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If we call a retreat a series of days passed in solitude and consecrated to practices of asceticism, in particular to prayer and penance, it is as old as Christianity. Without referring to the customs of the Prophets of the Old Testament, the forty days which Jesus Christ passed in the desert after His baptism is an example which has found many imitators in all ages of the Church. From this imitation sprang the eremitical life and the institution of the cenobites. The religious who sought the solitude of the deserts or the monasteries, or in general those wishing to lead a contemplative life withdrew from the world, in order the more readily to draw nearer to God and apply themselves to exercises of Christian perfection. The "Forma cleri" of Tronson, t. IV, gives numerous texts of the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, recommending a retreat for at least a few days. According to St. Francis de Sales (Treatise on the Love of God, XII, chap. vii), the practice of the retreat was specially restored by St. Ignatius Loyola. We may say indeed that in his "Spiritual Exercises" St. Ignatius has combined the methods of reforming one's life and seeking the will of God in solitude. The Society of Jesus was the first active religious order in which the practice of the retreat became obligatory by rule. St. Francis of Assisi and his first companions occasionally retired to hermitages where they gave themselves up to prayer and mortification. St. Ignatius prescribed for his religious the exercises of thirty days as an indispensable experience before admission to the vows. The custom was introduced later of repeating this thirty days' retreat during a month of the third probation, and the usage was established little by little of renewing it in an abridged form each year during eight days. This custom obtained the force of law by decree of the Sixth General Congregation, held in 1608, besides being imitated in other religious orders, and encouraged by a Bull of Pope Paul V, 1606.
The Society of Jesus did not reserve these exercises for its own exclusive use, but gave them to communities and individuals. Blessed Peter Faber in his "Memoriale" testifies to having given them to the grandees of Spain, Italy, and Germany, and used them in restoring hundreds of convents to their first fervour. A letter of St. Ignatius (3 Feb., 1554) recommends giving the exercises publicly in the churches. In addition, the houses of the Society often contained rooms for priests or laymen desirous of performing the exercises privately. Ignatius, having sanctioned this custom during his lifetime, one of his successors, Aquaviva, exhorted the provincials to its maintenance in 1599. In studying the spread of this practice we must not neglect the influence of St. Charles Borromeo. The cardinal and the Jesuits co-operated in order to promote this sort of apostolate. A fervent admirer and disciple of the "Spiritual Exercises", St. Charles introduced them as a regular practice among the secular clergy by retreats for seminarians and candidates for ordination. He built at Milan an asceterium, or house solely destined to receive those making retreats, whose direction he confided to the Oblates. The zeal of St. Charles was effectual in encouraging the sons of St. Ignatius to adopt definitively the annual retreat, and to organize outside collective retreats of priests and laymen.
Two other saints furthered the practice. St. Francis de Sales, whose veneration for the Archbishop of Milan and his works is well known, made the retreat, praised it, and made it familiar to the Order of the Visitation, of which he was the founder (Const. XLVI). Then came St. Vincent de Paul, chosen by St. Francis de Sales to be the spiritual father of the Visitation in Paris. He was the organizer of ecclesiastical retreats in France, the plan of which had been already proposed in 1625, at the assembly of the clergy, by a curé of Normandy, Charles Dodefroy, in a small work, entitled "Le collège des saints exercises". St. Vincent de Paul established retreats for candidates for ordination first at Beauvais (1628), afterwards at Paris (1631). They took place six times a year under his direction at the Collège des Bons-Enfants. Soon other clerics than those of the Diocese of Paris were admitted; and when Saint-Lazare had been acquired (1634) this house was opened indiscriminately as a retreat for clergy, nobility, and people. In St. Vincent's time about 20,000 persons made retreats there. M. de Bérul1e founder of the Oratory, and M. Olier, founder of Saint-Sulpice, seconded this movement of reform and sanctification. From the middle of the seventeenth century, the synodal statutes prescribed that the clergy should make a retreat from time to time. Sometimes it was made obligatory for those who obtained benefices with the cure of souls. In a word, the retreat was thenceforth an established custom of pious ecclesiastics. In 1663 M. de Kerlivio, who knew the excellent results obtained at Saint-Lazare, founded a house of retreat for men at Vannes in Brittany, with the co-operation of P. Huby, S.J. This institution has a special importance in the history of retreats, because the regulations of Vannes generally guided the directors of other houses which the Jesuits established. These were at Quimper, Rennes, Nantes, Rouen, Paris, Dijon, Nancy, and soon in most of the large cities of France. Often, besides the house of retreat for men, one would be erected for women: as at Vannes, thanks to the Venerable Catherine de Francheville, at Rennes, at Quimper, at Paris, Nantes, etc. With a view to organizing and facilitating retreats for women, there were formed, particularly in Brittany, congregations of Ladies of the Retreat which are still in existence.
