Lenten Reflection on Lenten Reflection

lectionarySince 1995 I have been blessed to serve as retreat director for gatherings of deacons and their wives, deacon candidates and their wives, priests and even bishops.  These have ranged from annual retreats, canonical retreats prior to ordination, anniversary retreats and so on.  It has always been such a wonderful experience: the sessions themselves, the quiet conversations, meal times, the socials, and most especially, the time for prayer.


At Salvatorian Seminary, Bill Ditewig and Bob Woyach, 1966

At Salvatorian Seminary: Bill Ditewig (left) and Bob Woyach (right), 1966

There have been unusual moments, too!  Like the time I discovered that one of the men who would be on retreat was an old high school seminary classmate whom I hadn’t seen since 1967 when we graduated!  It was hard not to look out at him and think, “What a road we have all been on, and we could never have imagined that we would be together again all these years later as deacons.”  Since that experience a few years ago, several more similar encounters with former seminary classmates have taken place: always a humbling experience!

In a similar experience, I remember the first public academic lecture I was asked to give at the Catholic University of America after I received my Ph.D. there.  The topic of the lecture concerned ecclesiology and catechesis, and the audience was full of my former professors, mentors and advisors: now they were there to hear what I had to say as a colleague.  As a retired Navy officer who frequently briefed senior military and government officials and did all sorts of other challenging things at sea and ashore, I don’t think any of those experiences were any more frightening that preparing for that lecture and looking out at those particular people who had taught and inspired me so much.

Pope on retreatIt was with those thoughts in mind that I came across the following images of Pope Francis arriving for the Lenten Retreat for the senior curia this year.  Smiling broadly as he steps off the bus from Rome, the pope seems happy to be away from the city, and one can only wonder what books he has brought with him in his briefcase!

The retreat director is a parish priest from Rome, Msgr. Angelo De Donatis.  Imagine looking out at the community of retreatants and seeing the humble figure in white listening to your every word!

The pope definitely came to be on retreat.  It is significant to see that he is wearing the papal cassock without the pellegrina, the short cape usually worn over the cassock.  It was widely reported after Pope-emeritus Benedict went into retirement that he would no longer wear the pellegrina; it is a sign of the jurisdictional authoPope on Retreat 3rity of the bishop, and the pope-emeritus wanted it to be clear to everyone that he no longer exercises papal jurisdiction.  In this case, it seems safe to say that Pope Francis has come with an attitude of leaving the burdens of the papal office behind him for a few days so that he can re-charge his spiritual batteries while on retreat (Now before anyone takes offense by my comments: no one, and certainly not me, is suggesting that he is no longer exercising papal jurisdictional authority while he’s on retreat!  Of course he is the pope and continues to be while he’s on retreat!  I’m simply suggesting a kind of spiritual attitude that focuses at this time more on spiritual renewal than on papal authority.)

Pope on Retreat 5The Pope has also arranged this retreat away from the Vatican, in order to help the retreatants leave their own familiar environs behind.  He and the curia will be on retreat from March 9-14 at the Pauline Fathers’ retreat and conference center in Ariccia, a small medieval town not far from the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.


May we also find creative ways of retreating during Lent.  Most of us may not be able to go off to a nice retreat location, but how might be walk a similar path nonetheless?  Perhaps we can find ways to rearrange our work schedules a bit; maybe we take a lunch break and make a quiet visit to the Blessed Sacrament at a nearby church.  Perhaps instead of going for that extra cup of coffee, we take that time and say a quiet decade of the rosary.  Certainly our parishes offer opportunities as well: go to Confession, make the Stations of the Cross, sit quietly in prayer, take advantage of Lenten speakers or days of recollection.  The benefits of finding a way to “retreat” are incalculable.  The Pope himself said a few days ago that persons who can be on retreat “experience the attraction and fascination of God and return renewed and transfigured in their daily lives, their ministry and their relationships.”  Even if we can’t go on a five-day directed retreat in a beautiful medieval town by a lake, perhaps we can break up our normal routine enough to open ourselves to this transfiguration during Lent.

And, forget the elderly man in white sitting next to you!

