VATICAN CITY – Continuing an 80-year-old papal tradition, Pope Benedict XVI is canceling regular audiences and clearing his calendar to make a weeklong Lenten retreat.
The spiritual exercises not only shut down the normal business of his pontificate, but also place the pope in the unusual position of doing all the listening and none of the talking.
Judging from his own remarks in recent years, Pope Benedict doesn’t mind giving up center stage and reflecting on someone else’s insights.
Chosen to preach the Feb. 25-March 3 retreat this year was Italian Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the retired archbishop of Bologna, who is making an unusual second appearance. In 1989, he led the Lenten retreat for Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Biffi has a reputation for outspokenness, and perhaps his history of verbal fireworks led the pope to bring him back for another round. The papal retreat is attended by the Roman Curia and involves many hours of sermons and meditations, and the ability to keep people awake is a requisite for the job.
The idea of preaching to the pope may sound intimidating, and past retreat masters have acknowledged some trepidation at the task. It may help that when they get into the pulpit, the pope is not staring at them from the front row – he listens off to the side, in a semiprivate alcove.
Past preachers have included simple Franciscan friars and leading cardinals from around the world. In 1967, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla – the future Pope John Paul II – was chosen to lead the retreat. In 1983, it fell to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope.
That has given the job a certain aura, and over the years journalists and others have looked to the registry of Lenten preachers when it comes time to draw up their “papabili” lists. So far, Pope Benedict is turning to elderly, retired prelates; last year, the preacher was 80-year-old Italian Cardinal Marco Ce.
Cardinal Biffi, who is 78, will preach on the theme, “The Things Above,” which refers to St. Paul’s letter advising early Christians to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”
If the cardinal wants some guidance, he could look back to Pope Benedict’s own words last year about the same passage. The pope said St. Paul was not telling people to cut themselves off from their earthly responsibilities, but to orient their daily lives toward the supernatural.
Then again, Cardinal Biffi is not required to follow the pope’s lead.
The retreat opens with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, an evening prayer service and an introductory talk. Each day afterward, the retreat master gives three meditations in morning and afternoon sessions, accompanied by prayer and reflection.
As the retreat goes on, the Roman Curia machinery winds down. Not everyone attends the entire program of spiritual exercises, but the top officials in each office are encouraged to do so, and the pope’s Redemptoris Mater Chapel fills up quickly.
The pope disappears for a week, too. No private audiences, no liturgies, no working lunches. Even the Wednesday general audience is canceled, to the disappointment of pilgrims who chose this week to be in Rome.
Pope Benedict certainly has plenty to do: the final review of a long-awaited post-synodal document, a book on Jesus due out this spring, a backlog of “ad limina” appointments with bishops and a string of homilies and talks to prepare for the coming weeks.
But taking time out of a busy schedule is precisely the point. Pope Pius IX first instituted the papal Lenten retreat in the 1920s, and in 1929 he issued an encyclical promoting spiritual exercises for the entire church, saying that “the most grave disease” of the modern age is lack of spiritual reflection.
He said people’s insatiable search for riches and pleasure “so entangles them in outward and fleeting things that it forbids them to think of eternal truths, and of the divine laws and of God himself.”
Pope Benedict no doubt agrees. As a cardinal, he once cautioned against Vatican hyperactivity and said church leaders should recognize they “have less need of discussion and more need of prayer.”
The retreat is private, but outsiders can catch up later on the content. Most papal retreat masters publish their sermons in book form several months afterward.