Vatican City — The Lenten journey of conversion requires Christians to rediscover the "deepest truth" about themselves, cast off their masks and take on the courage to live truth, a prominent Carmelite priest told the pope and Vatican officials.
In the first days of Lenten spiritual exercises for the Roman Curia, the church's central administration, Carmelite Fr. Bruno Secondin drew from the life of the prophet Elijah to invite Vatican officials to reflect on whether their hearts "really belong to the Lord" or whether they rely on external gestures.
Pope Francis chose the Italian priest, who has authored dozens of books, including a series on praying with Scripture, to lead the exercises on the theme "Servants and Prophets of the Living God."
The Feb. 22-27 retreat was held at the Pauline Fathers' retreat center in Ariccia, 20 miles southeast of Rome.
The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, reported on the first few meditations, offered by Secondin.
On the second day, the professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University urged Curia members to put themselves "at the school of mercy" and, like Elijah, to live in the periphery. Elijah moved toward the centers of power but mostly toward "the peripheries and the geographical and existential frontiers," he said.
Elijah, who came from the periphery "with a traditional religiosity," became angered by Israel's "religious and social depravation," "loss of identity and moral and religious confusion," he said. The situation resulted from new social and economic systems -- and even new gods -- which had "bewildered" the people; God was for "backwards people," he said Monday.
Despite his anger, Elijah heeded God's word, left Israel and entered into solitude. God asked Elijah to detach himself, to stand aside, to learn to obey and to leave things up to him, Secondin said. During this time, Elijah was purified and learned to trust God, without "anticipating things" or seeking immediate results, he continued. He also suffered from depression, a condition "which is not so rare, even in priestly life," he said in a subsequent meditation. Elijah teaches that God's love must be central to one's existence, he said.
God eventually called Elijah out of hiding to face King Ahab and to convert the people of Israel. In the same way, Christians are called to "come out into the open," to free themselves of all "ambiguity" and to have the courage for an authentically Christian life.
Elijah's confrontation with the king is a provocation to those in the church who, with their constant calculations and putting off, fall "victim to words and diplomacy," he said.
Just like in Elijah's time, many people today are also "fearful spectators" of life, and many men and women religious are fascinated by "mega" projects and favor glory over the poor.
As well, just as the people in Elijah's day were attracted to "spectacular religiosity," so faith today is "measured with statistics," and it is unclear sometimes whether a particular gathering is "an event" or if it is "true faith," Secondin said.
He urged reflection on whether church leaders involve the faithful in the church's mission or whether they keep it to inner circles.
He also noted how "certain sensitive issues" in the church have caused much suffering.
"We must not hide our scandals," he said, adding it is important that "the victims of injustice are led to healing through our humility in recognizing the errors."
Reflecting on Elijah's violent acts, he said the church must also recognize the violence in its past.
"Even we burned people, we killed," he said, noting that violence today can happen in other ways. "Sometimes, the keyboard kills more than the sword."
People must purge the attitudes and idols -- such as pride, ambition, culture and career -- that keep them on the fence in their relationship with God, he said.
Like Elijah, pastors must seek to reawaken the people to God, with intelligent methods and with the power of symbol, recalling always that God is "a merciful embrace."