Cruisin’ Through Lent:
Michael Voris’ and “Fr.” Zuhlsdorf’s “Retreat Cruise” for Lent ’13

Lenten Retreat, anyone? Don’t forget your sun screen!

Commentary by Francis del Sarto

[Please note: Due to the sede vacante state of the Novus Ordo Church at the time, “Fr.” John Zuhlsdorf ended up not participating in the cruise. Another Novus Ordo priest attended instead.]

Every year the holy season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when the priest distributes blessed ashes obtained from the prior year’s Palm Sunday palms. Upon putting the ashes on each person’s forehead in the form of a cross, the priest says, “Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” – “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Clearly, the season of Lent, called Quadragesima in Latin, is the season of penance and mortification par excellence in the liturgical year, as it is a preparation for Easter. By being told that we are “dust,” we are being reminded of the true nothingness of all created things. While the Lenten fast imposed by the Church is not very rigorous anymore (every day one full meal may be taken, plus two smaller meals without meat), nevertheless Lent ought to be spent away from the pleasures of the world, away from needless distractions, so as to rejuvenate the soul through prayer, penance, and spiritual reading, helping the Catholic to take a decisive step forward in his spiritual life.

Retreats, too, are a very good help to the soul during Lent. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), they consist of “a series of days passed in solitude and [are] consecrated to practices of asceticism, in particular to prayer and penance, [and they are] as old as Christianity.” They are particularly necessary because: “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” (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Retreats”; see also “Lent” and “Quadragesima”).

At such a gathering, participants—called “retreatants”—attend Mass, go to Confession, listen to spiritual conferences, and spend their free time in prayer and devotional reading. Further, they typically stay at a location away from their homes and away from the world as much as possible, bring with them no forms of secular entertainment, and often maintain (aside from prayers) absolute silence, even at the frugal meals, all of which is meant to foster mortification, interior silence and to draw the retreatants closer to God.

It’s an opportunity for Catholics to temporarily remove themselves—or retreat—from the world and all its allures, and gain help for their souls through contemplation on the Four Last Things and on how to better apply the lessons of the Gospel to their daily lives. Catholics are not supposed to be pampered at a retreat, to luxuriate in creature comforts. Rather, it’s the closest most of them will get to experiencing something akin to life in a religious community, and one may liken it to spiritual “roughing it.” Men and women never go on retreat together—instead, men’s retreats and women’s retreats are offered separately, and the reasons are obvious.

Wasted away in “Retreatville”

At least that’s the pre-Vatican II (=traditional/true Roman Catholic) understanding of a Catholic retreat. However, to read the announcement of “conservative” Novus Ordo ChurchMilitant.TV (formerly, before the “Archdiocese” of Detroit told them they weren’t authorized to use the word “Catholic” in their name, and, of course, the “Archdiocese” knows all about unauthorized use of the word “Catholic”!) for its “‘Year of Faith’ Retreat at Sea” and watch hipster-talking-head-apologist Michael Voris’ video plug for the event, entitled “Time to Retreat”, one would be hard-pressed to make much of a connection between this and the traditional Roman Catholic retreat. At one point in the clip, a photo appears behind him showing a tropical beach complete with palm trees and the ocean, while the accompanying audio plays sounds of sea gulls and breaking waves. Voris irreverently calls this “retreat” event “resting at the foot of the Cross.” What? (See video update on the status of this “retreat” cruise here.)

