Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Lenten Road Trip – For the Curia, There Goes the Retreat... Literally.

Another day in a Franciscan Vatican... and with it, yet another change to "the way we've always done things."

Shortly after a report this morning by Paloma García Ovejero of the Spanish COPE network, the VatiSpox Fr Federico Lombardi SJ confirmed that the Pope had decided to take his first edition of the annual Lenten spiritual exercises with the Curia's superiors to a Pauline retreat house outside of Rome (above), a far cry from their immemorial home in the Apostolic Palace.

What's more, having been led over the years by a parade of A-listers – the future Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI among them, along with several others who came close – Francis has entrusted the 2014 retreat's preaching duties to a parish priest of Rome: Msgr Angelo De Donatis, a figure said to be a sought-out spiritual director among priests and seminarians.

De Donatis' theme for his conferences was not released. The dates for the retreat, 9-14 March, will maintain the event's traditional timing over the First Week of Lent, during which Vatican offices are always closed and all public engagements suspended.

According to the COPE report, the invitation and notice of the change were circulated in a letter sent last week by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, the now-former Secretary of State, as one of his final acts in office. In the memo, the Pope's intent was given that the retreat take place "in a recollected, silent fashion, away from the office." The attendance limited to only the top two or three officials of each dicastery, any leftover lodging-space due to declined invites will be offered to the retired cardinals resident in Rome who'd wish to take part; the replies of the invited prelates are due by November 30th.

Located in Arricia, some 30 miles from the Vatican (near Albano), the chosen site – Casa Divin Maestro (Divine Master House) – is a house of the Society of St Paul, the 20th century mens community established to be missionaries to the media age. Comprising 120 single-and double-occupancy rooms, the house was built by the founder of the ten apostolates of the Pauline Family, Fr Giacomo Alberione, who was beatified in 2003, all of 32 years after his death.

Held until now in the modern-mosaiced Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the papal palace (above) – with the Pope himself listening from a side-room, hidden away from the rest – the Lenten retreat has historically been a key moment for the Popes to showcase the global church's best and brightest, including those they've found to be worthy successors.

Among those tapped to preach the exercises in the past have been no shortage of ad intra household names; beyond Ratzinger (2002) and Wojtyla (1976), among others given the task (in no particular order) are Cardinals Christoph Schönborn, Francis Arinze, James Hickey, Francis George, François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, Claudio Hummes, Albert Vanhoye, Laurent Monsengwo, Gianfranco Ravasi (who gave this year's conferences)... and an Italian theologian named Bruno Forte, made an archbishop shortly after his Lenten turn for JPII in 2004, now back in the spotlight after Francis appointed him earlier this week as one of the top two officials for next year's Extraordinary Synod of Bishops "on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family."

Speaking of the 2014 calendar, between the Synod, the retreat, the dual canonizations of John Paul and John XXIII, at least three more "Super 8" meetings before July, the Curial reform and early expectations of Francis' first batch of new cardinals sometime in the first half, Papa Bergoglio already seems to have plotted out most of next year's top-shelf agenda.

All that remains is the formal announcements of the travel schedule, but even those are already foreseeable – said to be on-deck are long-haul visits to Africa and Asia, as well as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The the latter stop was revealed last month by the pontiff's Argentine rabbi-brother and close collaborator, Abraham Skorka, who shared the news with the press after spending a week with Francis at the Domus, during which the Pope participated in Skorka's rituals for the Jewish Shabbat. (On a related note, earlier today the Pope met and was officially invited by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likewise slated for an audience next week.)

Indeed, Francis has already been eyeing his daybook as far along as 2017 – beyond his pledge to next return to Latin America then, plans of a visit to Portugal that same year have recently made the rounds... for the centenary of Fatima, of course.