While Pope Francis has altered the custom of his predecessors by leaving the Vatican for his yearly Lenten retreat, one priest tells CNA the pontiff is merely being true to his Jesuit roots.

"This is what Jesuits do," said Fr. Joseph Carola, S.J.,  theology professor at Rome's Gregorian University in a Feb. 26 interview.

"That's very Jesuit of the Holy Father to choose to go somewhere else, somewhere where he doesn't live normally, to make the exercises. It's very much in keeping with our own tradition."

The practice of going to a private location for retreat, away "from all friends and acquaintances, and from all worldly cares," is  "a very important thing for Jesuits," he said.
"The retreatant usually goes away to a secluded place and spends these days in silence and in prayer, praying often five hours a day, with the meditations of the exercises themselves."

Pope Francis and members of the Curia have just concluded a five-day spiritual exercises retreat at the Casa Divin Maestro in Ariccia, a city located some 16 miles outside of Rome.

This year's retreat, which ran from Feb. 22-27, was led by Carmalite priest, Father Bruno Secondin, on the theme: "Servants and prophets of the living God," according to the Jan. 30 announcement in L'Osservatore Romano. Fr. Secondin was recently appointed consultor to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life.

"We typically don't make our retreat in our own homes," Fr. Carola said. Reading from a leather-bound copy of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius with the Jesuit insignia embossed on the cover, he continued saying the retreatant "can leave the house in which he dwelt and choose another house or room in order to live there in as greatest privacy as possible."

The Casa Divin Maestro is an ideal location for this sort of retreat, he said. Located on Lake Albano, a short way from the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, it is "a very beautiful place."

"It's there that he can be separated from all the mundane concerns that he has to deal with regularly, and all of the appointments and everything else that might distract him, and enter into greater solitude," Fr. Carola said. "There the soul can be more intimately united with our Lord in prayer."

Managed by the Pauline community, the house is "extremely clean, kept very warm during the winter, and has beautiful gardens, a rosary walk, a Via Crucis," with "a commanding view of the lake," he said.

This is the second consecutive year the Pope and Curial members have held their Lenten retreat at the house in Ariccia. While the practice of the pontiff going on retreat with the heads of Vatican dicasteries each Lent began some 80 years ago under the pontificate of Paul XI, it was customary for them to follow the spiritual exercises on Vatican ground. Beginning Lent 2014, Pope Francis chose to hold the retreat outside of Rome, true to his Jesuitical background.

"It's important to pray together with the people with whom you work," Fr. Carola said, remarking on the Pope's practice of going on retreat alongside Curial heads. "The Holy Father wants to take his closest collaborators with him to be united in prayer before the Lord."

Aside from holding the retreat outside of Rome rather than in the Vatican, however, Fr. Carola stresses that there is nothing new about this week. "John Paul II, Benedict XVI, they would invite a retreat master in, and he would preach in the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the papal palace," he said.

"It's a very important time to be united in prayer, not simply to be working all the time together, but to pray together so as to grow closer in the Lord and hopefully, through the graces received, to be able to serve the Church that much better."