Michael Voris – from a promotional video clip at ChurchMilitant.TV

Scheduled for this coming Lent (March 10-17, 2013), Voris’ “‘Year of Faith’ Retreat at Sea” is a seven-day roundtrip Caribbean cruise aboard the Ruby Princess that features stopovers at the Bahamas and other balmy tropical islands. The Ruby Princess is a huge five-star luxury cruise ship with a crew of over 1,200 and room for 3,080 passengers. (Ironically, the so-called “Year of Faith”, which runs from Oct. 11, 2012 to Nov. 24, 2013, was designated by Benedict XVI to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II, the false modernist “ecumenical council” that did more to damage to the Catholic Faith than the powers of hell were able to accomplish in the 1,900 years prior.) Mr. Voris is joined on this cruise by special guest “Fr.” John Zuhlsdorf (or “Father Z”, as he’s frequently called), an affable and knowledgeable biretta-wearing Novus Ordo “priest” of the suburbicarian diocese of Velletri-Segni, Italy (see here), and editor of the popular blog WDTPRS – What Does the Prayer Really Say?. In the New Church, “Father Z” seems to hold, de facto, the status of super-orthodox traditionalist — by Novus Ordo standards, of course. A convert from Lutheranism, Zuhlsdorf was “ordained” by Antipope John Paul II himself in 1991 (source). He is well-known on the internet because of his effective use of today’s social media tools, such as his blog, Twitter, and Facebook.

What Does the Flyer Really Say?

Apparently, Voris and Zuhlsdorf are seriously expecting people—men and women together— to spend a week in the middle of Lent on this decadent luxury cruise liner with them. To this end, they have created a flyer that lists some of the “retreat” highlights the participants can look forward to: daily “Mass”, “Confession”, exclusive presentations by “Fr. Z” and Mr. Voris, … oh, and don’t forget the “welcome aboard” cocktail reception! Nothing sets the tone for a good Lenten retreat better than … knocking down a few tasty margaritas? Curiously, the flyer’s content has been changed since composition of this article was begun, and the reference to the “cocktail reception” has been replaced with “welcome reception” —a clear sign of damage control, as the “Year of Faith” Retreat at Sea has been under considerable fire, even from fans of the two “celebrities” and possibly from some potential participants (this criticism will be touched on later).

As soon as this strange juxtaposition of a Lenten retreat being conducted aboard a tropical luxury cruise ship is allowed to sink in, a number of questions come to mind: Just whose “bright idea” was this? Don’t the planners of this excursion have a clue as to what is meant by a retreat—or Lent? Don’t they realize the potential spiritual dangers to the participants involved? And how could they not know of those dangers if they’re as “Catholic” and “conservative” as they claim to be?

What makes this even worse is that this cruise “retreat” is being conducted right in the middle of spring break, the infamous time of year when U.S. college students indulge in not-so-modest parties in sunny locations, especially in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which is one of their most popular destinations—and which happens to be exactly the place from which the “retreat cruise” will depart and to which it will return!

“Getting away from the world”?

Whether any spring break participants will actually be on the cruise is not certain, but nevertheless: Among the passengers there will be immodestly dressed young women sunning themselves on the various decks or enjoying one of the swimming pools. That’s not a maybe; they will be there, that’s a given. Will the male “retreatants” be in a position where they will never need to pass by those decks during the two days on ship? Or never run the risk of walking through passageways where the same young women may appear dressed only in beach robes? (The other five days are spent in part on Caribbean islands, where obviously other such temptations await aplenty.)

In the same vein, there’s still the Ruby Princess’s bustling nightlife to contend with, and it’s hardly contemplative and otherworldly. Amazingly, the “retreat’s” flyer openly boasts of this nightlife, as though it should be one of the attractions of the event. Quoting directly from the ship’s own promotional material, under “Entertainment” the flyer reads:

“Nights are always abuzz with activity, and it’s up to you to choose your pleasure—from live theater and the big screen, to plush lounges, swanky casinos and dance clubs.”

Similar to the flyer’s change of the “cocktail reception” into “welcome reception,” in its revised version “your pleasure” has been changed into “yours” (now referring to “activity” rather than “pleasure”), and the end of this sentence has also been changed from “…plush lounges, swanky casinos and dance clubs” to “…a quiet corner or the extensive library for reading.” The “retreat’s” attempt to flush reference to undeniably worldly pursuits down the Orwellian memory hole and replace it with a less scandalous, more retreat-oriented theme may make the event more appealing to the more Catholic-minded of potential participants and dampen some of the criticism, but it only hides the more offensive activities behind a curtain of altered verbiage; it doesn’t eliminate them from the ship and it doesn’t eliminate the occasions of sin. In fact, doesn’t toning down the flyer represent a tacit admission on Voris’ and Zuhlsdorf’s part that something is indeed wrong with the whole thing?

