The Pope's Retreat with the Curia, St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises and Conscience

Interview with Father Mark Rotsaert, Superior of the Center of Ignatian Spirituality and Professor at the Gregorian University of Rome

Rome, (Zenit.org) H. Sergio Mora | 1267 hits

Pope Francis yesterday observed the first anniversary of his pontificate in the silence of a spiritual retreat, accompanied by Cardinals, Bishops and priests of the Roman Curia.

Were they taking part in an Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises on the six-day retreat which ends today? What are these Exercises, written by the Spanish Saint? What meaning do they have for someone who has already chosen his state, such as a Religious? What is the role of conscience? Are the Exercises brainwashing? As a Jesuit, how has Bergoglio been able to accept the papacy? And, in the Ignatian “agree contra,” is there not a certain risk of Pelagianism?

To understand Pope Francis and this subject better, ZENIT interviewed a specialist, Belgian Father Mark Rotsaert, SJ, Superior of the Center of Ignatian Spirituality and Professor of the Gregorian University of Rome, as well as author of several books including “Spiritual Discernment in the Texts of Saint Ignatius.”

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ZENIT: What is a spiritual retreat? Were such retreats born with Saint Ignatius or did they exist before?

--Father Rotsaert: What at present are called Spiritual Exercises were born with Saint Ignatius, although retreats existed before, as did moments of spirituality, but they were not structured as those of Saint Ignatius. He wrote the Spiritual Exercises as the result of a twofold experience: a personal one of God, after his conversion in Loyola, while reading the life of Jesus and of the Saints, etc.; and the second while he was in Manresa, a Spanish locality where he stayed for some eleven months, an experience to help souls. Ignatius was still a layman, no longer a military man of the King of Spain, but in search of Jesus. So he went on to Barcelona and from there to the Holy Land. He wrote the Spiritual Exercises for preachers, not for those who heard them, because the Ignatian Exercises need the guidance of the preacher. They were not written to be done individually.

ZENIT: So, what are the Exercises?

--Father Rotsaert: They were something new that appeared in the 16th century. I have studied the topic and have not found any other works that do something of this sort. They last one month, four hours a day plus another hour at night. The originality lies in the pedagogical course, because this four-week prayer helps one to take a decision about one’s life, the best for each one.

The novelty is the rereading of the prayer. After having prayed for an hour, one must do a rereading of what happened during one’s prayer. Has it touched me? Has it given me joy? What emotion has it aroused in me? Because this interior motion is the way in which God speaks to us and the way to listen to Him. That is why the guide has to help one doing the Exercises to interpret positive moments of consolation and joy, which at the end of the retreat will suggest the direction to follow.

The rereading can be done at two levels: the first: if it wasn’t good, to understand why. And the second, which is the most important: to understand how the rereading has touched one. That is why Saint Ignatius says that the preacher doesn’t have to explain the Gospel too much, in order to leave room for the retreatant to find it in his prayer in some way, because it is not so much about knowing, as it is about feeling and tasting entirely.

ZENIT: One sees very much in Francis a personal relationship with Jesus, no?

--Father Rotsaert: Yes, indeed. And another thing that is seen is what Ignatius says that at the end of the prayer it is necessary to have a conversation with Jesus, as a friend with a friend.

The Exercises last four weeks, the first is to enter into a relationship with God, to pray, to reflect on one’s sins and on God’s mercy. The more one feel the gravity of sin, the better one will appreciate God’s mercy. The retreatant ends this week asking, what am I doing? – to then end the retreat with the question what must I do?

The second week is to contemplate, to see persons, to listen to what they say, to see what they do. This is done to enter into Saint Ignatius’ vision, so that the retreatant enters into a relationship with Christ, and not with someone of two thousand years ago, but of today. This week, which is the longest, is about Jesus’ public life; the third week is the Passion and the fourth the Resurrection.

ZENIT: How many times in life do Jesuits do the Exercises?

--Father Rotsaert: During the first year of the novitiate and then, a second time, during the third year of the novitiate, having finished a course of studies in Theology, Philosophy, etc. Ignatius calls this third year the “schola affectus.”

