Some years ago, when I was working for the Holy See at the Vatican Information Service, I wrote a piece on the history of papal retreats. Because there is generally so little news during such a retreat, given that Pope does not hold audiences in this period and the heads of Roman Curia offices are also involved in the retreat, we had to find something for our readers so I researched the history of papal retreats:

Pope Francis and Roman Curia on retreat:


Annual retreats for the Pope and Roman Curia trace their origins to Pope Pius XI who, on December 20, 1929 marked the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination by publishing the Encyclical “‘Mens nostra,’ On The Promotion of Spiritual Exercises” which he addressed to “Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops and Other Local Ordinaries in Peace and Communion with the Apostolic See.” In that encyclical, the Pope informed the faithful that he had arranged to hold spiritual exercises every year in the Vatican, a custom still practiced by the Holy Father and ranking members of the Roman Curia. In the early years this retreat was held during the first week in Advent but now takes place in the first full week of Lent. Cardinal Achille Ratti, archbishop of Milan, was elected to the papacy on February 6, 1922, and took the name of Pius XI. He died on February 10, 1939.

On January 6, 1929 feast of the Epiphany, Pius XI declared a Jubilee Year to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of his ordination and asked the faithful to “share in the joy of their common father and to join with us in rendering thanks to the Supreme Giver of all good.” At the end of that year, in the Encyclical “Mens nostra,” he looked back at the “many and rich fruits” of the Jubilee and wrote that, as a way to “express our heartfelt gratitude, … we have deemed it fitting … to establish something most excellent which will, we trust, prove a source of many advantages to the Christian people. We are speaking of the practice of Spiritual Exercises, which we earnestly desire to see daily extended more widely, not only among the clergy, both secular and regular, but also among the multitudes of the Catholic laity.”

Pius XI then wrote at length on the history of “Sacred Retreats,” citing the words on this subject of his predecessors, of Doctors of the Church and founders of religious orders such as Don Bosco of the Salesians and, most especially of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, “whom we are pleased to call the chief and peculiar Master of Spiritual Exercises.”

The Pope in fact, on July 22, 1922 had “declared and constituted St. Ignatius of Loyola the heavenly Patron of all Spiritual Exercises and, therefore, of institutes, sodalities and bodies of every kind assisting those who are making the Spiritual Exercises.”   He underscored the “joy and consolation” he found in Spiritual Exercises and he announced: “And in order that we may secure this joy and consolation, both for ourselves and for others who are near us, We have already made arrangements for holding the Spiritual Exercises every year in the Vatican.” While highlighting the value of retreats, he admonished: “Nor should the priests of the Clergy, secular and regular, think that the time spent on the Spiritual Exercises tends to the detriment of the apostolic ministry.”

In 2014, the spiritual exercises for Pope Francis and members of the Curia marked the first time that they were held outside Vatican City, specifically in Ariccia, not far from Rome, in a religious house.


Today’s Lenten station church is Saint Anastasia on the piazza of the same name in the Campitelli neighborhood of Rome. This is an area that includes the Roman Forum, Piazza Venezia and the Victor Emanuel monument and Capitoline hill where Rome’s City Hall is, flanked by two museums. Here’s a wonderful link to the blog and photos by NAC’s Brian Lenz as he describes Mass here last year: http://blenzinrome.blogspot.it/2014/03/tuesday-of-first-week-sant-anastasia.html

The relics of Saints Anastasia and Faustina, her mother, are under the main altar. At the end of the left aisle there is a chapel dedicated to St. Jerome (340 to 420) with the altar on which he used to say Mass whenever he was in Rome. Today this is the altar of the Blessed Sacrament and Sant’Anastasia has perpetual adoration.


As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the practice of station churches had its origins in the first centuries of Christianity when most of the early Popes celebrated the liturgy on special days at special churches in the Eternal City. This eventually became principally a Lenten devotion. In his liturgical reform, Pope St. Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 to 604, established a station church for each day of Lent, thus making the whole season a pilgrimage on the path to conversion while preparing for Easter.

Sant’Anastasia was, in those earlier times, the station church for Christmas (it seems Anastasia and her mother were martyred on December 25), and Pope Saint Gregory celebrated the second Mass of Christmas in this church.

The following info is from NAC’s page about station churches: http://www.pnac.org/station-churches/the-roman-station-liturgy/

Had we come to this church when it was first built we would still have been able to hear the sounds of chariots and the crowd inside the nearby Circus Maximus, one of the great symbols of the Roman Empire.  Now the stadium, like the empire that built it, is nothing more than ruins and memory, while the Faith it strove to crush by the execution of martyrs like St. Anastasia is still here.  Little remains of factual history of her story, other than remembering her martyrdom in Sirmium, in modern day Serbia.  Her cult arrived in Rome towards the end of the fifth century from Constantinople.

This was originally a district of Roman houses and shops, part of which was demolished to build a small, Greek cross plan church by Pope St. Damasus in the late fourth century.  It is possible that this church was originally sponsored by a member of the Imperial family named Anastasia and named in her honor, later being rededicated in honor of St. Anastasia when devotion to her spread to Rome.  Another saint associated with this church is St. Jerome.  There is a tradition that when staying in Rome he would often celebrate Mass here, possibly because he came from the same region as St. Anastasia.  Around the year 500, the nave was extended, giving the church approximately the same dimensions it has today.  The unequal width of the aisles, with the right being slightly wider, is a result of older structures being used as foundations for this addition.  As the practice of stational Masses during Lent developed, this was assigned as the collectum for the procession to St. Sabina, and as a result, the processional crosses used for the stational processions were kept here when not in use.  Another role of the church during this period was as the chapel to the exarch (governor and representative) in Rome of the Byzantine Emperor, who lived on the Palatine Hill.  As a result of this, the pope would come to personally celebrate Mass here on Christmas morning, which was also the feast of St. Anastasia.

Pope Leo III refurbished the church at the turn of the ninth century, and with an ambo being given by Innocent III in 1210.  Remains of the original Roman and Gothic windows of the right clerestory can still be seen if one looks back to the church from the area of the Circus Maximus.  Sixtus IV undertook a renovation from 1471-1484, which was followed by another in 1510.  This presaged a wave of additions and changes over the next two centuries.  In 1580, the chapel off of the right aisle was added.  Five years later the high altar was constructed, being moved to its present location in 1644.  The chapel off the left aisle, balancing that across the nave, was added in 1615, and the current façade was constructed from 1634 to 1640.  Finally, the interior underwent a massive renovation in 1721-1722, giving it the appearance it has today.  The pillars separating the nave from the aisles were reconfigured, and the walls and ceiling covered with stucco decoration.  Minor restorations were carried out in the course of the nineteenth century.

(There’s also this: http://romanchurches.wikia.com/wiki/Sant’Anastasia)