The history of the
Fr. Timothy J. Pfeiffer
The word "retreat" in its
etymological meaning signifies a withdrawal. In Catholic parlance then, a
retreat means a withdrawal from secular things in order to go to the
supernatural, to leave the temporal in order to find the eternal, to sacrifice
the human in order to obtain the divine. The whole of human history testifies to
the fact that whenever God wished to make use of a man as a chosen instrument,
that man had to "retreat" from the world and from his former mode of life, find
God and become docile to his inspirations through this withdrawal and the
inevitable asceticism or spiritual exercise this inevitably entailed. Such was
the case of Abraham, who had to leave the
"house of his father and his kindred." Such was true too of Moses, who was
tempered by God in forty years of shepherding in the desert. It was true of the
Apostles, who withdrew to the upper room for 8 days under the direction of the
Holy Spirit. This too was true of the Desert Fathers, the men who taught in word
and example the essentials of Catholic spirituality. It was true of St.
Benedict, St. Anthony of Padua and all others. A spiritual retreat of one kind
or another always preceded the manifestations of grace in the servants of God.
The Retreat in the more formal
sense of a place whither Christians hasten in order to spend a certain number of
days in silence and spiritual exercises according to a set plan began with the
monastic life. Men desirous to follow Christ by practicing the evangelical
counsels left the world to enter monasteries where they labored in spiritual
exercises. When monasteries were established and dotted the countryside of
Europe, the Catholic laity would visit them for a brief period to consult with a
holy monk, to follow prayers, meditations and holy reading.
St. Ignatius and the Spiritual
The end of the Middle Ages was a time of many trials for
the Church, a new age of the great Modern heresies. The end of the 1400s and the
beginning of the 1500s were the seedbed of the loss of Faith of one third of Europe
including nearly all of England. The attack from the heretics of those days
began from within. Their success was chiefly due to the indolence and decadence
of Catholics who were, by and large, not living by their Catholic Faith. Bishops
were often absent from their dioceses, concubinage among priests was not unheard
of and many monasteries had become worldly. God was to remedy this situation, as
He so often does, by raising up a great saint and a great work to restore the
ground lost by so much indifference and rebellion.
1491, a Spanish nobleman named Ignatius was born. Baptized and confirmed, he had become a worldly man devoted to a
military career and to the pursuit of a lady of higher nobility. When duty
placed him in Northern Spain to defend the town of Pamplona against the invading
French he found himself with far too few soldiers, and several senior officers
suggesting surrender. Ignatius argued that it was better to die than to suffer
the humiliation of surrender. A canon ball that broke his leg put him out of
commission and without his leadership the town inevitably fell to the French.
St. Ignatius of Loyola
After receiving care from the
French, he was sent back home to the family castle to recover. Ignatius realized
that the leg was not healing properly and would leave him with a limp and
unsightly bump on his leg. He asked his doctors to fix it. They responded that
they would have to break it again to repair it. Ignatius replied that they
should go ahead and do it. With no anesthesia, he endured the pain without
flinching. The results of the second try were no better than the first. Surely,
if he were to gain fame and win the hand of the fair lady, such a blemish on his
leg was unworthy. He demanded that the doctors try again, against their
remonstrations. Once again, with stoic fortitude, he endured the pain. This too
was unsuccessful. Still, he would not stand for the unsightly protrusion of a
bone from his knee and he ordered it sawed off, enduring this too without
anesthesia and with no expression of pain whatsoever. To fix his leg, he even
tried putting weights on it to pull it longer so that he wouldn’t limp, but all
to no avail.
The boredom of being bed-ridden for a long time with a
broken leg led him to ask for books to read. The good lady in charge was pious
and she refused to give him the chivalric romances he requested. Instead, she
gave him two books that were destined to change his life. The first was the
Gospels. Ignatius picked them up, sensed his unworthiness, and read no further.
He then picked up the second book, The Golden Legend, by a bishop of the
Middle Ages, Jacques de Voragine. In this book he read of the exploits of the
saints of God. He read of the conversion of great sinners who became great
champions of the Faith, and who with the sword of the spirit fought against
heresy and all forms of spiritual evil. He was deeply impressed by the mercy of
God working powerful effects in the souls of so many men and women.
These stories stirred up
emulation in his soul, if they did it, so could he! His chivalric and
generous nature began turning over within itself the thought of leaving all
things of the world to follow Christ and win the kingdom of heaven. On the other
hand, at other moments, his soul was prey to sadness, for he thought of his
lady, he thought of chivalric glory. In this way his soul would receive
inspirations from God, and later inspirations from the world, the flesh or the
devil. After these various movements passed through his soul, Ignatius would
examine them. He could see that when he was moved by good inspirations, he was
full of peace and resolve, but when he was enamored of earthly things, his soul
was troubled and sad. Making this discovery within himself, Ignatius resolved to
fight the thoughts that led him to worldliness and to follow those that led him
to God. And so the beginning of Ignatius’ conversion consisted in the
discernment of spirits, a special gift from God that would make him an
unsurpassed practical genius in the field of apostolic labors.