And while “extensive library” may sound superficially better than “casinos and dance clubs”, it’s still listed under entertainment, which is exactly the sort of books that would be expected on board of a fun, secular cruise, filled mostly with vacationers — but retreatants ought to have their own devotional reading materials with them, and not be wasting time browsing what the ship has to offer.

But wait, there’s more entertainment — much more! The Ruby Princess’s site touts such features as: various bars, boutiques, a fitness center, a jogging track, a nine-hole putting course, five swimming pools, an art gallery and auctions, a video arcade, a 24-hour Internet Cafe (with wireless access) and “The Sanctuary”, a kind of decadent outdoor spa with massages, yoga (!), and the like, including even “serenity stewards [who] attend to [your] every need” (see “The Sanctuary”; beware of immodest photos!). (For more on the Ruby Princessgo here.)

In other words, there are plenty of worldly distractions to go around, with a number of them providing serious occasions of sin. This is the very opposite of what a Roman Catholic Lenten retreat is all about! Can these supposedly “traditional” Novus Ordo kingpins not see this? In addition to the needless temptations that will be floating around 24/7, the secular vacation-cruise-ship setting will provide the “retreatants” with plenty of opportunities to waste their money—money that, especially during Lent, they should not be spending on worldly allurements.

Some may object that there are ways for the Voris-Zuhlsdorf contingent to keep away from all the worldly allurements. Even if that’s true, this begs the question: Then why have the whole thing on a cruise ship to begin with? If you have to stay away from all the pleasure and the fun, why spend well over a thousand dollars to go on a lavish cruise liner? There is a reason why this “Lenten retreat” is being offered on a five-star luxury cruise ship after all—and it’s not so you can give it up for Lent! Or are we to surmise that people will be spending thousands of dollars and then only eat cheese and crackers, sit on wooden chairs, and keep their eyes glued to the front wall of a multipurpose room?

Seriously: Try to meditate on the nothingness of the world and practice mortification while being on the Ruby Princesstaking you on a trip through the lush Caribbean, offering you sensual delights at every opportunity—which you’re paying for, of course. Is this what is now seriously being offered to supposedly “conservative-traditional Catholics” as an ideal setting for a Lenten retreat? Whom are they kidding?

Say what?! Novus Ordo critics of the “Retreat at Sea”

Even some Novus Ordo folks can see through the laughable paradox of having a Lenten retreat on a luxury cruise liner. “I have to say, this really has me scratching my head in confusion,” writes the webmaster of the Novus Ordo Catholic in Brooklyn blog in early December, who then goes on to explain his misgivings:

Lent is a time to turn our attention away from the material world to the spiritual.

Now Michael Voris and Father Z are saying we should spend thousands of dollars to go on a cruise…where food is constantly offered and there is worldly entertainment such as “live theater and the big screen to plush lounges, swanky casinos and dance clubs”… I would hope that the Voris/Zuhlsdorf group will be the only ones on this ship, but that is not likely. And that will mean there will be many men and women on the ship walking around wearing next to nothing and engaging in activities that are decidedly not of a “Lenten nature.” Not exactly a spiritual environment.

(“Michael Voris and Father Z: Say What?!”, Catholic in Brooklyn, Dec. 5, 2012)

No, not a spiritual environment at all, yet somehow the “retreatants” are forced into being a part of that environment. It should be noted, by the way, that it obviously pains Catholic in Brooklyn to take to task “[t]wo of the biggest ‘stars’ among ‘traditional’ Catholics … [who] seem to promote a very traditional, orthodox Catholicism.” (Ah, yes. “Catholic stars” who invite you to spend a fortune so you can join them for a “Lenten retreat” — more on that later.)

