By Jesús Colina
ROME, SEPT. 27, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican dicastery that coordinates the charitable activity of Catholic institutions around the world, is preparing their third spiritual exercises for directors of diocesan and national Caritas agencies and other Catholic charitable organizations present in Europe.
The retreat will take place from Nov. 28 to Dec. 3 at the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland. The theme of this year’s exercises are: “Here I am, Lord” (Isaiah 6:8).
In this interview, Cardinal Paul Cordes, who presides over Cor Unum, speaks about the reason and importance of these exercises.
ZENIT: This is the third such spiritual exercises that Cor Unum is planning. How did they come about?
Cardinal Cordes: In his first and groundbreaking encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love), dedicated to the nature and exercise of Christian charity, Pope Benedict expresses his wish for a “formation of heart” of those engaged in charitable work. He states his hope that such formation will lead them to “that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirit to others” (No. 31a).
This is the purpose of the spiritual exercises. We want to foster initiatives of this kind that are already present in the local Churches and encourage others to do the same. The gathering in Czestochowa for Europe follows the spiritual exercises in Guadalajara for the American continent (June 2008) and Taipei for Asia (September 2009).
We were pleasantly surprised by the interest both raised and the large number of those who attended — some 400 for America and 450 for Asia. These included cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, and laymen and women from a wide range of countries, active in diocesan Caritas agencies and other Catholic charitable organizations.
Pope Benedict, who from the beginning has followed with great interest this endeavor, has encouraged us to go forward. Hearing of Guadalajara, he told us: “I rejoice that, precisely to render the Church an ever-greater witness of the Gospel, the Pontifical Council Cor Unum has promoted this coming June a course of Spiritual Exercises in Guadalajara for the Presidents and Directors of the charitable organizations in the American continent. This shall serve to fully recuperate the human and Christian dimension … I hope that in the future this initiative can be extended to other regions of the world” (Address to Plenary Assembly, February 2008).
ZENIT: At a time of so many natural disasters — Haiti, Pakistan, India — to name but a few, some might object that a retreat is not the best use of time.
Cardinal Cordes: Of course, there are pressing concrete needs that must be met; we must also act to ensure Christian aid is professional and efficient. So many Catholic agencies are already operating with great commitment and zeal throughout the world, and countless numbers of our suffering brothers and sisters rely on them. But material help, professionally and efficiently delivered, is not enough in itself. I am convinced — also based on my experience of visiting so many places struck by such tragedies — that our service to the poor and suffering will be all the better when people who are dedicated to charitable activities are deeply and solidly rooted in Christ and ecclesial life.
The abundant and positive feedback we received after the gatherings for America and Asia shows clearly that charity workers, both professional and volunteer, are thirsting for a spiritual basis to charitable work. For example, a director of Catholic Charities in the USA wrote to us after Guadalajara: “Every day since I have been home something from the retreat speaks to me. … My job is so challenging and it’s easy to get caught up in the need. ‘Deus Caritas Est’ was an amazing help for me to remember that God is in control. You have blessed me personally and professionally and I will do my best to pass those blessings along to my parish, staff and clients.”
Similarly, after Taipei, the archbishop of a large archdiocese in Vietnam commented: “After the spiritual exercises, I am convinced more than ever that charitable work means this: to reveal to others the love of God; to conform myself to Jesus always through an intimate relation with the Father; and to radiate this intimacy to my people without any distinction. I will try to share the experience of Taipei with the People of God in my archdiocese.”
ZENIT: How do the exercises help charity workers render better service to the suffering?
Cardinal Cordes: The Church is called to help the poor, the needy, people struck by calamities in their material needs. But charity also carries within itself the sign of the Father’s love. The Christian aid worker acts from his or her faith, taking the love that God has as Father to each man and woman, regardless of creed, especially to those who suffer.
There is a second motive. Sometimes our own faith is threatened by the experience of the immensity of others’ needs. Just think of Haiti, Pakistan or the tsunami. In “Deus Caritas Est,” Pope Benedicts cautions that great suffering “might tempt us to become discouraged.” It also might lead us to lose faith in God’s governance of the world, abandoning any hope that he could solve all the problems, or to fall into an arrogant contempt for man, leading us to sacrifice human dignity and to destroy rather than building up (cf. No. 36).
It is not unusual for aid workers, both outside and inside the Church, to be under the impression that their efforts are like that of Sisyphus in the Greek myth; just as he was condemned to roll a large boulder uphill, only to see it roll down again as soon as it had reached the top, so too it seems to them that their “burden of need” is hopeless and their efforts are futile.
ZENIT: So what format do the exercises take?
Cardinal Cordes: Pope Benedict believes that, in order to persevere in our tasks and address the real problems better, our underlying source must be friendship with Christ. That is why he devotes so much attention to prayer in all of his encyclicals: “Deus Caritas Est,” “Spe Salvi” and “Caritas in Veritate.” “People who pray are not wasting their time,” he says, even though the situation in front of us often “seems to call for action alone” (“Deus Caritas Est,” No. 36).
So the exercises follow a very simple pattern based on three essential moments. First, we want to offer the possibility for interior silence — in the business of our daily activities, rarely do we find that opportunity. With great reverence, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, contemplate Jesus in silence before the Blessed Sacrament and pray together lauds and vespers. One of the most powerful moments of the week is to rejoice in God’s forgiveness through a communal celebration of the sacrament in which all of us participants are invited to receive individual confession and absolution.
Then, each day, we hear two conferences as an inspiration to our charitable commitment. They are based on sacred Scripture, the witness of the saints — most particularly those dedicated to charity — and the teachings of our Holy Father, especially in “Deus Caritas Est.” There is also time for reflection and sharing in small groups. Our experience is that openness to the Spirit of God can generate within ordinary men and women zeal and impressive levels of selfless love toward their neighbor.
Finally, there is the third aspect of fraternal communion. We are blessed that our meeting shall take place at the Sanctuary of Czestochowa — a Marian shrine and much-loved place of pilgrimage, where we can pray and receive many graces. All the participants will be accommodated in religious houses close to the sanctuary. The communion and sharing at table and during other moments of our life together is a marvelous opportunity to get to
know each other and exchange experiences of our local Churches and organizations.
ZENIT: Who will lead this year’s Exercises?
Cardinal Cordes: Among the 60 plus bishops who are coming from all over Europe are a number of cardinals. These include Cardinal [Antonio] Cañizares, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal [Antonio] Rouco of Madrid, Cardinal [Vinko] Puljic of Vrhbosna and Sarajevo and Cardinal [Josip] Bozanic of Zagreb, who is also vice president of the Conference of European Bishops. They will lead us with their preaching at Holy Mass.
The daily conferences will be given by Sister Theresa Brenninkmeijer, the abbess of a Cistercian Monastery in Denmark. In addition to her profound experience of prayer and spirituality, which I can attest to personally, she has studied philosophy and theology at advanced levels in Germany and Rome. Her zeal for the Church’s mission is manifested in the monasteries that she has founded in other parts of the world, including Germany and Peru.
Just a few months ago, Pope Benedict delivered a moving catechesis on St. Bernard, the founder of the great Cistercian Monastery of Clairvaux. The Holy Father invited us to be inspired by this saint: “The search for this God who is not yet sufficiently sought must be continued,” the holy Abbot wrote, “yet it may be easier to search for him and find him in prayer rather than in discussion.” For Bernard, Pope Benedict said, “true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love … faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!” (General Audience, October 21, 2009).