His recovery complete, Ignatius left his home and made an
all night vigil in a Church before the Blessed Virgin after the manner of the
Christian knight. In the morning he left at Her feet his sword and set out for Manresa where a hermit dwelt. On his way, battling his punctilious vanity, he
exchanged clothes with a beggar. He spent the first three days making a general
confession of his whole life and remained there in a cave for over eight months.
In those eight months, Ignatius underwent severe trials, fought bitter
temptations and received extraordinary graces that were to transform him
completely and were to be the seedbed of the Jesuit Order. The result of these
experiences was the first draft of the famous Spiritual Exercises of
Saint Ignatius. The Ignatian Exercises are universally recognized as most
excellent means of discerning spirits and of learning to follow the inspirations
Following this period, Ignatius
spent a year as a pilgrim visiting the Holy Land. Upon returning to Spain, he
began studying grammar, and in the free time gave the Spiritual Exercises to
those who would hear him. He did this in more than one city and more than once
was denounced to the Inquisition. He was acquitted each time but with the
resolve that not only did he need to know the Exercises by experience, he would
have to learn them also by theology. This he did, and by the conclusion of his
theological studies in Paris in 1534, he had formed the nucleus of the Company
of Jesus, giving all of his first six companions the 30-day spiritual exercises.
The Company of Jesus, or the Jesuits, rapidly became the
elite shock troops to face the ravages of Protestantism. Their key weapon was
the Spiritual Exercises. They were preached to the people in various forms, and
to monks and prelates as well. In a short time the Jesuits were the fastest
growing order the Church had seen and were making visible progress in stopping
heresy and turning its impetus into the Catholic Reformation. Their work was so
successful because it followed the principle of Divine Reform, return to the
origins: return to the basics. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are nothing more
nor less than the Gospels organized to produce its supernatural effects in the
soul through meditation and examination.
With the patronage of men like the Cardinal St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales, the Ignatian Retreats were accepted
universally and preached everywhere. The reforms of the Council of Trent added
to the impetus and retreats became the generally accepted custom for the
Catholic clergy. Later, Benedictines, Franciscans, Passionists and Redemptorists
took up the work of retreats. By the Eighteenth Century, retreats and retreat
houses were commonplace in the Catholic world.
The Ignatian Retreat is the retreat that is the most
praised by the popes over the centuries. Pope Pius XI called St. Ignatius the
"specialist in spiritual exercises" and listed Pope Paul III, Alexander
VI, Benedict XIV and Leo XIII as those among his predecessors who had explicitly
praised the Spiritual Exercises.
Fr. Vallet and the Ignatian
Exercises in 5 Days
When the Jesuits were re-established in 1814 after a
suppression of almost 100 years, Fr. Roothan, their first superior general,
labored greatly to re-establish the Ignatian Retreat as the formative core and
apostolic weapon of the Jesuits. Nevertheless, the Industrial Revolution
presented a new slave master who demanded 12 to 18 hours of labor a day and in
some cases, a 7-day work week. Preaching the Retreats to the modern man was no
easy task in such economic conditions.
Nevertheless, in Northern Spain,
the country of St. Ignatius, God raised up a chosen apostle to condense the
30-days of St. Ignatius into a 5-day format that modern men could
realistically attend without losing the essential fruits of the 30-days.
Francois de Paule Vallet
was the third son of a family of ten. He had a good Catholic
upbringing at home and completed his high school under the
Jesuits. From age 17 till 24, he pursued University studies in
Barcelona (from 1900-1907), where his vigor of character,
qualities of leadership, and eloquence distinguished him. He
directed several university newspapers, was elected secretary
of an organization of engineers, and vice-president of an
academy. He also undertook to debate anarchists who were
trying to recruit students in Barcelona. Nevertheless, living
energetically the novelty of University life, being deeply
affected by bad examples in eminent professors, Providence
permitted him to suffer a difficult interior trial of Faith.
Fr. Francois Vallet
In his trial he looked to God for
the answer. Sensing that the world was pulling him down, he felt the need for
prayer and separation from the world and so he went to Manresa and made a 30-day Ignatian Retreat under the
Jesuit fathers. There, in solitary campaign, wrestling with the sound argument
of Divine Truth proposed in spiritual exercises, he was completely and
dramatically converted. In the very first days of the retreat, the essential
answers to the primary questions of life flooded his soul with lights that would
guide him for the rest of his life and would be the driving force behind his
gigantic future apostolate. In that retreat, to use his own words:
I put myself to death, I was
put to death. …I no longer recognized myself! …I no longer recognized the
world, I believed it had been completely transformed for me! …It was a
miracle…Dead, I lived now more intensely than ever…. I was free, master of
myself… I lived the truth, hope, I lived in peace and I lived by love!
