VATICAN CITY — It was a quiet week in the Vatican. And a very busy week for one American bishop.
As is customary during the first week of Lent, the Holy Father suspended all his official engagements, including his Wednesday general audience, to make his annual retreat, together with about 80 participants from the Roman Curia, the central administrative offices of the Church.
This year the retreat, which began March 4 and concluded March 10, was preached by Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, who spoke to the Register about the experience.
Cardinal George was the second American asked to preach the retreat during the pontificate of John PaulII. Cardinal James Hickey preached the retreat during the Marian Year of 1988.
Cardinal George chose as his theme, “A Faith for All Peoples: Conversion, Freedom and Communion.” He addressed the “missionary challenges of globalization” and drew upon the series of continental synods that were held in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000.
A member of a missionary congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Cardinal George told the Register that “today, there are proportionately fewer Christians in the world than at the time of the Second Vatican Council,” and so it is necessary to re-examine the missionary challenge.
“I'm trying to take the Gospel dynamic, which is there for every age, and look at it in a new age, a new culture, sensitive to the globalization phenomenon,” said Cardinal George. The current context of the life of the Church is one in which “we are moving from jubilee to mission,” he added.
The retreat conferences, always given in Italian, are delivered every year by a different preacher, chosen by the Holy Father. Often the conferences are published later as a book, as will be the case with Cardinal George's retreat this year. Cardinal Hickey's 1988 retreat was published under the title, Mary at the Foot of the Cross; likewise the retreats given by Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Christoph Schönborn and Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, have all been published and translated into English.
What the Pope Saw
For the past two years, the Lenten retreat for the papal household and the Roman Curia has been preached in the Redemptoris Mater chapel, one of the newest, and most striking, additions to the Apostolic Palace.
The chapel was renovated according to the wishes of John Paul himself, who financed the project with the money given to him by the College of Cardinals on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination (Nov. 1, 1996). The new chapel, dedicated in November 1999, highlights the riches of the Eastern tradition in the Vatican, and also combines modern styles with the iconographic tradition.
“In the Redemptoris Mater chapel some important themes of the pastoral magisterium of John Paul II emerge — first among them, ecumenism,” says Bishop Piero Marini, papal master of ceremonies and custodian of the chapel. “The mosaics celebrate the history of salvation, taking as their central theme the mystery of the Trinity, which reveals itself primarily in the Son of God made man and his Mother.”
“John Paul II has wisely transformed the gift given to him by the College of Cardinals into a gift to God, to his glory, and to all the People of God,” continues Bishop Marini. “It will remain in the future as a memorial of a long and significant pontificate.”
Cardinal Francis George commented upon his experience of being in the chapel — for the first time — during the papal retreat:
“It is clearly Eastern in its themes. The Annunciation is on one side and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary on the other — which is very Eastern.
“The style is more or less inspired by iconography, and because of that, all the walls are covered with images. It's a very busy place — almost an assault on the senses. But mosaics cover the whole space, like paintings in palaces in Venice where the walls are entirely covered — again showing the Eastern influence. So there is a lot to see in a relatively small space. I would like to spend some hours there in order to appreciate it — it's a very interesting place.
“As for being in the chapel for the retreat, I suppose that you would have to concentrate on what is being said rather than what you are looking at, unless, perhaps, you wanted to be distracted from what was being said!
“During the retreat itself, the Pope is in an attached side chapel — the chapel of St. Lawrence — which is like a small sacristy. The retreat master can see the Pope, but the other participants do not see him, and he does not see them. He was there for every talk, for all the offices, the rosary, benediction — for everything.”