Pope Francis and members of the Roman Curia leave Sunday to begin their annual five-day Lenten retreat on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius; since 2014, the retreat has been held at Casa Divin Maestro (House of the Divine Master) retreat house.
Casa Divin Maestro, nestled away in the woods on Lake Albano, is just a short distance from the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the town of Ariccia, some 16 miles outside of Rome.
One view from the retreat house encompasses the lake and the town of Castel Gandolfo; even the dome of St. Peter's Basilica is visible in the distance.
The peace and serenity of the location reflects the mood Pope Francis wants to set for the entire retreat, Father Olinto Crespi told CNA.
“We know that the Pope does not rotate much: room, chapel, dining room. He speaks very little, even at the table. There is always a background of music, and he himself stays silent,” he said. It is like “the real exercises of the school of St. Ignatius.”
Head of the household at Casa Divin Maestro, Father Crespi is one of five Pauline priests acting as “hosts” of the Holy Father and the Curia during the retreat. They are all “new,” he said, so it will be the first time for all of them hosting the Holy Father.
The practice of the Pope going on retreat with the heads of Vatican dicasteries each Lent began some 80 years ago under Pope Paul XI. The spiritual exercises were held in the Vatican until Lent 2014, when Pope Francis chose to hold the retreat outside of Rome.
“Doing the exercises in the Vatican, at the time the meditation was given, each prelate went into his office,” Father Crespi said, adding that “the Jesuit Pope wanted the exercises to be made in an atmosphere of recollection and prayer, and they will do only the exercises.”
The retreat will include preaching on the Gospel of Matthew by Franciscan Father Giulio Michelini, selected by the Pope to preach for the occasion.
A typical day during the retreat begins with Mass, followed by breakfast, Father Crespi said. They will then return to the chapel for preaching by Father Michelini. After lunch, they will return to the chapel.
While many other groups that hold events at the house will gather in the auditorium, Father Crespi said that Pope Francis “wants to be alone in the chapel.”
“And this [explains] the climate that Francis wants to create,” he said. Even the Pauline Fathers of the retreat house “are asked not to disturb.”
The house has a good telephone line and Wi-Fi, Father Crespi said, so there may be some time for cardinals to do a little work during the week if needed, but “the Pope himself sees very little. He is very reserved.”
Before Francis began going to Casa Divin Maestro for his annual spiritual exercises, the house was not unknown in the Vatican or to cardinals. Father Crespi believes that either the Pope heard of the place through word of mouth or perhaps he had even been there himself while still a cardinal.
“Even the Swiss Guards were here for a retreat,” he said. They would go on runs in the woods in the early mornings, which, he joked, “certainly the cardinals do not do.”