His entrance into the Jesuits
followed this retreat. But he didn’t enter the Jesuits to follow a religious
vocation as an untried young man. He entered tested by trial, converted by grace
and pre-occupied with one great idea: to convert the world and turn it back to
Christ by converting the adult man. The question and its resolution were clear:
Convert the world by getting adult men to do the Exercises and do them well.
He threw his whole soul into the novitiate and sought
ardently after perfection. The testimony of his saintly Novice Master amply
proves the purity and goodness of his soul. But more striking than this is that
the serious Jesuit fathers permitted the young Vallet to organize a campaign of
retreats during his novitiate. Though he couldn’t preach, he was the driving
organizing impetus behind a campaign of retreats that within a couple years drew
over 1800 men.
Completing his novitiate in 1909, Fr. Vallet followed the
classical Jesuit curriculum for eleven years. Two years after His priestly
ordination in 1920, he was given his first assignment to preach retreats in
Manresa. From this time on he would devote his energies to the realization of
his divinely inspired plan: the conversion of the adult man through the
spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. To meet this objective, Fr. Vallet, with
the permission and approval of his beloved superiors, left the Jesuits to found
the Parish Cooperators of Christ the King. Parish Cooperators devoted themselves
entirely to the preaching of the Ignatian Retreat.
A retreat campaign began by a
series of preparatory conferences given in various places in the target regions.
These conferences were directed by the Father but were complemented by the
testimony of one or more Parish Cooperators. There then followed intense
publicity which included the foot-work of Parish Cooperators going door to door,
speaking in public places, taverns and barbershops, etc. After this preparatory
work came the campaign of retreats itself. One retreat was preached and then
followed by two or three others. The retreats always increased in numbers
because the alumni of one retreat became the ardent promoters for the next.
The following figures will give an idea of the
effectiveness of the first 5 years of Fr. Vallet’s campaigns in Spain:
campaigns of 19 retreats
||In five campaigns
of 27 retreats
for a total of 2,697
||In five campaigns
of 35 retreats
for a total of 5,317
||" " "
for a total of 8,540
||" " "
for a total of 12,643
Fr. Ludovic Barrielle
Fr. Vallet had founded the Parish Cooperators of Christ
the King in 1922 and after his death in 1947 his priestly collaborators carried
on his work. The key preacher at the chief house of the Parish Cooperators in
France, was Fr. Ludovic Marie Barrielle. When the changes of Vatican II swept
through the Church demanding aggiornamento and change at every level, Fr.
Barrielle held firm. Fr. Vallet had been clear: nothing must be changed or else
all the fruit would be lost. Though Fr. Barrielle himself held firm, the work of
the Parish Cooperators gradually died out. Hearing of the work of Archbishop
Lefebvre in the 70s, Fr. Barrielle volunteered his services and the Archbishop,
in need of experienced priests, accepted.
Moving to the Society’s chief
seminary in Econe,
Switzerland, Fr. Barrielle filled perfectly the office of spiritual director.
His role was that of the much needed wiser, more experienced and older priest
who helped prepare the young seminarians for the difficult task of the
priesthood in the modern world. He counseled, encouraged, and taught them the
principles of St. Ignatius. Most importantly, he gave them the 5-day Spiritual
Exercises after the divinely inspired pattern given him by Fr. Vallet.
Occasionally, when a veteran retreatant would call up for
Fr. Barrielle to organize a retreat, Fr. Barrielle would bring along a
seminarian and teach him the "ropes." Besides this practical knowledge, in
response to the perennial question of the seminarian: "How will I go about
the work of saving souls in this world?", he wrote two books: Letter to
the Priests of Tomorrow, #1 and Letter to the Priests of Tomorrow, #2.
In these books Fr. Barrielle laid down precise instructions for the preaching of
the 5-day retreats.
When Fr. Barrielle died in 1983, he had firmly planted the
Ignatian Exercises in the Society of St. Pius X which at that time numbered a
little over 100 priests. Those priests in turn became the "veterans" and
"old-timers" who continue to teach the new recruits the method and
the Spiritual Exercises. As a general rule, every deacon of the Society of St.
Pius X is required to preach an Ignatian Retreat to ensure his facility in this
form of Apostolate before he is dispatched to his mission as a priest.
To this day, the 5-day retreats are the workhorse of the
Society of St. Pius X in terms of obtaining profound conversions and dedicated
soldiers of Jesus Christ. A tradition begun in the Church with Saint Ignatius,
adapted to the modern world by Fr. Vallet, handed down to the Society of St.
Pius X by Fr. Barrielle, the retreats are still available to souls who possess a
desire to save their souls and to do something more for Christ.