My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
At the request of Pope Francis, the bishops of the United States gathered for a retreat from Jan. 2-8 at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. In his letter to the American bishops, the Holy Father wrote that he had suggested this retreat as “a time of seclusion, prayer and discernment,” calling to mind how, “at critical moments in his mission, the Lord withdrew and spent the whole night in prayer, inviting his disciples to do the same” (cf. Mk 14:38). He called for a “new ecclesial season” and for finding a way to “protect those in our care from losing hope and feeling spiritually abandoned.” In order to do so, we would first need to enter “with trust into Jesus’ prayer to the Father” and “allow him to conform our hearts to his image and help us to discover his will.”
Pope Francis also reminded us that we are not alone on this path. “From the beginning, Mary accompanied and sustained the community of the disciples.” Relying on her help, the Holy Father said that we should ask Mary “to keep us united and persevering as on the day of Pentecost, so that the Spirit will be poured forth into our hearts and help us in every time and place to bear witness to the resurrection.”
Some secular commentators expressed opinions about this retreat indicating that they apparently did not understand what a religious retreat is all about. Perhaps that is because the word “retreat” in some ways has been co-opted in the world of business and politics to mean a get-away meeting at some remote location to do long-range strategic planning. While the church does indeed do long-range strategic planning, the range of such planning ultimately has eternity as its horizon, which is somewhat longer than what most worldly organizations have in mind!
It is in this sense of trying to keep everything in perspective with a focus on eternal life that one engages in a religious retreat. The word “retreat” itself implies stepping away from one’s usual routine to try to look at the bigger picture without being distracted by one’s usual daily routine. In fact, above the entrance to the retreat house at Mundelein where I was staying is the inscription in Latin, Venite seorsum, which means, “Come away by yourself.” The quote is from the Bible, where Jesus says to the twelve Apostles, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31). The context for this instruction of Jesus is that they had just heard about the beheading of John the Baptist. Obviously, Jesus and the Apostles were grieved and distraught at this tragic news and needed to recollect themselves in order to continue their ministry.
No sooner did they go off into a boat by themselves to a deserted place when the crowds discovered where they had gone and followed after them. It was in this deserted place where there was no food that the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the feeding of the five thousand took place.
Picking up on this dynamic, the retreat at Mundelein was an opportunity for us as successors of the Apostles to come away by ourselves to pray, to grow closer to Jesus and to deepen our relationship with him, to reflect prayerfully on what needs to be done before taking action, and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to do the right thing always as we return to feed the flocks entrusted to our care with the spiritual nourishment of Word and Sacrament.
The retreat master was Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan Capuchin priest who serves as preacher of the Papal Household. Father Cantalamessa was appointed to this position by Pope St. John Paul II in 1980, which means he has been doing this for almost 40 years! As such, he brings a wealth of experience to his preaching and is quite a charismatic preacher who speaks with apparent joy and enthusiasm.
The themes of Father Cantalamessa’s talks touched on how to grow closer to Jesus through radical conversion by sharing in Christ’s commitment to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, by sharing in Our Lord’s poverty, and by sharing in Jesus’ ardent prayer for unity. He urged the bishops as shepherds to tend to the flock that is in our charge and to be witnesses of the resurrection of Christ, doing so with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Father Cantalamessa closed the retreat with these words: “Take courage, you bishops of the United States; take courage priests, deacons and all the people of this land; and work, ‘for I am with you,’ says the Lord.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.