Father Ermes Ronchi: The Pope's 2016 Lenten Retreat Master

In his second meditation for the Pope and the Roman Curia, Father Ronchi speaks of the need for the Church to be liberated from fear in order to flourish and bear fruit.

Servite Father Ermes Ronchi. YouTube
Servite Father Ermes Ronchi. YouTube (photo: Screenshot)

Servite Father Ermes Ronchi was surprised when, a few months ago, Pope Francis phoned him out of the blue to ask if he could do him a “favor” and offer the meditations for this year’s Lenten retreat for the Roman Curia.

“I was moved and happy,” said Father Ronchi, 68. “It was all done with simplicity.” He initially said he was “not able to do it”, to which Francis replied: “Do you want to check your calendar to see if you’re free?”

The Italian theologian is leading this year’s spiritual exercises which, as in the previous two years, are taking place at a Pauline Fathers’ retreat and conference center in Ariccia, a town about 20 miles southeast of Rome.

The retreat began Sunday evening and lasts until Friday. All the Pope’s engagements are suspended during this time.

A prolific author on biblical and spiritual themes who currently teaches theological aesthetics and iconography at the Pontifical “Marianum” Theological Faculty in Rome, Father Ronchi wanted to be a monk from the age of 18.

Ordained a priest in 1973 in his mid-twenties, he went on to obtain two doctorates: one at the Sorbonne, specializing in cultural anthropology and the history of religions, and the other in religious studies at the Catholic University of Paris.

As well as lecturing, he also writes columns for Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ newspaper, and appears on Italy’s main state television channel, RAI 1, to present a program called “Reasons for Hope”, previously hosted by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.


Secrets to a good homily

He told Vatican Radio March 7 that during his meditations and homilies, he tries  “to convey the things that have done me good, things from the Word of God that fascinated me, inspired me.”

Asked what are his rules for a good homily, he replied that he has always pledged to do four things: Firstly, “never to say a word that hasn’t caused me to suffer or rejoice, otherwise it is not incarnated and doesn’t reach anyone.”

Secondly, he strives for “simplicity: not to lucubrate with the great thoughts of theorists but make it clear that we are immersed in a sea of ​​love and we do not realize it.”

Thirdly, he focuses on beauty which, he said, is another name for God.

Fourthly, he tries always to “be positive”, and find creative ways to be hopeful. “The Gospel is positive, it’s enough just to read its etymology,” he said.

Asked about Pope Francis and what he is bringing to the Church, Father Ronchi said: ”He is bringing spring!”. He said the first thing he told the Pope when he called him was to “thank him for what he does, for what he gives us, is transmitting to us, for this wave that brushes away the dust from the shelves, from faces, from encounters.”

“This spring for me is really the flowering of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “The Kingdom of God will come with the flowering of life in all its forms and already here we begin to see the blooming of life which for me is the exultation.” 


Today's meditation

In his second meditation at this year’s Lenten spiritual exercises for Pope Francis and the Roman Curia, Father Ronchi spoke of a Church that needs to be liberated from fear.

Reflecting on the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm, Father Ronchi said “fear and faith are the two antagonists that eternally compete for the heart of man,” whereas the Word of God in the Bible repeatedly “comforts and urges” man to “not be afraid!”.

Father Ronchi told the curial officials that fear “is not so much an absence of courage as a lack of trust.” It’s a fear of God that stems from having the “wrong image of him,” he said, “like Adam and Eve who believed in a God who takes away and not a God who gives.”

They believed in a God “who cares more about his law that the joy of his children,” Father Ronchi added, a God of the “judgmental gaze” and someone to “escape from” rather than to “run towards.” He is a God who is “not to be trusted” but this, he said, is a sin “against faith.”

From this “wrong image of God is born the fear of all fears,” he went on. “The face of a fearsome God descends on the fearful heart of Adam” and yet Jesus came to fill the world with “light, the sun.”

Jesus, he said, teaches us that the only way to overcome fear is faith. And the mission of the Church, also to her own members, is to free each person from wearing “different masks with our family, colleagues, superiors.” To transmit the faith effectively, he said, one must not be afraid. But God does not take away the storms of life but “supports us” in them. “He does not save us from the cross,” he said.

"For a long time, the Church has sent a faith mixed with fear,” he continued, one which “revolved around the paradigm of blame/punishment, rather than on one of flourishing and fullness.” Fear is born in Adam because he has not been able to “even imagine mercy and its fruit”, which is joy.

Fear instead “produces a sad Christianity, a God without joy,” said Father Ronchi, adding that it can lead to “fear of others, fear of the stranger.” Such hostility, which can be instinctive, must turn to “hospitality”, he said, “from xenophobia to philoxenia” (hospitableness and welcome). Believers, he said, must be “free from the fear of God,” as the Lord’s angels have done throughout salvation history. “Be angels that liberate from fear,” he said.