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Pope Francis cancels Lenten retreat and invites Roman Curia ‘to live a period of spiritual exercises in a personal way’

Pope Francis talks to visitors during his weekly general audience Nov. 8, 2023, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has asked top Vatican officials to set aside the first full week of Lent for spiritual reflection, but for the fourth year in a row he has decided not to gather them and go on retreat.

“The Holy Father invites the cardinals resident in Rome, the heads of dicasteries and superiors of the Roman Curia to live a period of spiritual exercises in a personal way, suspending their work activity and withdrawing in prayer during the first week of Lent from the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 18, until the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 23,” said Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office.

Pope Francis, he said, will suspend all his meetings, including his weekly general audience Feb. 21.

For Lent 2014, Pope Francis began the tradition of taking the Rome-based cardinals and Curia officials to the Pauline Fathers’ retreat and conference center in Ariccia, a town about 20 miles southeast of Rome, for the Lenten retreat.

The pope had a cold in 2020, so did not join the others, and then COVID-19 was proclaimed a pandemic, and the lockdown began.

In 2021, still citing the need for caution because of COVID, Pope Francis sent those who usually would attend the retreat a copy of a spiritual book to meditate on during the week. The joint retreat outside of Rome never resumed.

The tradition of having weeklong, preached “spiritual exercises” for the pope and members of the papal household began with Pope Pius XI in 1925. For more than 35 years, it was an Advent, not a Lenten retreat.

Pope John XXIII broke the Advent tradition in 1962 and instead spent a week in September on retreat to prepare for the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Pope Paul VI, made the retreats a Lenten staple in 1964 and broadened the list of preachers, who almost always had been Jesuits.

The retreats traditionally were held in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, beginning on the first Sunday of Lent and concluding the following Saturday morning.

In addition to the retreat, the pope and top Vatican officials gather most Friday mornings of Advent and Lent to listen to spiritual reflections offered by the preacher of the papal household.