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

Pope Francis on retreat with the Roman Curia at the Casa Divin Maestro in Ariccia, Italy, March 4, 2017. Credit: Vatican Media.

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 21-26 February. All papal events, including the Wednesday general audience, are cancelled 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 contraction” 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 centre, 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.”

Source: CNA