By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Following last year’s highly successful Men’s Spirituality Conference, it will be conducted again this weekend and it provides us with our topic this week.
In the Gospel of St. Mark, we read of our Lord’s invitation to His apostles: “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). This invitation followed upon a period of great activity for the apostles, who had just reported to Jesus “all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30).
Jesus is certainly inviting them to come away for a bit of rest after their labors, but He is also asking them to do so in His presence. Perhaps in that intimate companionship of Jesus with His apostles, we can imagine Him praising them for their labors and filling them with strength and encouragement for their future apostolate, in order to help them to be faithful to their calling. From this context, we can see the origin of any time spent with our Lord, resting yes, but resting with Him.
There is no doubt that we live in an age of great activity. Much of it is necessary in order to fulfill our obligations, but some of it may just be activity and noise for their own sakes. There is always the danger of thinking that we are indispensable and so we cannot leave our post unattended. We are also told that sometimes we can fear our own company, with the reflection and soul- searching that this may require. This is why, following the example of Jesus and His apostles, we are all called in some way to “come away and rest a while” in His presence.
There are many ways of doing this. The classic way is that of a retreat, where we actually go off to another place for a few days, without any other activity but that of drawing closer to Jesus in prayer and reflection. Pope Benedict recently completed his own retreat, made along with the members of the Roman Curia. During that time, no audiences were held and all business that was not urgent was put on hold. We are so blessed in our own Archdiocese to have retreat houses, where both men and women Religious and the lay faithful may go and experience the peace and intimacy of being with Jesus alone. One of these Retreat Houses is St. Joseph in the Hills in Malvern. The hallmarks of the weekend retreats that have been held there for so many years are the opportunity to go to Confession and the hour of adoration spent alone with Jesus in a small chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed all through the night for the express purpose of giving the those making the retreat this intimate time with our Lord.
Other means of “coming away” with Jesus
Sometimes, it is not possible to take a week or a weekend and spend those days in quiet intimacy with Jesus. Fortunately, there are many other ways of accomplishing the same goal. In your own parishes, especially during Lent, you may have Days of Recollection, Lenten Missions, Holy Hours and similar activities that partake of the spirit of intimate time spent with our Lord. One of the initiatives that was begun last year is the Men’s Spirituality Conference. It takes place again this weekend at Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia.
An event such as this highlights the twin aspects of our lives in Jesus: our personal and unique relationship with Him and the fact that we are also part of a larger, mutually supportive Christian community. Last year, I heard from so many of those who attended the Conference and from their parish priests, that those who took part in the Conference were so uplifted by seeing hundreds and hundreds of others who were there with them for the same purpose: to draw closer to Jesus and return to their labors and their lives with renewed strength. This came to them through this time of prayer and the mutual support and edification that they found in the presence of so many others who had the same goal.
What are the two main components of time spent away with Jesus? The first is some type of listening. In fact the theme of quiet listening, with openness to the voice of Jesus was one of the first themes of the Holy Father’s recent Spiritual Exercises. This listening can be accomplished through spiritual reading, through silent meditation on the mysteries of our faith and through talks and conferences given by others who are there to help us to listen to the authentic voice of Jesus.
The speakers invited to the Spirituality Conference will present messages geared to the particular vocations of the men gathered together, so that they might return, refreshed and renewed, to exercise the vocation the Lord has called them to. The second component involves the need we all have for repentance and reconciliation.
This year’s theme
I am so pleased that the theme of this year’s Conference is “Be reconciled to the Lord.” This is actually a reflection of the other component of time spent away with Jesus. Priests of Religious Orders and Congregations who exercise the apostolate of preaching missions and retreats often said that the true fruit of those periods of prayer and meditation is seen in the confessional. This is so because we are all called to a constant conversion of life. Time spent away with Jesus, of its very nature, involves reflection on the status of our relationship with Him. Given the weakness of our nature and our sins and imperfections, this reflection should lead us to conversion. This means that we first have to take care of the past so that we can move ahead to the future with our good resolutions.
We often hear the expression that refers to “putting something behind us and moving on.” That is a valid idea only if it is not seen as a way to move forward without taking care of the past. Our reason itself tells us that if there has been a major offense or rift in our human relationships, we must take care of that first in order to restore that relationship to what it should be. In the beautiful Sacrament of Penance, Jesus has given us the means to do that in our relationship with Him. Genuine reflection on the state of our lives in Jesus should always lead us to that spirit of constant conversion which is the basis of the Christian life until we reach its fulfillment in heaven. This conversion is only possible with God’s grace which, as Jesus reminded St. Paul, is sufficient for us (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).
As we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus during Holy Week and Easter, we are reminded that He has given us everything necessary for a true relationship with Him. This means that He has given us a means of responding to His message in faith and love and being sorry for our sins with true repentance and a spirit of amendment. He has chosen to dispense that forgiveness through a visible Church, which He guides until the end of time and through which He brings us His forgiveness. In an atmosphere of Christian recollection shared with others we may say that there are three elements that draw us closer to our Lord.
First, we hear His word directly through the Scriptures, through the Liturgy of the Church and through speakers who inspire us. The Fathers of the Church refer to preachers as “the dogs of God.” This is where the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, got their name, which literally means that. The idea is that it was thought that the dog licking someone’s wounds brought that person comfort and healing. So it is with the preacher or speaker, who encourages, inspires and challenges us through preaching and speaking. The purpose of this is always repentance, conversion and increased fidelity. When we do this with others, we are lifted up by their presence and strengthened in our good resolutions. Finally, in seeking forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation we take care of the sins of the past and receive grace for the future.
The first Christian Retreat is often said to have taken place in the Upper Room, or Cenacle, where Mary and the Apostles waited in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you are not able to make a formal retreat or attend a day of spirituality like that which takes place this weekend. However, each of us can make a space for recollection within ourselves. You may find these words of Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val (1865-1930), Secretary of State to Pope St. Pius X, of some help. He wrote: “It is up to us to turn our heart into a little Cenacle. Then nothing will upset us. There may be things to upset us on the outside but we can always find peace and recollection in the Cenacle of our heart.”
11 March 2010