For many years, since the pontificate of St. John Paul II, it is been the custom of the Popes to go on a Lenten retreat with members of their curial staffs during the week immediately following Ash Wednesday. Pope Francis has followed this custom with the exception that he has requested the retreat to be held outside the Vatican at a spiritual center in the vicinity of Rome. This year, the retreat took place from March 1 - 6 at the Divine Master House, Ariccia, in the Alban Hills near Rome. Unfortunately, because of a cold which Pope Francis experienced, he could not be physically present at the retreat but made it from his residence at the Casa Santa Marta following all of the talks and exercises by means of video conference.
Father Peter Bovati, a Jesuit priest and Secretary of the Pontifical Commission gave the retreat. The theme of the retreat was "The Bush was on Fire" (Ex 3:2). The theme touched on people's experience of God, represented by Moses' encounter with God and his hearing of God's voice from the burning bush. Father Bovati emphasized how it is this voice that enlightens the lives of people by showing them the way to life. The retreat focused on the necessity of listening to the word of God as a fundamental means for a personal encounter with the Lord. Father Bovati emphasized that prayer is often interpreted as an expression of one's words to God. While this is one aspect of prayer, its deeper dimension is that of the person who speaks to the Lord and then listens to the Lord. He explained that we must not interpret prayer as a request, or as a recitation of words addressed to God, but as an encounter of listening to the voice of the Lord.
Father Bovati stressed, "We think that the experience of Moses is an entirely extraordinary experience, like that of the prophets, that of Jesus Christ, and also of the first apostles. But this is not true. These stories are meant to tell us what actually happens when people dispose themselves in prayer and receive the Spirit. That is, people are ready to be made capable of receiving the intimate word that the Lord addresses to each one in their hearts. This is the Pentecostal experience of every believer. The authentic experience that makes people capable of entering into a personal relationship with the Lord." How fitting is this insight for all of us during the season of Lent as we try to open our hearts to the presence of God in preparing to celebrate the Paschal mystery. Prayer is the fundamental means of our growing in our relationship with the Lord and it is important for us to realize that the Lord speaks to us within our very being.
The particular message which was reflected upon during Pope Francis' retreat was very much in keeping with a message he has been giving. He especially emphasized this message at his public audience on Ash Wednesday just before the retreat. The Pope spoke of the need for listening to the word of God especially in the context of so many of the words imparted to us today. He reflected how the season of Lent is a good time to do this. He said, "Lent is the right time to make room for the word of God. It is the time to turn off the television and open the Bible. It is the time to disconnect from your cell phone and connect to the Gospel." He also emphasized how the period of Lent is a good time for giving up "gossip, rumors, and useless chatter,” by focusing on giving ourselves to the Lord who spent forty days in the desert upon which our Lenten journey is based.
Pope Francis lamented how we are part of an environment that is "polluted by too much verbal violence, by many offensive and harmful words, which the Internet amplifies. ... We are inundated with empty words, with advertisements, with subtle messages. We have become used to hearing everything about everyone and we risk slipping into a worldliness that atrophies our hearts." He expressed how we struggle to hear the word of God who speaks to us personally.
Pope Francis recently expressed a similar message to young people. He reflected how so many means of modern electronic media, good in themselves, can cause us to lose contact with reality and with others. He said, "Today we are often 'connected' but not communicating. The indiscriminate use of electronic devices can keep us constantly glued to the screen." This causes young people, as well as all of us, to get so much information without basic foundation. He questioned, "When I look at things, do I look carefully, or is it more like when I quickly scroll through the thousands of photos or social profiles on my cell phone?" We all need to turn away from the pollution of verbal violence which surrounds us and is as close to us as our cell phone. We need to listen to the Lord who speaks to us within our hearts through His word. Lent is a good time to cultivate this type of prayer.
It may be difficult to conceive of the Pope as going on retreat in view of his whole life of dedication to God. It might even seem more difficult to understand that monks in a monastery also take time from their usual routine of prayer for a spiritual retreat at their own monastery or another place. However, it is easy to understand the need for these retreats when we realize that a retreat is simply a time to change one's usual patterns in order to refocus attention on the presence of God in our daily activities. Retreat is not so much a "getting away from" as it is a "getting back to." We all need such time to redirect ourselves so that our daily lives and busyness are lived and carried out in the presence of God who personally speaks to us.
Lent is a time of retreat given to us in our daily and busy lives. The midpart of Lent is quickly upon us as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday, on March 22. In the spirit of the retreat given to Pope Francis as well as in the spirit of his words to us, let us use the continuing days of Lent as a time to pray, not only by the words we speak, but by listening to God speak to us in our hearts through His word. Let us, in the words of Pope Francis, use Lent as "the time to disconnect from your cell phone and connect to the Gospel."
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 20, 2020