Prayer and Evangelizing Mark John Paul II's Lent

VATICAN CITY—It was quiet in the Vatican this past week. Pope John Paul II made his customary Lenten retreat March 1-6 and thus, held no public or private audiences.

To the casual observer it may seem like an oddity that the leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics should clear his calendar of all appointments for a full seven days, but as Vatican insiders know, prayer is a top priority for John Paul. Not only has he been diligently preparing himself for forthcoming celebrations of Holy Week, the Pope is also making sure the Diocese of Rome and the Universal Church spiritually prepare for Easter.

A quick glance at the Pope's schedule reveals the full picture of how he's spending the 40 days of Lent: a week-long retreat for himself and Vatican officials, a meeting with the priests of Rome, a pastoral trip to Africa, written Lenten messages for the laity and clergy, and a full roster of liturgical celebrations.

On Ash Wednesday, Pope John Paul II held his customary general audience in the Vatican and celebrated Mass in a church on Rome's Aventine Hill. During both appointments he emphasized that Lent is a time of grace and spiritual renewal.

“Through prayer, fasting, and charitable acts, we renew our friendship with God, we are freed from false promises of earthly happiness and, through faith, we grow in evangelical love,” he said at the general audience.

At Mass that evening in the fifth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina, the Pope marked the foreheads of clergy, religious, and the laity with ashes. He encouraged Catholics to pray and meditate during Lent on the connection between their sins and Christ's sufferings, particularly through meditation on the way of the cross.

The Pope also asked the congregation to join him in praying that people will be open to a dialogue with God during this penitential season.

Missionaries in Rome

The following day, Pope John Paul II held his annual Lenten meeting with the clergy of Rome. He spoke to them in particular about a diocesan mission now underway. During the six weeks of Lent, 12,000 laypeople, 3,000 consecrated religious, and 1,000 priests are going door-to-door in an attempt to visit every household in the city. The volunteer missionaries are delivering copies of the Acts of the Apostles—which describes how the Christian faith arrived in Rome—and are encouraging people to become more active in the Church in preparation for the year 2000.

The Pope reminded Rome's priests that the Holy Spirit “operates mysteriously and silently in the depths of each person.”

“When we knock on the door of a house, or on the door of a heart,” John Paul said, “the Spirit has preceded us there, and the message that Christ brings could perhaps resound anew in the ears of those who listen.”

The Pontiff's meeting with the diocese's priests underscores his duty as bishop of Rome for their pastoral care. As pastor of the Universal Church, Pope John Paul II is entrusted with the care of priests worldwide. In a symbolic gesture, he will release later this month his annual “Letter to Priests” for Holy Thursday—a tradition he began in 1979.

The Pope has already released his customary Lenten message for the faithful around the globe (See “Through Desert Isolation to Communion with God and Neighbor, Register, Feb. 22-28). This year's reflection focused on poverty and called on Christians everywhere to carry out acts of charity in the weeks leading up to Easter.

“I exhort every Christian in this Lenten season to evidence his personal conversion through a concrete sign of love toward those in need, recognizing in this person the face of Christ,” the Pope said.

The Lenten message noted that an equally serious form of poverty—lack of spiritual nourishment—troubles many men and women today and can also bring on grave suffering.

“The consequences of this are right before our eyes and are often very sad—a life void of meaning. This kind of misery is mostly found in environments where people live in comfort, materially satisfied but without a spiritual orientation,” he said.

Spiritual Exercises

Continuing a tradition that dates from the middle ages, Pope John Paul II made a Lenten retreat in the apostolic palace. This year, the spiritual exercises were directed by Cardinal Jan Chryzostom Korec, 75, a Jesuit theologian. The Slovakian cardinal chose as his theme, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).

Cardinal Korec brought a striking personal history to the retreat, having spent 12 years in solitary confinement under Czechoslovakia's former communist regime.

The Pope was joined in the week-long spiritual exercises by Vatican Curia officials, who normally attend as many sessions as their schedules allow.

As is customary, John Paul II sat each day in a side chapel where he could see and hear the preacher but could not be seen by the other participants. Besides attending four reflections preached each day by Cardinal Korec, the Pope spent much of his remaining time in prayer and meditation.

With his spiritual batteries re-charged, the Pope will now face a daunting schedule for the remainder of the Lenten season. Later this month, he sets-out on a pastoral visit to Nigeria, where he will visit three cities in as many days.

The highlight of the March 21-23 trip will be the beatification of Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi in the southern city of Onitsha. Pope John Paul II also will meet with leaders of Nigeria's Muslim community, which makes up about half the country's population of 107 million people.

It will mark his second pilgrimage to Nigeria and his 82nd pastoral trip outside Italy since his pontificate began in 1978.

Holy Week in Rome

Without a doubt, Holy Week in the Eternal City is the most spectacular eight days of the entire year. Because of this, it's also a traditional time of pilgrimage to Rome and the Vatican.

Beginning Passion (Palm) Sunday, April 5, and continuing through Easter, Pope John Paul II will lead the faithful in the most solemn liturgies of the Church's calendar—in the city where the early Christians died for their faith. It begins with Mass in St. Peter's Square, during which the Pope leads a colorful procession with palm branches recalling Jesus' triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.

Wednesday, John Paul holds his customary general audience in the Vatican. Holy Thursday morning, the Pontiff gathers in St. Peter's Basilica with priests from his diocese for the traditional Chrism Mass, which includes the blessing of oils used in the sacraments, and the renewal of promises made at ordination.

That evening, he begins the three days commemorating Christ's passion, death, and resurrection—the Paschal Triduum. During the Mass of the Lord's Supper at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Rome diocesan cathedral, the Pope commemorates the institution of the Eucharist and washes the feet of 12 priests.

Good Friday, the only day of the year during which Mass is not celebrated, Pope John Paul customarily spends the morning hearing confessions in St. Peter's Basilica. In the afternoon, he presides at a Liturgy of the Word including veneration of the cross. At night, he leads a torch-lit Way of the Cross procession at Rome's ancient Colosseum.

On Holy Saturday evening, the Pope celebrates the joy of the resurrection during the lengthy Easter Vigil liturgy— baptizing new Christians and welcoming them into the Church.

The following morning, he celebrates Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square followed by his blessing Urbi et Orbi (to the city of Rome and the world) in more than 50 languages.

The heavy schedule of liturgical celebrations is physically taxing for the 77-year-old Pontiff—even a priest half his age would no doubt find it demanding. Thus, at the end of the Easter weekend, Pope John Paul II normally goes to his residence in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome for a few days of well-deserved rest.

Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.