Just days before Christmas, “Tancred”, who runs the “conservative/traditionalist” Novus Ordo blog The Eponymous Flower, went on the offensive for the “retreat”, name-calling its critics as purveyors of a “newfound Jansenism” and “puritanical Jacobins”. Unfortunately, he deftly sidestepped all the inherent dangers of setting the event aboard a cruse ship, when this is something he really should have addressed (see “Apologetics Cruisers”The Eponymous Flower, Dec. 20, 2012).

In fact, some of the readers who commented on Tancred’s post were not comfortable with the idea of the “cruise retreat”. One with the screen name “marie” wrote:

I don’t know how any Catholic who has been properly taught the spirituality of Lent could possibly go on any kind of a cruise. This is really disappointing to see happening. Two men who spend a great deal of time criticizing those who behave in less than orthodox and traditional ways, yet they are arranging something entirely unorthodox and untraditional.

What I find equally saddening is how some who promote traditionalism are simply caving on this just because it’s Voris and Fr. Z. Just imagine for a minute that someone like Michael Sean Winters teamed up with Fr. James Martin, SJ for a Lenten cruise. Would you feel the same way?

Tancred – the real measure isn’t what other people do on a weekly basis. The real measure is Jesus Christ. I can’t reconcile an enjoyable cruise with Our Lord’s example during the great fast.

(“Apologetics Cruisers”The Eponymous Flower, Comment by marie, Dec. 21, 2012)

Right you are, Marie, about Our Lord’s example. A supposed Lenten retreat aboard a pleasure ship is about as far removed from Christ’s 40 days in the desert as can be imagined.

Tancred made a point of going after Catholic in Brooklyn, which prompted a spirited response that read in part as follows:

It is ironic that both Voris and Father Z represent themselves as “traditional” Catholics who support traditional Catholic practices. One of the strongest traditions in the Church was the Great Lenten Fast.  Yet, by offering this cruise during Lent, Voris and Father Z are actually pressuring people to turn away from the Great Fast and instead, do the exact opposite by indulging their material senses.

(“Heaven is a Cruise Ship”Catholic in Brooklyn, Dec. 22, 2012)

Exactly. These are not the kind of “indulgences” one word normally associate with a Catholic retreat.

Further spot-on criticism of the “Lenten Retreat at Sea” by a member of the Novus Ordo Church comes from a blog called The Crescat:

It only makes sense that two of the top renown [sic] Catholic internet personalities, Fr. Z and Michael Voris, should have their paths cross at some point. Perhaps to write a book together on Catholic teaching or to give talks on the spiritual benefits of Advent traditions, or take a cruise together. Wait. What?

…A Lenten retreat at sea? At least back up your pretense with a pilgrimage somewhere that has even the tiniest semblance of desert atmosphere. Or, I don’t know, go somewhere legitimately holy. If an apparition of Our Lady has been seen floating in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean, then forgive me. Just calling something a “retreat” during that particular liturgical season doesn’t necessarily make it Lent-ful or appropriate in practice.

(“We’ve Officially Jumped the Shark – Fr. Z and Voris out to Sea”The Crescat, Dec. 6, 2012)

Clearly, the problem with the cruise is twofold: (1) It is incorrectly labeled as a “retreat” when it is more of a splendid vacation with a spiritual touch; (2) it is held during Lent, a time when we should be doing the exact opposite of pampering ourselves and enjoying the licit pleasures of the world (to which this cruise seeks to get you attached—if it didn’t, there’d be no point in making it a cruise. It’s almost like promoters of the event are saying in Bizarro World fashion: “Come on, it’s Lent, so relax already!”

“Retreat at Sea”: A Counter-Retreat? 

