Just a few days ago, our USCCB Retreat concluded. We gathered at the request of Pope Francis, and enjoyed the direction and wisdom of the Preacher of the Papal Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM. With nearly 280 bishops registered, which is a similar number of those who are present for our plenary assemblies, we experienced a unique opportunity over the course of six days to pray together. While Bishops gather regularly for retreats on a Regional basis, this year’s retreat was a rare gathering of the entire body of bishops from the United States.
As many of you know, as we began the retreat, we each received a letter from the Holy Father, explaining his desire and hopes for our time together. He said: “I suggest that together you make a retreat, a time of seclusion, prayer and discernment, as a necessary step toward responding in the spirit of the Gospel to the crisis of credibility that you are experiencing as a Church.” He assured us of his nearness and encouragement during our time together.
Fr. Cantalamessa echoed the words of Pope Francis when in his opening remarks he assured us that he was here to accompany and encourage us by means of the Word of God. Together we asked to receive the strength and the Light of the Holy Spirit and to listen to the voice of the Lord.
Our meditations and pray focused primarily on our unity as successors to the Apostles 1) with the Lord Jesus, 2) with the Holy Father as the successor of Peter, and 3) with one another. We explored in depth the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, the Apostles, and in the early Church, and the implications for the same power of the Holy Spirit in our lives as successors to the apostles today.
Fr. Cantalamessa is deeply rooted in Scripture as well as the early Church Fathers. All of his meditations were rich with scripture and references to the Fathers, particularly St. Augustine. This academic strength, complimented by his humility, life experience, and clear immersion in the life of the Holy Spirit resulted in a rich experience of reflection and prayer for all of us. Sprinkled into each meditation and homily were great examples and humor.
Our celebrations of the Liturgy of Hours and Mass were uplifting and inspiring. One evening we also celebrated a Penitential Service. Each day, we had two talks, and celebrated Mass, Morning and Evening Prayer, and concluded each day with a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was also available over the course of our week together.
In one of the more powerful reflections, Fr. Cantalamessa compared the agony of Jesus to Jacob who wrestled with God (Genesis 32). Jesus in his agony became barely recognizable to his disciples. Jesus felt cast off from human company, and experienced a solitary terror, struggling in mortal anguish. He who is innocent takes on our guilt, and was weighed down by all the evil and ugliness of the world. This suffering was greater than the physical suffering.
The love of the Father was present to Jesus during this difficult moment, but Jesus could not feel or sense it at that time. In this moment, Jesus struggled: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me.” But, he did not try to change God’s will, but rather in the face of his anguish, Jesus simply prayed: “Your will be done.”
With Jacob on the other hand, he wrestled with God for other purposes. Jacob sought to change God’s will to his own, whereas Jesus asked that his will be conformed to the will of the Father.
Shortly after retreat, I found another similar thought from Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ:
“This tendency to set acceptable conditions upon God, to seek unconsciously to make his will for us coincide with our desires, is a very human trait.”
I will be ‘chewing on’ this retreat material and the letter of Pope Francis for days to come.
Our retreat ended with a strong invitation to Faith and Hope. Fr. Cantalamessa reminded us of St. Paul’s definition of faith as a faith that justifies sinners and manifests the Holy Spirit. St. John’s understanding of faith is the person who believes in Jesus and is thus capable of overcoming the world. Jesus in the Gospels simply speaks of the necessity to believe in Him.
We closed with the words of Jesus himself: “Take courage, I have conquered the world.” There is no need for us to fear the current reality. Heaven and earth will pass away, but not the Word of God.
I come away from this retreat definitely rooted again in a stronger sense and renewed faith in the Lord’s presence with us during this difficult moment. I also have greater hope and trust that the Holy Spirit continues to lead and guide us, and I am more resolved to continue each day in prayer and discernment that we may find our way forward together.
Praying and acting are not separate activities. Our prayer is not just something we do before we act. Rather, we shall pray from this moment forward in order to KNOW what it is that we are to do. This is one of the fundamental reasons our Holy Father wisely ‘sent’ this body of bishops off on retreat, that our actions in response to this present challenge may be a response that flows FROM prayer and discernment. I am grateful to Pope Francis for the gift of this time of prayer. Likewise, I’m grateful to Fr. Cantalamessa for sharing such rich and fruitful meditations. And, to all of you, I’m grateful for your prayerful support!