ZENIT: Are the retreats held outside the place of work, as in Ariccia?

--Father Rotsaert: Not always, but preferably, because when the person lives in the same place of the retreat, he might end up by engaging in some activities. There is also another method, which enables one to do the Exercises over a year, in which every day the person prays at home and reflects with the rereading and with a guide that he meets once a week. Saint Ignatius made allowance for this. At a certain moment, this system was lost and it was rediscovered at the beginning of the 60s by a Father of my Province in Belgium, and studied further by Father Cusson, also of this University, with considerable success. However, to follow the Exercises exactly as they are in the book, means to be unfaithful to Saint Ignatius, because they must always be adapted to the person.

ZENIT: Critics were not lacking who described Saint Ignatius’ Exercises as “brainwashing.”

--Father Rotsaert: It makes me laugh because I’ve written a small book in French on the Exercises, in whose Introduction I point out the amazing apparent contradiction between the gymnastic and the spiritual, and also as “an attempt of brainwashing.” There are two factors here: with a good preacher and a normal retreatant it isn’t so! However, undoubtedly Saint Ignatius found a way in which the person’s faith can play quite a determinant role so that he can choose freely.

ZENIT: Francis often speaks about the problem of conscience, in which the person listens to God. What is this like for a Jesuit?

--Father Rotsaert: The Church has always said that conscience is the ultimate criterion in making a decision. The same is true for subjects that are already consolidated, such as marriage, etc., in which the faithful must study to know what the Church says, although the final decision passes through the conscience. This is the difference which makes the Pope’s language more pastoral. Not that the dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith doesn’t have to do its work, but that the Pope points out that this truth exists, which is established theologically, but also in life each one is confronted with this.

ZENIT: Doctrine and the Natural Law are not contradictory. Does a right conscience lead to understanding Doctrine?

--Father Rotsaert: In fact, in the history of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits more than once had a particular theological openness in regard to Pascal and other more rigid schools. Saint Ignatius also gives criteria on this and the Jesuit must understand how to apply them to the person, the place, the time, etc.   He established rules on the candidates that can enter the Church, but also the possibility of exceptions if truly important reasons exist.

ZENIT: When the Pope speaks with people, one has the impression that he looks for the good side in their conscience, even in those that one would say there is nothing …

--Father Rotsaert: It is to a degree our spirituality, but not only ours.

ZENIT: Speaking of conscience, the Jesuits, having a vow to the Pope, won’t be able to do so. Has liberty of conscience entered somewhat in Bergoglio?

--Father Rotsaert: In the Society we make the three vows of Religious plus a fourth of obedience to the Pope, in addition to some small vows on poverty and ambition. Because Saint Ignatius saw that these two temptations in Rome were the most dangerous for the Church. We are committed not to ever change the rules on poverty desired by Saint Ignatius, unless it is to make them more severe, which clearly has never happened. In regard to ambition, we do not accept the responsibility of Bishops, etc. Of course historically, there have been Bishops because, for instance, in some missions, initiated by a Jesuit, there was no one else to be Bishop. And Saint Ignatius clearly never thought of a Jesuit Pope, as, if they couldn’t be Bishops ….

ZENIT: Yet Bergoglio accepted to be Pope, but did he have to ask for a dispensation?

--Father Rotsaert: He already had the dispensation to be Bishop, the rest is a consequence.

ZENIT: Sometimes in Religious there is a certain “be good” attitude, which creates a difficulty for them to say “no.” It’s not so with Francis. Does it have to do with the “agere contra” in decisions such as to stay at Saint Martha’s?

--Father Rotsaert: It’s important to be able to say no. Meanwhile the “agree contra” formula is a phrase within a context. In the Exercises it is a method to understand how to follow Jesus and clearly if one can choose, one prefers to be rich rather than poor; then, in prayer and dialogue with Jesus one asks for the opposite, but it is a gift that one asks for, there is nothing of willfulness in it.

ZENIT: Are the Pope and the Roman Curia doing the Spiritual Exercises with the priest?

--Father Rotsaert: Strictly speaking no, but of course they are marked by Saint Ignatius’ method. 

[Translated from Spanish by ZENIT]