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Monday, March 06, 2006

Vatican leaders pause for Lenten Retreat

Mar. 06 ( - Pope Benedict XVI (bio - news) and the leaders of the Roman Curia have begun their annual Lenten Retreat. During the week-long spiritual exercises, the ordinary work schedule at the Vatican is set aside and all papal audiences are canceled.

The retreat began Sunday evening, March 5, and will continue through March 11. Cardinal Marco Cé, the former patriarch of Venice, is the preacher for the retreat.

The Lenten Retreat is taking place in the Redemptoris Mater chapel, on the second floor of the apostolic palace. This is the chapel where the preacher of the pontifical household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, delivered the Advent meditations, and where the Lenten Retreat is held annually, with a preacher chosen by the Holy Father.

The spiritual exercises consist of three preached meditations a day-- two in the morning, one in the afternoon-- each of about 30 minutes. The participants also join in the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Mass, Benediction, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The retreat concludes on Saturday, March 11.

Cardinal Cé, who was asked by Pope Benedict to preach on the Gospel of St. Mark, taught Scripture studies and frequently acted as a retreat master during his early years as a priest. He was named Patriarch of Venice by Pope John Paul II (bio - news) in 1978-- filling an opening that was created when his predecessor there, Cardinal Albino Luciani, had been elected earlier that year as Pope John Paul I. After 20 years, he stepped down as patriarch in January 2002, having passed the mandatory retirement age. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1979. He participated in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict in April 2005, shortly before reaching his 80th birthday (and thus becoming ineligible for a conclave) in July.

Being chosen to preach the Lenten Retreat is regarded as a signal honor, often indicating that the preacher is destined for greater prominence in the hierarchy. (Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was the preacher in 1976, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1983. Among other past preachers, the American Cardinal James Hickey, the Brazilian Lucas Moreira Neves, the Vietnamese Francois-Xavier Van Thuan (all recently deceased), and the Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn all received their red hats shortly after preaching the Lenten Retreat.) In choosing an older prelate to lead the spiritual exercises, Pope Benedict is evidently paying tribute to a life devoted to faithful service.

Cardinal Cé is the 4th consecutive Italian preacher for the annual retreat. Last year's Lenten Retreat was led by Bishop Renato Corti of Novaro. In 2004 it was the noted theologian, Father Bruno Forte-- who was soon thereafter named Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto. And in 2003 the preacher was Archbishop Angelo Comastri, who is now archpriest of the Vatican basilica.

The annual retreat at the Vatican was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1929. Patterned after the traditional Ignatian spiritual exercises, the retreat originally took place in Advent. Pope Paul VI moved the retreat to Lent in 1964, and since that time it has taken place regularly during the first full week of Lent.

The Redemptoris Mater chapel, which can accommodate about 100 people, is located behind the clock that adorns the façade of the St. Damasus court of the apostolic palace. After extensive renovations that were done between 1996 and 1999, was solemnly inaugurated by Pope John Paul II on November 14, 1999. The late Pope had wanted the chapel to testify to the unity of Christians, East and West; the walls now display colorful mosaics in the Byzantine iconic tradition, done under the direction of the Slovenian Jesuit, Father Marko Ivan Rupnik. The chapel restoration was begun as a gift to Pope John Paul on the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination in 1996.

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