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VATICAN LETTER Mar-10-2006 (730 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Clear the calendar: For pope, everything stops for Lenten retreat

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For 51 weeks each year, the pope preaches, teaches, meets and writes -- even when supposedly on vacation.

But during the first full week of Lent, he clears his schedule and goes on retreat. Seriously.

While top officials of the Roman Curia keep their schedules light so they can participate in the pope's Lenten retreat, the pope is the only retreatant whose presence is guaranteed each morning and each evening.

For more than 30 years, the papal Lenten retreat has followed the same basic pattern: morning, midday and evening prayer, eucharistic adoration and Benediction. But the centerpiece of the weeklong retreat is the set of 22 half-hour talks given by a guest preacher between the set prayer times.

For his first Lenten retreat as pope, Pope Benedict XVI asked retired Cardinal Marco Ce of Venice to give the talks March 5-11.

The retreat is held in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, a small space whose walls and ceiling are decorated with huge, vivaciously colored Byzantine-style mosaics.

The pope sits in a small anteroom to the side, guaranteeing his privacy and helping the others focus on the preacher.

A Vatican official said 70 to 80 Vatican officials were at each session of the 2006 retreat.

During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the attendance was about the same, even though the top three or four officials in every Vatican office received a notification about the retreat dates and schedules.

Pope Benedict sent personal invitations.

All the cardinals in the Roman Curia, the prefects and presidents of congregations and pontifical councils, top officials from the Vatican Secretariat of State and priests of St. Peter's Basilica were invited.

The fluctuating attendance rate depended on the time of day and on the meetings and speaking engagements the officials were unable to skip or postpone.

While listening to 22 speeches may not sound like some people's idea of the perfect retreat, it is a way for priests, bishops and cardinals to devote a concentrated period of time to their spiritual growth and to do so while listening to the same spiritual exhortations the pope is hearing.

Attendance is not taken, but officials miss the retreat only with the best excuses.

One official said a Vatican saying often used in reference to diplomatic receptions is even more true at retreat time: "Your presence is not noted, but your absence is."

While the Vatican does not distribute the day's meditations, Vatican Radio provides a daily summary and some direct quotes.

Cardinal Ce, whose archdiocese is proudly under the patronage of the St. Mark the Evangelist, used St. Mark's Gospel as the basis for his 22 talks.

The passages he chose were not strictly Lenten, at least not in the sense of focusing on fasting, penance and almsgiving, although they were mentioned.

Cardinal Ce titled his retreat "Walking Toward Easter With Jesus Guided by the Evangelist Mark."

"Easter gave birth to Lent and not vice versa," he told the pope and curial officials in his opening talk.

Jesus, he said, "accompanies us through the desert of our poverty, sustaining us on our journey toward the intense joy of Easter."

The Lenten retreat, he said March 9, is a time for each participant to renew his faith in Jesus, "throwing open our lives to him."

Early in the retreat, he told the pope and Vatican officials, "We should have only one ambition: that people see that we, despite our limits, are people who really love the Lord, who are in love with him and who do not create an abyss between that which we say and that which we really are."

Cardinal Ce also told retreat participants that Jesus is calling them to be men of extraordinarily strong faith and not to cower in fear like the disciples caught in a storm on the lake.

"In the century that just ended, the church passed through terrible storms, and the century that has just begun also is very threatening," the cardinal said. "In moments of trial, the church must believe in its Lord; it cannot stand at the foot of the cross without the force of grace."

The preacher told the pope: "Jesus asks us to trust unconditionally in his infinite mercy. Our only guarantees are the love of the Father and the mercy of Jesus."


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