By Antonio Gaspari
ROME, 5 FEB. 2010 (ZENIT)
Every year, a countless number of Catholics escape from their
typical activities and take days to retreat into prayer
following the system of the Ignatian spiritual exercises.
The Pope himself is one of these Catholics; Benedict XVI's
annual spiritual exercises with the Roman Curia begin Feb. 21.
Just prior to the Holy Father's retreat, the Italian
Federation of Spiritual Exercises will hold their annual
assembly. The president of the Pontifical Council for Culture,
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, will be one of the participants in
the three-day meeting to discuss the relationship between
spiritual exercises and the people of the Church.
In order to understand better the history, timeliness and
modern practice of spiritual exercises, ZENIT spoke with
Passionist Father Stanislao Renzi, national secretary of the
ZENIT: Many young people don't even know what the spiritual
exercises are or why they are done. Can you explain them
Father Renzi: It's true that many young people no longer even
know what the spiritual exercises are or why they are practiced:
Today youth live in a world that loves noise, not silence and
recollection, and many want to be free of laws and discipline.
It is difficult to speak to them of the "search for the will of
God in deciding their own life."
However, there are many [young adults]
between 20 and 30 years old
who do the spiritual exercises by assiduously attending courses
in retreat houses, at times on weekends. The representatives [of
these retreats] offer the young people the possibility to pray
and to reflect individually or in community, so that they
discern their choices in life and make their own spiritual
journey in the Church. The courses are open to all young people
who wish to make their own lives mature according to God's plan.
It should also be remembered that, according to St. Ignatius,
the spiritual exercises are not a time of study or of simple
recollection and prayer. They are a search: "As walking and
running are physical exercises, so any form of preparing and
disposing the soul to get rid of all disordered affections and,
after being rid of them, to seek the will of God in deciding on
one's own life, for the salvation of one's soul, is called
spiritual exercises." (Es. Sp. Ann.1).
ZENIT: Can you tell us the history of the spiritual
exercises? When did they begin? What does the Bible say in this
respect? Who are the saints who practiced the spiritual
Father Renzi: Spiritual exercises were already done by the
Desert Fathers, but those we call the classic exercises go back
to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who began to write them in a book in
1522 and perfected them in 1548. The book begins the exercises
by posing first fundamental questions: For what has God created
The object of the exercises, in St. Ignatius' thought, is to
order one's life according to God's plan, as man was created to
serve God and only through this can he attain salvation.
He recommended that the exercises be done in a place other
than one's usual environment. There were in fact "houses of
exercises," where silence and stillness helped the exercises to
St. Ignatius took from the Bible the ideas for the gradual
composition of the book of spiritual exercises, in which are
reflected his feelings when finding the secret to discern the
will of God. Hence the Bible is a fundamental text for all types
of spiritual exercises.
It would take a long time to find all the passages of the
Bible that [could be referred] to the exercises. I find one
concretely in Psalm 118:47-64. The Psalmist tells the Lord he
has scrutinized his ways and will direct his steps to the
Commandments; he says he is prepared to keep the secrets of the
Lord. Finally he asks the Lord to show him his will, given that
the earth is full of the Lord's love. Analogous is the itinerary
of the one doing the exercises, who revises his own life to
direct it in the sense of the will of God.
Other references might be the Virgin Mary, who meditated in
her heart everything that happened around her. Mary, in fact,
listened to and meditated the Scriptures, linking them to Jesus'
words and to the events she went discovering in her history in
relation with her Son. Another is Jesus' invitation to the
disciples to withdraw in solitude to rest, which is spiritually
salutary. Finally, the reference to the Scriptures in the
conversation with the disciples of Emmaus, so that they
understand what happened in his Death and Resurrection. St.
Ignatius' exercises go over the whole life of Jesus as it is
narrated in the Gospels.
In addition to St. Ignatius, many saints practiced the
spiritual exercises as a renewal of Christian life. I will
mention only a few: St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Paul
of the Cross, St. Alphonsus Mary Liguori. All were tireless in
preaching and in the confessional as ministers of God's mercy,
helping men to find themselves, to struggle against sin and to
advance on the way of the spiritual life.
ZENIT: In a world such as today's which is so secularized,
what reasons do you give to promote and practice spiritual
Father Renzi: [Citing Benedict XVI,] secularization, which
often becomes secularism, abandoning the positive meaning of the
secular, harshly tests the Christian life of the faithful and
pastors. ... Today it is a providential challenge to which
convincing answers must be given to man's questions and hopes.
Spiritual exercises, insofar as [they are a time of]
listening to the Word of God dwelled upon for a long time, allow
one to discern the will of God and, conforming oneself to it, to
overcome the mentality in which God is absent and, at the same
time, to apply oneself to living in communion with God and with
For this reason the Federation of Spiritual Exercises
promotes the exercises and urges those in charge to plan
exercises every year for each category of persons: priests,
religious, laity, young people, the elderly, with a view to the
renewal of Christian life, to give an answer to the serious
challenges posed by secularized society and religious
"Don't ever forget that the exercises are an insistent
petition, which the Church addresses not only to its sacred
ministers, to men and women religious, to all consecrated
persons, but also to those who wish to enter into themselves, to
dedicate time to God with their soul open to the hope of finding
him on their way, to love him and follow him more" (John Paul
II, Audience to FIES on the 25th anniversary of its foundation).
In regard to the present importance of the exercises, Paul VI
expressed it thus: "The practice of the exercises constitutes
an invigorating and restorative pause for the spirit, in the
midst of the dissipations of chaotic modern life, but also a
school that even today is irreplaceable to introduce souls to
greater intimacy with God, to the love of virtue and to the
science of life, as gift of God and as response to his call."
In 1967 the bishops of Triveneto, Italy, wrote a letter on
the "Validity of the Spiritual Exercises," and they recommended
"perseverance in this apostolate, which day by day shows itself
to be more important."
Without excluding the determination to experience ways that
are adapted to our times, we insist "on the classic structure of
the Ignatian Exercises, so valid and providential in their
climate of reflection and profound silence" (Pietro Schiavone,
S.J., "Il Progetto del Padre," pp. 12-13).