At the Second Vatican Council, a delighted Fr. Joseph Ratzinger described the conciliar so-called “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”, Gaudium et Spes, as a remedy against the “outmoded” teachings of the Church, specifically those contained in the Ven. Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), and he approvingly called the Vatican II document “a counter-Syllabus” (see “Ratzinger: ‘Gaudium et Spes’ a counter-Syllabus”).

One could perhaps likewise call the Voris-Zuhlsdorf “‘Year of Faith’ Retreat at Sea” something of a counter-retreat. Granted, it’s quite possible—even probable—that “Father Z” and Mr. Voris don’t consciously intend an attack on Tradition the way Gaudium et Spes did. Rather, the two are perhaps young enough to have grown up partaking of the tainted fruit of this same Vatican II to the extent that they may not even see the inherent contradiction of having a Lenten retreat on a cruise ship.

“Father Z” – from a promotional video clip at ChurchMilitant.TV

But this is precisely the problem: It’s the blind leading the blind, where traditionally-minded Conciliarists are turning to Novus Ordo “conservative” celebrity “apologists” who may be totally sincere in thinking they’re fighting the Church’s battles, but who by using Vatican II as the basis of that fight are not on solid theological ground. To say the least, they are in “murky waters”, if you pardon the pun.

It is impossible to have a sound grasp of what it means to be a true Catholic when such men are held up as models for how the faithful are to think and act. Plus, having a layman (Voris) host a retreat and give spiritual conferences doesn’t strike one as the “traditional Catholic” thing to do, either. Complicating the matter is the cult of personality being built up around these “stars.” Contrary to that mentality, Novus Ordo Watch has always preferred anonymity with a strong focus on the issues rather than on people: What’s most important is the message  not the people or the glitz.

Final Thoughts: Should You Blow the Dough?

With this totally needless scandal of a “Lenten Retreat at Sea”, one is left to wonder just what Michael Voris and “Father Z” are thinking. Why are they doing this? Are there no other ways to either offer a true Lenten retreat, or, at the very least, to offer a cruise that is not marketed as a “retreat” and during Lent?

If such a “Lenten retreat cruise” had been offered by the National [Non-]Catholic Reporter, for example, what would Voris and Zuhlsdorf have done? Would they not have blasted the idea on their blogs and shows? Would Voris not be twirling his pencil at them now and criticize the ludicrous idea of doing penance on a cruise ship in the Caribbean? Would they not, perhaps, even call out that this idea is typical of liberals living in a decadent society that seeks to pamper the body, and that it is outrageous that they would dare to hijack the label “Catholic retreat” for this event?

While it is necessary to refrain from judging motives apart from clear evidence, one cannot help but notice that such a cruise event is, of course, a huge prestige and popularity booster for the ChurchMilitant.TV enterprise. And though it is not wrong per se to seek greater publicity to be able to ultimately reach a greater audience withso presumably their intentthe truth of the Gospel, it is quite objectionable to go about it the way Mr. Voris and “Fr.” Zuhlsdorf have done.

Think about it: Would Voris be able to drum up as much support for, say, a true Catholic Lenten retreat, somewhere at an austere retreat center in rural Indiana, offering a week of frugal bodily nourishment, with a no-name priest as retreat master, with no laymen giving conferences, in utter silence (sorry, no “consoling” or “sharing” until it’s over!), sleeping on simple beds with no cabin stewards to take care of things (see “Spring Break Suite Experience on Ruby Princess”)?

Probably not.

Your “best” Lent ever? It’ll definitely be your most expensive!

Which brings up another question: the price. While the flyer they produced mentions that fares start at $1,083.89 (based on double occupancy, a-hem!), it advertizes differently-priced rooming accomodations going up all the way to the “Suite with Balcony” — for a whopping $2,869.39 per person!