Pope on Retreat 1

More From Deacon — I mean, Pope — Francis which will upset people

francesco blessingIt’s hard to believe, but Lent is just around the corner.  Every year, popes write messages to the world offering a vision for ongoing conversion and how we might better follow Christ as his disciples.  This year, Pope Francis once again demonstrates his profound diaconal vision for the Church.  His 2014 Lenten Message focuses our attention on the nature of poverty itself and our response to it

In the year that has passed since the pope’s election, I have been struck by the profound sense of diaconate which radiates from the Holy Father, especially, during Lent and Holy Week.  Let me start by something which some might think only an arcane bit of trivia, but for me, it is something quite profound.  Some of the first images we had of the new pope came from his days as Archbishop of Buenos Aires as we washed the feet of people — all kinds of people —  on Holy Thursday.  Invariably the images showed the Cardinal Archbishop wearing his stole as a deacon does while washing feet.  This was clearly a deliberate choice he made: to remove his priest’s chasuble and to rearrange his stole diagonally as a deacon wears it.  For people who might not be very familiar with the way these things normally work, this may not seem like such a big deal, so let me explain.  Normally, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, in the Latin Church,  the priest (or bishop) presiding, the deacons assisting at that Mass, and any concelebrants, will remove their outer vestments: the chasuble for the bishops/presbyters, the dalmatic for the deacons. Francis washing feet In many cases, these same clerics might also take off their stoles as well, although some will keep the stoles on.  Priests and bishops wear their stoles over their shoulder with the ends of the stole hanging straight down in front of them.  Deacons wear the stole over the left shoulder, and secured at the right hip, so that the stole appears diagonally across the deacon’s chest.  So, imagine a priest celebrating this rite: he removes his chasuble and the stole — worn in the priestly manner — is visible.  If he leaves the stole on during the washing of the feet, then that’s what people will see.  If the deacon removes his dalmatic, people will see the stole worn diagonally.  What Pope Francis does is something I don’t think any of us has ever seen before: he removes his chasuble, and then takes his priest’s stole and rearranges it, intentionally, into the diagonal stole of the deacon.  And only then does he begin to wash feet.

The message, therefore,  is crystal clear and sacramentally significant: In this act of washing feet, we are imitating Christ the Servant, Christ the Deacon, who was pouring out his life for others just as he was pouring out the water over the feet of his disciples.  It’s all about diakonia.

Want more?  Guess when Pope Francis actually signed his Lenten Message?  Oh, it was only released over the last couple of days, but if you look at the end of the document, you will find that he actually signed it on 26 December, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr.

With this as background, let’s look at some of the things the Holy Father has to say.  The pope cites St. Paul: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”(2 Cor 8-9), and asks, “What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today?  What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today?”  He immediately responds that first this “shows us how God works.”  He speaks of how God chose to reveal himself in poverty out of a desire to be close to us, “a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved.”  I was reminded of the words of St. John Paul II, who wrote in his great encyclical Fides et Ratio, when he referred to kenosis as “a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return” (#93).

Pope Francis reminds us that this was a “logic of love,” and that God did not desire salvation to “drop down from heaven”; rather, Christ was among us “to comfort us, to save us, to free us.”  He continues, “In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.  Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope.”  The pope lists three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual; as we go through them, how can each of us — especially those of us who are clergy of the Church — address each of these?

destitutionMaterial destitution refers to those living without the essentials of human dignity, “those living without who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally.”  The pope observes that “the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds. . . .”  He powerfully reminds us that in the poor and the outcast “we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ.”  He goes even further, striking a now familiar theme: “When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.”

Moral destitution is “slavery to vice and sin.”  The pope speaks of those who have lost all hope of finding meaning in life, suffer from addictions of all types (he cites alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography), or suffer from lack of “equal access to education and health care.”  Moral destitution is all about a loss of hope and meaning, often due to unjust social conditions, by unemployment and a loss of dignity.

Spiritual destitution is experienced when people turn away from God and reject his love. “If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through CHrist, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall.”  The pope reminds us that it is the Gospel which is the “real antidote to spiritual destitution:

Wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.  The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope!

We many not yet be thinking about Lent, but the Pope is.  And would it really hurt any of us to start our spiritual preparations now?  He prays that all of us be “ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message. . . .  Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.  Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.  I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”

So, my friends, are we living and serving in the image of Christ?  Are we are truly imitating Christ, “who became poor and enriched us by his poverty”?  Have we emptied ourselves so that others may live?

St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr, Pray for Us!