It has been a long tradition in the Church for the Holy Father to go on retreat following Ash Wednesday for the beginning of the season of Lent. This year, Pope Francis began his retreat at the Vatican on Sunday, February 26, with its conclusion on Friday, March 3. The pope invited the cardinals living in Rome and the heads of dicasteries to join him for the spiritual exercises of retreat “in a personal way.” He canceled all of his appointments for the week, including his Wednesday general audience of March 1, and asked the heads of the dicasteries at the Vatican to do the same in order to use the time for prayer in union with him.
It might seem unusual to conceive of the pope as going on retreat as his whole life could be considered one. It might even seem more surprising to realize that monks in a monastery also take time from their usual routine for a spiritual retreat at their own monastery or another place. But 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 these daily activities. A 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 business are lived and carried out in the presence of God.
The 40-day period of Lent, into which we recently entered on Ash Wednesday, is truly a time of retreat for the Church. The usual rhythm of the Church’s life changes. She retreats from the ordinary cycle of liturgical readings and celebrations. The joyful Glorias and Alleluias are not sung and proclaimed. The color purple is generally worn for the celebration of Mass. The liturgical readings are intensely focused, and more time is set aside for acts of penance and the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Church does all of this not to get away from its usual life but to get back to its fundamental life, especially as it will be celebrated during Holy Week and the Easter season. During Lent, we are reminded of who we are and what we believe. The retreat of Lent gives us an opportunity to concentrate more on Christ so that we will be more present to Him during the other seasons of our lives.
The Church’s Lenten retreat presents an opportunity for all of us to do something concrete in refocusing our daily attention on Christ. There are so many practices and devotions we can undertake during this retreat to help us redirect our daily lives. Acts of charity, acts of penance, more time with our families, more time in meditation on the Scriptures or before the Blessed Sacrament, Stations of the Cross, more frequent celebrations of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and, of course, the celebration of the Eucharist are all practices we can undertake in Lent to help us appreciate better the Lord’s presence in our lives. Our Lenten practice might even be to deal with a difficult situation present in our lives in a more patient and understanding manner. The important thing for our Lenten retreat is that we do something faithfully with the intention that it will help us to understand the true meaning of our lives.
In his Lenten message this year, Pope Francis speaks about the Gospel of the Transfiguration of Jesus, which is presented to us on the Second Sunday of Lent. The disciples follow Jesus on a retreat, which He makes upon Mount Tabor. Here, He is transfigured before them, and they experience His glory in a unique manner. At the conclusion of this retreat, the voice of the Father commands the Apostles, “Listen to Him” (Mt 17:5). The pope exhorts us to do the same during our Lenten retreat and to listen to the Lord as He truly speaks to us each day. Pope Francis says, “And how does He speak to us? First, in the Word of God, which the Church offers us in the liturgy. May that word not fall on deaf ears; if we cannot always attend Mass, let us study as daily biblical readings, even with the help of the internet. In addition to the Scriptures, the Lord speaks to us in our brothers and sisters, especially in the faces in the stories of those who are in need.” During our Lenten retreat, it is appropriate to think of manners in which we can spend more time in listening to the Lord. The more we practice these during Lent, the more we can practice them during the rest of the year.
As the pope continues his retreat, the Church continues its 40-day retreat. While the time may seem so different from the other seasons of the Church’s life, it is not. It is an opportunity to refocus and redirect our lives to what really matters so we see that before us each day. Let us resolve to retreat well by undertaking some concrete practice of listening to the Lord, no matter how small it may be, and doing it faithfully and with attention. Conducting our Lenten retreat in this manner will assure us that it will continue long after Lent is concluded.
As Pope Francis reminds us, “Lent leads to Easter: the ‘retreat’ is not an end in itself, but the means of preparing us to experience the Lord’s passion and cross with faith, hope and love, and thus to arrive at the Resurrection.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 3, 2023