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BY Edward Pentin
During this time of spiritual exercises and Lenten retreats, L’Osservatore Romano today reports on the words of Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgi, president of the Italian Federation of Spiritual Exercises (FIES), who has issued a timely reminder of their importance, especially in today’s world marked by secularism.
Addressing the opening of a three day conference of the federation in Rome this week, he began by stressing how, in this Year of the Priest, spiritual exercises are an invaluable means for clergy to enhance and promote their life and ministry. He pointed out that this is the reason why popes, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, have proposed and recommended them, “not so much as a canonical obligation but as an ever urgent need of the spiritual life.”
The Church, he noted, has just marked the eightieth anniversary since the encyclical Mens Nostra, dedicated by Pope Pius XI, on December 20, 1929, to the promotion of spiritual exercises.
Cardinal De Giorgi said the socio-religious and cultural state of the world at that time prompted Pius XI to write about the utmost importance, usefulness, and appropriateness of “holy retreats.” But he added the world then was “undoubtedly less complex and less compromised than today in which secularism puts a relationship with God aside, where materialism effectively denies him, a scientism claims to take his place, and an ethical relativism rejects all moral norms as absolute and transcendent.”
And yet, the cardinal stressed, the analysis that Pius XI made of the crisis of his time is “clear and lucid” and still offers us great starting points for today. “The great sickness of the modern era, we read in Mens nostra, the chief source of the evils which we all condemn, is the lack of reflection,” Cardinal De Giorgi said. “It’s a deficiency that makes us slaves to materialism and short-term riches that results in ‘gradually deadening every noble ideal in the mind.’”
The cardinal explained that the experience of spiritual exercises, while drawing on the great tradition of the past, still requires continual adjustments to the needs of the moment. Much has changed since the days of Ignatius of Loyola, the celebrated founder of the exercises, he said. “Pope Paul VI in 1965, in a speech to the first meeting of FIES, gave a vibrant and stimulating exhortation on reworking the exercises,” Cardinal De Giorgi recalled. “Woe if the Spiritual Exercises become a formalistic repetition and I would say, a lazy outline of St. Ignatius,” he said. The cardinal added that FIES have reworked the exercises for its priests.
Also addressing the conference was the national secretary of FIES, Father Stanislaus Renzi. He underlined Cardinal De Giorgi’s point by noting that people, especially the young, are today “living in a world that loves noise, not silence and recollection,” and who “want to be free from laws and discipline.” To them, Father Renzi said, it is “difficult to talk about seeking the will of God in the context of their own lives.”
And yet, he added, in Italy “there are many, aged from 20 to 30 years, who practice spiritual exercises assiduously, attending courses on spirituality, sometimes at weekends, and whose representatives offer them the opportunity to pray and reflect individually and in community in order to discern their life choices and their own spiritual journey in the Church.”
Spiritual exercises, Father Renzi said, are not just a time to study or to undertake simple meditation and prayer. They are also a time of interior searching and orientation. “Just as walking and running are physical exercises,” said Father Renzi, quoting St. Ignatius, “so the Spiritual Exercises prepare the soul to remove all inordinate affections, and after taking them out, to try and find the will of God in that person’s life, for the salvation of his own soul.”
The Vatican today announced the annual spiritual exercises of the Pope and the Roman Curia are due to begin this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent.
This year’s meditations will be directed by the Salesian priest, Fr. Enrico Dal Covolo, and the theme of the spiritual exercises is: “The ‘Lessons’ of God and of the Church on the priestly vocation”. It will take place in the “Redemptoris Mater” Chapel of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
The spiritual exercises will come to an end at 9 a.m. on Saturday 27 February with the celebration of Lauds and a closing meditation.
The Pope suspends all audiences, including the weekly general audience of Wednesday 24 February, during this time.