Just what world are these people living in? Who has this kind of money to spend on 7 days of talks with Michael Voris and “Fr.” Zuhlsdorf? Since the target audience here is (from their perspective) traditional Catholics (that is, “super-conservative” Novus Ordos), and since such types would typically have a lot of children and only one income, just who do they think can afford this? Is this not an insult to anyone who considers himself a real Catholic? Is there no better way to spend thousands of dollars during Lent? Lenten penance/mortification also includes almsgiving, we might want to remember, and, unless you’re exceptionally wealthy, blowing your savings on a silly “retreat cruise” probably won’t leave a whole lot of money for that.

As the afore-mentioned Novus Ordo blog The Crescat puts it:

The idea that a Catholic needs to spend this type of money in order to experience some spiritual fulfillment just blows my mind. Call it what it is and pass around the plate. The $1083.89 [minimum] cost of this trip is for the privilege to be in the company of Fr. Z and Michael Voris and to bask in the luxurious comfort of a cruise ship. Again, better company and comfort can be found in [Eucharistic] Adoration. Challenge me on that.

…Spending the money on a pilgrimage to visit relics and holy sites is not a bad way to spend money. Neither is going on a retreat. And neither is doing any of these things with the company of a priest. However, retreats are usually held in monasteries and convents which charge very little for their accommodations. They don’t have entertainers and staff to pay so the savings are passed on directly to you. How thoughtful of them.

You see where I’m going with this. This voyage at sea is clearly not a retreat. There’s a ginormous difference between spending that kind of dough on an actual pilgrimage to Lourdes or going on a retreat at Clear Creek and a cruise to the Caribbean on a luxury liner. One is at a holy site & the other is a place where holy people live, usually in austere conditions. So what of a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean then? Pardon me, but this retreat seems to imply that merely being in the company Fr. Z and Michael Voris surrounded by like-minded Catholics is the source of “holiness” and exactly what one needs to recharge spiritually during Lent.

(“We’ve Officially Jumped the Shark – Fr. Z and Voris out to Sea”The Crescat, Dec. 6, 2012)

The blogger’s point is amplified by considering that Lenten spiritual aids can be obtained from a number of genuine traditional Catholic sources, many of them free of charge. Secondly, even assuming the minimum possible fare for the cruise — that of $1,083.89  keep in mind that the real expense will be much higher. The Catholic In Brooklyn blog puts things into perspective:

The cheapest price for this cruise is $1,083.89, double occupancy. Then of course you have to figure in the cost of air fare, transportation to and from the airport, clothes and other sundry items you may need to buy, taking time off from work, getting someone to watch your house and/or kids and/or pets.  (At this price, unless you are truly wealthy, a family is not going to go with the kids. It will be, at best, Mom and Dad.) And, of course, you know you will be spending more money when you’re actually on the cruise itself. If you’re really interested in what a typical cruise costs, you can go here. It’s far more than the base figure given in the ad. For a married couple to go on this cruise at the cheapest price will probably be close to $5000. [Blogger] Tancred may consider this spartan. Most of us out in the real world do not.

(“Heaven is a Cruise Ship”Catholic in Brooklyn, Dec. 22, 2012)

Well said! And this doesn’t even take into account money you may want to spend on the islands you’ll be visiting. Such a lavish cruise might perhaps be enjoyed as a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon  and even then only with a way to avoid the occasions of sin  but certainly not as a Lenten retreat!

“Resting at the Foot of the Cross”?

Let us pray that the preceding lines give Mr. Voris and “Fr.” Zuhlsdorf something to think about. Sincere though they may be in their desire to provide faithful Catholics with spiritual sustenance, it should be abundantly clear that any conceivable good that might come from the positive aspects of this “Lenten retreat”, is outweighed many times over by the worldly atmosphere, loaded with attractive creature comforts, and the distractions and occasions of sin that necessarily accompany it. The stark contrast to a real Catholic Lenten retreat cannot be overstated.

My personal recommendation: Give up this “Retreat Cruise” for Lent; and instead, remember that thou art dust — and unto dust thou shalt return.

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