those who welcome him into their own existence,” he explained. And there is an end to the battle, “represented by the ‘sacred number’ of the 40 days, a time of true conversion and salvation.”

The major penitentiary emphasized that Christian penance is not a “tiring and uncertain attempt to obtain, with one’s own strength, some divine favor.”

“On the contrary,” he said, “it consists in the irrepressible need, which arises in every authentically Christian heart, to respond with all of oneself to that Love, all divine and all human, which in Christ took on the evil of the world and, with his own cross and resurrection, renewed the universe shaken by sin.”

The Church has always considered penance to be a “true and proper virtue, given and animated by the Holy Spirit,” and through which “man opens himself to the great victory of Christ,” Piacenza wrote.

Through penance, the human person learns to abandon his whole life to Christ and accepts to suffer with him, assuming the consequences of his own sin, and “offering just reparation.”

“But above all,” the cardinal said, with penance, the Christian learns “to know the mysteries of the Heart of Christ and to have part, now and ever more, in the new life of the One who, ‘in exchange for the joy that was placed before him, submitted to the cross, despising ignominy, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2).”

Piacenza closed his letter by imploring the Virgin Mary to help Catholics to develop “true Christian penance, which alone is capable of embracing and seeing transfigured on the occasion of salvation the current pandemic emergency, making grow in the heart of man the joy and freedom of those who know they belong to no power in this world, but only to Christ and His saving power.”

Pope Francis honors sacrifice of medical workers who died in coronavirus pandemic

Rome Newsroom, Feb 21, 2021 / 07:03 am (CNA).- Pope Francis on Saturday expressed his gratitude for the sacrifice of medical workers, especially those who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

“The example of so many of our brothers and sisters, who have risked their lives to the point of losing them, inspires deep gratitude in all of us, and is a cause for reflection,” the pope said in a letter Feb. 20.

“In the presence of such self-giving, the whole of society is challenged to bear ever greater witness to love of neighbor and care for others, especially the weakest,” he added.

Pope Francis’ letter was addressed to Archbishop Vincent Paglia, who read it at a memorial service for health care workers who have died due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The online event, organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life, was held on the first anniversary of the discovery of a coronavirus case in Italy, in the town of Codogno.

Last November, the Italian government established Feb. 20 as the national day dedicated to health personnel.

The pope said the service and dedication shown by medical workers today and throughout the pandemic is like a “vaccine” against “individualism and self-centredness, and demonstrates the most authentic desire that dwells in the human heart: to be close to those who are most in need and to spend oneself for them.”

He also praised “the generous, at times heroic, development of the profession experienced as a mission,” and assured those participating in the event of his spiritual closeness.

“I greet you with my blessing,” he said.

In the past year, Italy has recorded almost 3 million cases of COVID-19 and over 95,000 deaths.

As of Feb. 18, an estimated 324 doctors and surgeons have died in Italy due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the National Federation of the Orders of Surgeons and Dentists.


Pope Francis: Christian life 'is a battle against the spirit of evil'

Vatican City, Feb 21, 2021 / 05:35 am (CNA).- Like Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, Christians must be prepared to battle evil, knowing that “with faith, prayer, and penance,” the victory is assured, Pope Francis said Sunday.

In his weekly Angelus address, the pope reflected on the day’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, which says “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.”

During these 40 days, which take place immediately after Christ’s baptism, “the ‘duel’ between Jesus and the devil begins, which will end with the Passion and the Cross,” Francis said Feb. 21. “Christ’s entire ministry is a struggle against the Evil One in its many manifestations: healing from illnesses, exorcising the possessed, forgiving sins. A fight.”

“Every year, at the beginning of Lent, this Gospel of the temptations of Jesus in the desert reminds us that the life of the Christian, in the footsteps of the Lord, is a battle against the spirit of evil,” he underlined.

“It shows us that Jesus willingly faced the Tempter, and defeated him; and at the same time it reminds us that the devil is granted the possibility of acting on us too, with his temptations,” he added.

According to Pope Francis, “we must be aware of the presence of this astute enemy, who seeks our eternal condemnation, our failure, and prepare to defend ourselves against him and to combat him. The grace of God assures us, with faith, prayer and penance, of our victory over the enemy.”

In his message, the pope also reflected on the desert, “this natural and symbolic environment, so important in the Bible.”

“The desert is the place where God speaks to the heart of the human person, and where the answer to prayer flows,” he explained. “That is, the desert of solitude, the heart detached from other things and alone, in that solitude, opens itself to the Word of God.”

“Do not be afraid of the desert, look for more moments of prayer, of silence, to enter into ourselves. Do not be afraid.”

Satan may try to take advantage of our weaknesses and our needs with his lying voice, Francis said, but “we are called to walk in God’s footsteps, renewing our Baptismal promises: renouncing Satan, and all his works and all his empty promises.”

After the Angelus, the pope greeted Polish Catholics, saying “today my thoughts go to the Shrine of Płock, in Poland, where 90 years ago the Lord Jesus appeared to St. Faustina Kowalska, entrusting her with a special message of Divine Mercy.”

“Through St. John Paul II, that message reached the whole world,” he said, “and it is none other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who died and rose, who gives us the mercy of the Father. Let us open our hearts to him, saying with faith: ‘Jesus, I trust in You.’”

Pope Francis visits writer and Holocaust survivor in Rome

Rome, Italy, Feb 20, 2021 / 11:05 am (CNA).- Pope Francis on Saturday visited the home of the writer and Holocaust survivor Edith Steinschreiber Bruck in Rome.

The 89-year-old Bruck is Hungarian-born, but has lived in Italy since her early 20s. She survived the Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz and Dachau, where she was sent with her parents, two brothers, and a sister at the age of 12.

Her parents and one brother died in the concentration camps. Bruck and her remaining siblings were freed from the Bergen-Belsen camp by the Allies in 1945.

According to the Vatican, in a meeting of around one hour on Feb. 20, Bruck and the pope spoke about “those moments of light which marked the experience of the hell of the concentration camps.”

Their conversation also touched on the “fears and hopes for the time we live in, underlining the value of memory and the role of the elderly in cultivating it and passing it on to the young.”

When he greeted Bruck, Pope Francis said, “I came here to thank you for your testimony and to pay tribute to the people martyred in the madness of Nazi populism.”

"And I sincerely repeat to you the words I spoke from my heart at Yad Vashem and which I repeat in front of every person who, like you, has suffered so much because of this: ‘Forgiveness, Oh Lord, on behalf of humanity!’” he said, according to a Vatican communication.

After 1945, Bruck returned to Hungary and then went to Czechoslovakia where a sister was living. She married for the first time when she was 16 years old and moved to Israel. That marriage ended in divorce after one year, and was followed by two more marriages and divorces.

Bruck moved to Italy in 1954, where she married Nelo Risi, an Italian poet, film director, translator, and screenwriter who died in 2015 after a long battle with a neurodegenerative disease.

During World War II Risi had fought on the Russian front and been imprisoned in a Swiss internment camp.

Bruck published a memoir about her time in the concentration camps and the years after in Italian in 1959. In 2001 it was translated into English with the title “Who Loves You Like This.”

An award-winning writer, Bruck has also published novels, short story collections, plays, and screenplays in Italian. She has also directed several Italian films, one of which, released in the mid-1980s, was banned for viewers under 18 years of age for its erotic depiction of incest.

In recent years, Bruck has continued to speak about the Holocaust in schools and universities.