Pope Francis Chooses Italian Benedictine to Lead Lenten Retreat

Known for being a ‘social monk’ with ‘deep spirituality,’ Abbot Bernardo Gianni played a key role in a 2015 conference on a new Christian humanism attended by Pope Francis.

Abbot Dom Bernardo Gianni OSB
Abbot Dom Bernardo Gianni OSB (photo: YouTube)

Pope Francis has chosen a Benedictine monk of “great culture” and one of the chief architects of a 2015 conference in Florence on Christian humanism to preach at his Lenten retreat in March. 

Olivetan Father Bernardo Gianni, the abbot of the famous San Miniato al Monte abbey overlooking Florence, will be leading the spiritual exercises in Ariccia, outside Rome, March 10-15.

The monastic order of Our Lady of Mount Olivet was founded in 1313. The Olivetan Congregation has been included within Confederation of Benedictines since 1960.

In a statement, Father Gianni said Pope Francis telephoned him out of the blue and invited him to give the retreat. 

It was a “relaxed conversation,” he said, adding: “When I pointed out that I didn't have any kind of academic, ecclesial, or theological profile to justify such an invitation, the Pope with his disarming style said: ‘This is very positive.’”

His 10 meditations for the retreat have been inspired by the poem Siamo Qui Per Questo (This Is Why We Are Here) by the Italian poet Mario Luzi (1914-2005), who had a devotion to the basilica of San Miniato al Monte and dedicated the poem to it. 

The annual papal retreat, which is also attended by senior officials of the Roman Curia, is said to be one of the highlights of the year for the Holy Father who chooses retreat leaders he sees has having great spiritual depth and a profound sense of culture. 

Andrea Fagioli, writing Feb. 27 in Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, said Abbot Bernardo Gianni, 50, is “a man of great culture,” “deep spirituality” and a “social monk.” Fagioli said he has opened the doors of the abbey to engage with the world, helping it to become “a place of beauty, encounter, communion, and openness to beyond and to the other.” 

Father Gianni has sought monastic renewal, Fagioli added, by opening up the monastery to the city and welcoming those searching for “meaning, consolation, faith.” The abbey's Masses are in the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite and in the vernacular, while the divine office is prayed in Latin.

Born in Prato near Florence, Francesco Gianni (his pre-monastic name) had lived far from the faith before returning to the Church and discovering his vocation in 1992. After becoming the abbey prior in 2009, he was elected abbot in December 2015.

An enthusastic advocate of the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on dialogue and encounter with the world, he played a significant role in November 2015 in preparing an ecclesial convention held by the Italian bishops’ conference on a “new humanism in Jesus Christ,” which coincided with Pope Francis’ visit to Prato and Florence. 

In an address that attracted considerable attention at the time, the Pope told the conference it was “useless” to seek solutions to ills and problems in the Church through “conservatism and fundamentalism,” or the “restoration of practices and outdated forms that even culturally aren’t able to be meaningful.” He also warned against a faith that is “locked in subjectivism.”

The Pope went on to criticize what he saw as two errors he saw as prevalent in Church thinking today: Pelagianism, a heresy that denies original sin, and Gnosticism, which denies Christ’s divinity, as temptations that “defeat” a true Christian humanism. He would later expand on those themes in his 2018 apostolic exhortation on holiness in the modern world, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad).  

Christian doctrine, he said during his address, “is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, concerns, interrogatives, but it is alive, unsettles, animates. Its face isn’t rigid, its body moves and develops, it has tender flesh: that of Jesus Christ.” True Christian humanism, he concluded, is “based on the need for dialogue and encounter, to build together with others a civil society.”

Asked a month later, after being made abbot, what had remained with him of the Pope’s message, Father Gianni said an “agenda full of tasks especially for our heart, to rediscover the centrality of the Gospel, of its call to love, attention to old and new forms of poverty.”

He said the Pope’s message also reminded him not to fall into an “ideology of faith or ecclesial belonging” but to have “an agenda of concern” for those who are distant, and never to be satisfied by pastoral results but to be “restless” in helping the Lord by giving “meaning and hope to everyone.”

Father Gianni said he believed the Pope chose him to lead the papal retreat because of his involvement with that conference, and his work organizing the 1,000-year anniversary of San Miniato al Monte – a church which, he said, has a “vocation” of “talking to as many people as possible everywhere.” 

He said the meditations will therefore be drawn from monastic life, the “gaze of the monks and monastic community on the city, oriented toward the Lord, but never insensitive to what is lived in the heart of the city.” 

This article has been updated to include comments made in a statement by Father Gianni.

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