France was not alone in having houses of exercises, They were established in Germany at Munich and Prague; in Spain, at Barcelona and Gerona; in Italy, at Rome, Perugia, Ancona, and Milan; in Sicily, at Palermo, Alcamo, Mazzara, Termini, Messina, etc.; in Poland, at Vilna; in Mexico, at Mexico City and Pueblo. The enumeration is necessarily incomplete; it should include missionary countries, Canada, Chile, China, etc. Nor were Jesuits the only ones to busy themselves with retreats: Franciscans, Benedictines, Lazarists, Eudists, Oratorians, Passionists, Redemptorists, and others vied with them in zeal. But the suppression of the Society struck a fatal blow at the work in many a country. In Brittany, the classic land of retreats, various religious, and principally priests, continued this ministry of the Jesuits. In Franche-Comté a saintly curé, the Venerable Antoine Receveur, organized the Congregation of Christian Retreat to secure for men and women the benefits of spiritual exercises. In Italy, the Venerable Bruno Lanteri instituted a society of priests, the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who were occupied only with retreats. St. Alphonsus Liguori, who from his youth had followed the exercises among the Jesuits or among the Lazarists, could not neglect this means of apostleship. He adopted it as one of his own practices and prescribed it for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Thus the Redemptorists kept up the custom of retreats in the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily during the second half of the eighteenth century. In Argentina and Paraguay the retreats continued, thanks to the extraordinary initiative given by Maria-Antonia de San José de La Paz (1730-1799). Aided by several priests and various religious orders, she succeeded in having the exercises performed by nearly 100,000 persons.
Annual ecclesiastical retreats began as a general thing in France and other countries in 1815. Numerous promoters of these retreats came from the ranks of the secular clergy as well as from the regular orders. A large number of directors are annually engaged in giving retreats to the religious communities. Several institutions perform the complete exercises of twenty to thirty days. But there were not only priestly or conventual retreats; they were made by the faithful, grouped in parishes or in congregations, brotherhoods, third orders, etc. Thus retreats are conducted for employees, working-men, teachers, conscripts, deaf-mutes, etc. We may also mention retreats at the close of a course of study, established in the College of St. Acheul at Amiens in 1825, and which, spreading by degrees, led to the organization of retreats among the alumni, a custom that has become quite general. There has been no lack of co-operation in this great work of regeneration: bishops threw open their seminaries to the laity, the Christian nobility lent their châteaux; the religious orders - Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Lazaristes, Eudists, Redemptorists, Passionists, the Society of Mary, Brothers of St. Vincent de Paul, and Brothers of the Christian Schools, all encouraged the retreat, either by providing suitable places for the purpose, or by furnishing directors. The Jesuits alone possessed twelve houses of exercises on French territory before 1901; they now have seven in Belgium and others in Spain, Austria, Italy, Holland, England, Canada, United States, Colombia, Chile, and various other countries of America, North and South. They have established houses in Australia, China, India, Ceylon, and Madagascar. Besides the Breton congregations already spoken of, new societies especially devoted to retreats for women have been formed, such as Notre Dame du Cenacle, and Marie Reparatrice.
Retreats for laymen have spread greatly throughout the Catholic world during the last twenty-five years. A French Jesuit, Père Henry, was the pioneer in this great revival. In 1882 he gave himself to the task of instituting retreats for working-men, and it was not long before houses devoted to this purpose were founded all over Europe. During 1908, in Belgium alone 243 retreats were given, attended by 10,253 exercitants, and since 1890 in that country at least 100,000 of the labouring classes and about 25,000 professional and business men have made retreats. France, Germany, and Holland and other European States have also extended the work with gratifying results. In one house in France, Notre Dame du Haut-Mont, more than 30,500 men have made the retreat within the last twenty-five years. England and Ireland have taken up the movement, and are at present engaged with retreat organizations, as also is Canada. In the United States a generous response has been given to the movement, and a house of retreat has been founded (1911) on Staten Island, New York City.
The principal reason of the success of these retreats, called cloistered to distinguish them from the parochial retreats open to all, is their very necessity. In the fever and agitation of modern life, the need of meditation and spiritual repose impresses itself on Christian souls who desire to reflect on their eternal destiny, and direct their life in this world towards God.