A Peek at the Pope's Retreat

Interview With Preacher for Papal Spiritual Exercises

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By Antonio Gaspari

ROME, FEB. 19, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia will have the chance next week to delve into their priestly vocations, seeking renewal in light of lessons from God and the Church on the call to be alter Christus.

The annual seven-day spiritual exercises for the Pope and the Curia begin Sunday.
Mindful of the Year for Priests currently under way, the meditations will be preached by Salesian Father Enrico dal Covolo, on God’s lessons and the Church’s lessons regarding the priesthood.

Both in education as well as in preaching, Father dal Covolo, 59, is hardly a beginner: Ordained at age 31, the Salesian now has preached more than 200 retreats. He is a professor of ancient Christian literature and a specialist in the Fathers of the Church. Since 2002, he has been a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a member of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences. Within his religious congregation, he is general postulator for Saints’ Causes in the Salesian family.

ZENIT asked Father dal Covolo about the theme of the exercises and why vocations to the priesthood are not as numerous as hoped.

ZENIT: What are God’s lessons and the Church’s lessons on the priestly vocation?
Father dal Covolo: In these days of exercises, «God’s lessons,» will take up the two morning meditations; and the second theme, [the «Church’s lessons»], the afternoon meditation.
As we know, «God’s lessons» are given through the sacra pagina, that is, through sacred Scripture, according to the ancient and venerated method of lectio divina, articulated in its fundamental stages: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio.
The «Church’s lessons,» instead, will be exercised through the words of the popes and certain documents of the magisterium quoted occasionally; but above all through one of the most important «lessons» that the Church can give: that of priestly holiness, realized in a few famous models. We will be concerned with these models in the afternoon meditations, dedicated to some «medallions» of exemplary priests.
ZENIT: In what way and what arguments will you use to address the slow growth of vocations?
Father dal Covolo: The arguments I will address are linked to the fundamental stages described by the biblical accounts of vocation: God’s call, man’s response, the mission, doubt, God’s confirmation.
This «canvas» is also dominant in the general intention of the different days: Monday will be the «vocational day»; Tuesday, the «missionary day»; Wednesday, the «penitential day»; Thursday, the «Christological day»; and Friday, the «Marian day.»
I have also attempted to choose the «medallions» in correspondence with the topics of the different days. These are, in order: St. Augustine, the holy Cure of Ars, Bernanos’ country priest; the Venerable Giuseppe Quadrio; the Venerable John Paul II.
ZENIT: How do the spiritual exercises for the Curia unfold and what are the reasons that motivate them?
Father dal Covolo: The spiritual exercises take place for the Roman Curia in the first week of Lent, from Sunday afternoon to Saturday morning. Participating in them, in addition to the Holy Father and the papal household, are cardinals and superiors of the different dicasteries.
They take place in the Apostolic Palace, in the Redemptoris Mater chapel that Pope John Paul II had restored in an extremely thought-provoking way. I will make sure, during the preaching, to make reference to the chapel’s decoration. Among other things, also represented on the back wall is the Venerable John Paul II with the Redemptoris Mater chapel in his hands.
As I have already pointed out, the structure of the exercises is made up of three meditations, two in the morning and one in the afternoon: there are 17 meditations in total, including the opening and closing ones.
The motive of the spiritual exercises is always the same, valid for all the faithful: «to put one’s life in order,» to use the words of the great master of spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
But above all in the cultural climate that surrounds us — and especially at the beginning of Lent — all priests, from the Pope on down, feel every year the need to renew the grace of their ordination, and the profound motivations for their service to the Church.
ZENIT: In your opinion, what are the causes of the crisis in vocations and what remedies are proposed?
Father dal Covolo: The reasons for this crisis are well known.
On one hand, an unbridled materialism, which tends to crush all spiritual longing. The predominant cultural bosses — especially through the media — seem to do everything possible to make the plan of life of the Risen Crucified One «unbelievable.»
On the other hand — though this is also seen in the vocation to marriage — is the resistance of many young people to take on definitive commitments.
The remedy? The fundamental remedy is care of the «contemplative dimension» of life: prayer, the sacraments, meditation, lectio divina. In the second place, educational solicitude so that these young people will have «significant experiences» of gift and service. Only in this way will they realize that the promises of consumerism are deceitful, and that only the gift of self really satiates their thirst for happiness.
Finally, I allow myself to ask ZENIT’s readers to pray, as a special intention, for the week that is beginning. It’s not that I want to give a «good image» at all costs. What I hope for is that these days of grace might mark progress in holiness, both for the participants in the exercises as well as — more generally — for all the faithful and for all men of good will.
 [Translation by ZENIT]

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