The history of the Ignatian retreat

St. Ignatius of Loyola

What is a retreat?

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 40 years of shepherding in the desert. It was true of the Apostles, who withdrew to the upper room for eight 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 has 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 Exercises

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.

Accordingly, in 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.

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 he 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 St. Ignatius. The Ignatian Exercises are universally recognized as most excellent means of discerning spirits and of learning to follow the inspirations of God.

The founding of the Jesuits

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, but 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 or 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 18th 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.

Francis 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.

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.

1923—In 3 campaigns of 19 retreats = 1,293 retreatants
1924—In 5 campaigns of 27 retreats = 1,400 retreatants for a total of 2,697
1925—In 5 campaigns of 35 retreats = 2,620 retreatants for a total of 5,317
1926— = 3,223 retreatants for a total of 8,540
1927— = 4,103 retreatants for a total of 12,643

Campaigns followed also in Uruguay where in three years 1,340 men made the Ignatian exercises. In France, it was a more difficult work where in four years of hard work in the midst of incredulity and disdain of foreigners, Fr. Vallet managed to get 2000 men to make the Spiritual Exercises. Not included in this number are the many men who came from Spain to make the Retreat and whom Fr. Vallet sent back to Spain to face the Spanish revolution where at least 6,000 of Fr. Vallet’s retreatants lost their lives fighting the Communist Revolution.

Fr. Barrielle

The 5-day Spiritual Exercises and the Society of St. Pius X

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 1970s, Fr. Barrielle volunteered his services and the Archbishop, in need of experienced priests, accepted.

Moving to the Society’s 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 (volume 1) and Letter to the Priests of Tomorrow (volume 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 efficacity of 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 St. 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.