The Spiritual Exercises, in which the Pope and the Roman Curia will take part, will be held from March 5-10 in the “Divine Teacher’s” House of Ariccia, near Rome.
Pope Francis’ choice on who would lead these Exercises fell on a Milanese Franciscan, Friar Minor, Father Giulio Michelini, Class ’63. He is Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Theological Institute of Assisi. A profuse writer but also a passionate reader, for years he has given courses on conjugal life together with a married couple who are his friends.
Interviewed by ZENIT, Father Michelini describes the feelings he had after he learnt that he was chosen by the Pope to carry out this commitment. He speaks of the subjects that will be addressed and announces beforehand that, at the end of the Exercises, the meditations will be gathered in a book entitled “Be with Jesus, Be with Peter” (ed. Porziuncola).
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ZENIT: Father Michelini, how and when did you learn you had been chosen to lead the Spiritual Exercises in which the Pope will take part?
Father Michelini: I learnt it the First Sunday of Advent. One of his collaborators called me to give me this news and to let me know that I would be called later by the Holy Father.
ZENIT: How was the call with the Pope?
Father Michelini: He was very courteous in asking me this favor. I explained that I would find it difficult to speak before the Pope and the Roman Curia; I also said I had the possibility of <finding> other persons more capable than me. The Pope answered me: “Let’s do this, Father Giulio. You continue to think that there are persons more suitable than you. But please, you come to give the Exercises.” And it seemed to me such a wise answer, so forthright … I trust the Pope.
ZENIT: Had you already had the chance to meet the Holy Father personally?
Father Michelini: In truth, I had the good fortune of being able to greet and embrace him, but not to have a conversation with him. The first time when he came to Assisi and met with the whole Franciscan Community of Saint Mary of the Angels. Then in Florence, when he met with members of the preparatory commission of the National Ecclesial Congress, of which I was part. And finally, the third and last time was last November, when together with docent colleagues of the Italian Biblical Association, we were received in audience in the Vatican.
ZENIT: What feelings did you have on these three brief but affectionate exchanges with the Pontiff?
Father Michelini: I realized that the Pope is not afraid of the look; rather, he seeks it. For me it is the look of Peter. In fact, the title of the book that I chose to gather the meditations – which will be published by Edizioni Porziuncola at the end of the Exercises – is “Be with Jesus, Be with Peter.” It is a particular experience for a Franciscan. Saint Francis called him “Lord Pope.” For me the Pope is Peter. I think of Matthew’s Gospel, which insists much on the ecclesial dimension. Hence my look is directed not only to a man like me, but also to him who is Peter.
ZENIT: You have confided that to prepare yourself better for the atmosphere of these Exercises, you retired for ten days at Capernaum in Galilee. Is it possible to summarize in an answer the spiritual relation that the physical presence in the Holy Land offers?
Father Michelini: During the Exercises I will be speaking of Jesus’ humanity. Moreover, the cross, the Passion, the Death, the burial speak of Jesus’ humanity, which we must rediscover. At Capernaum, where Jesus began His mission, one can find traces of the streets he went on, of the Lake he went across and of the house where he stayed, that of Simon. To know that my feet were in the same places traversed by Jesus was moving for me. There is then a second element – cultural: the idea that, despite the conflicts, pilgrims from all over the world go to the Holy Land. And, finally, for us Minor Franciscans, it’s an honor to be custodians of this land.
ZENIT: The meditations will focus on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, according to Saint Matthew’s Gospel. Why this choice? Is it a text (Matthew’s Gospel) which has the characteristics that are particularly adapted to the Season of Lent?
Father Michelini: The strictly technical answer is no. All the Gospels are used in the Season of Lent. I remember that in the Ambrosian liturgy John’s Gospel prevails, in the Roman, instead, we normally read all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). I chose Matthew, however, because it’s the Gospel I know best; it is a text in which I feel at ease. I’ve written a book on this text – “Matthew. Introduction, Translation and Comment (published by Saint Paul’s, 2013) – but what I’ll say to the Pope is completely new.
ZENIT: In addition to your reflections, you wanted one elaborated by a married couple that for years has collaborated with you, Mariateresa Zattoni and Gilberto Gillini, as well as one prepared by a Claretian cloistered Sister. Why ever this choice?
Father Michelini: Because I’ve worked for years with these persons, it was a natural choice, which I made without much reflection. I’ve written eight books with the Gillini Zattoni spouses. They are part of my way of reading the Bible, which is not only academic. I asked them for advice on that part of Matthew’s Passion, in which Pilate’s wife counsels him. It is about applying the Gospel to the concrete life of persons: my friends are experts on a couple’s relations and, therefore, they have been useful. Instead, the Claretian Sister, knowing that I would speak of the anointing at Bethany, sent me a note. Her words seemed so beautiful to me, that I will quote them as they are. Deep down, they offer a feminine, cloistered contribution, which I would not have been able to give. Hence, I am happy that together with me there are other worlds, not only the male consecrated one, but also that of the family and of a woman who lives in contemplative life.
ZENIT: In addition to evangelical passages, will you also propose reflections based on other texts?
Father Michelini: Yes, I had the good fortune to study modern literature and I have a degree in foreign literature. I read much, therefore, when I read the Word of God there often come to mine references of a literary and also theological type. An author in the theological realm that I have frequented for years is Romano Guardini, whom I will quote on several occasions. Then I will also make reference to true stories, for instance, one that struck me very much, narrated by Massimo Gramellini on the rubric he had before in La Stampa. On the strictly literary plane, I cannot fail to speak of Amos Oz, Israeli essayist who has written a very beautiful piece on Judas, one of the protagonists of the Passion. Then I will propose a story told by Emmanuel Carrere in his Il Regno [The Kingdom], which speaks of a loss of faith. These texts represent very well the drama of contemporary man. Therefore, I will also quote Franz Kafka. During meals, instead, we will read an anthology of Marian texts and the volume Un istante prima dell’alba [An Instant before Dawn] of Father Ibrahim Alsabagh, which is a live account of what happened at Aleppo during the war.
ZENIT: Are there specific prayers and readings of the Gospel with which the faithful can accompany the Holy Father in the course of these Spiritual Exercises?
Father Michelini: There will be two Readings of the Gospel for every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon . Reading them, the faithful can accompany the Pope and invoke the Holy Spirit for me and for all the participants.
ZENIT: How are you preparing for this experience?
Father Michelini: I stayed a few days on Lake Tiberias, but now I have returned to my docent’s work. Therefore, I’m preparing with my daily commitments and with constant prayer and Mass; I can’t do otherwise. But I must say that I am accompanied by a sense of peace that I never felt before, which I believe attests that many friends are praying for me and for the Pope.
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Titles of the Individual Meditations and Reference Passages
Sunday, March 5, in the afternoon at Vespers: General introduction to the Exercises on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus according to Matthew.
Monday, March 6, in the morning: Peter’s confession and Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 16:13-21).
In the afternoon: Jesus’ last words and the beginning of the Passion (Matthew 26:1-19).
Tuesday, March 7, in the morning: The Bread and Body, the Wine and Blood (Matthew 26:20-35).
In the afternoon: The prayer at Gethsemane and Jesus’ arrest (Matthew 26:36-46).
Wednesday, March 8, in the morning: Judas and the field of blood (Matthew 27:1-10).
In the afternoon: The Roman trial, Pilate’s wife and dreams of God (Matthew 27:11-26).
Thursday, March 9, in the morning: Death of the Messiah (Matthew 27:45-56).
In the afternoon: The burial and Jesus’ Sabbath (Matthew 27:57-66).
Friday, March 10, in the morning: The empty tomb and the Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-20).