A Discalced Carmelite who is an expert on the theology of the saints will be leading Pope Benedict XVI’s weeklong Lenten retreat this year.
Father Francois-Marie Léthel, secretary of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, will be reflecting on the theme: “The light of Christ in the heart of the Church — John Paul II and the theology of saints” during the Pope’s Lenten meditations, which run March 13-19.
The announcement was made in the Feb. 5 edition of L’Osservatore Romano.
Speaking to the Register Feb. 11, Father Léthel said he received the news from the Vatican with “great joy” and that he sees his task as “coming from God and from the Madonna for the service of the Church.”
Father Léthel, 62, made his profession as a Carmelite in 1968, was ordained a priest in 1975 and has lived in Rome since 1982. A professor of theology and spirituality at the Pontifical Teresianum University in Rome, he is also a prolific author, often writing on the lives of saints.
Father Léthel has written many books, including Knowing the Love of Christ That Surpasses All Knowledge: The Theology of the Saints and The Love of Jesus: The Christology of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
By leading the Pope’s spiritual exercises, he continues a Vatican tradition that began in 1929. The meditations take place in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Apostolic Palace. Cardinals, bishops, superior generals and members of the Roman Curia and papal household also participate, and the Pope normally sits in an adjacent room.
The meditations usually last around half an hour and can also include praying the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharistic adoration. The Pope will deliver a short discourse at the conclusion of the week.
Last year’s meditations were given by Salesian Father Enrico dal Covolo, also a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology who has since been appointed rector of the Pontifical Lateran University. He gave 17 short talks on “Lessons From God and the Church on the Priestly Vocation.”
The French priest is particularly knowledgeable about Venerable John Paul II and has taught at the Teresianum over the past year, including a class on the love of Christ as it relates to John Paul’s teaching. He said he has also worked with Benedict XVI in the past and that he identifies with the Holy Father’s “profound spirituality.”
As a Carmelite, Father Léthel naturally has a great devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Although he didn’t wish to discuss in detail what he will say during the papal retreat, he said the French mystic, who was instrumental in guiding him toward his vocation, will figure highly in his Lenten meditations. He noted that St. Thérèse was the only person John Paul II proclaimed a doctor of the Church during his pontificate, at a 1997 ceremony in Rome.
Another figure Father Léthel will reflect upon because of his importance to the life of Karol Wojtyla will be St. Louis de Montfort. The 17th century saint is perhaps most famous for his prayer of entrustment to Our Lady: Totus tuus ego sum (I am all yours) — a phrase which John Paul II would later take as his episcopal motto.
Father Léthel recalled how, as a young seminarian in Poland, Karol Wojtyla was inspired by St. Louis’ teaching on the excellence of Marian devotion and total consecration. John Paul II once said that reading the French saint’s seminal work, True Devotion to Mary, was a “decisive turning point” in his life.
“Totus tuus represented to him a breath of love to Jesus from the heart of Mary, and, for me, this is the key to his life, his relationships with, and love for, all people — and his attention to the individual person,” Father Léthel said. “For me, totus tuus sheds a true light on John Paul II.”
The Carmelite theology professor puts his own path to the priesthood down to “illumination” from these and other great saints.
After joining the Carmelites in 1968, which he recalled was “a year of crises” around the world, Father Léthel said he was greatly helped by learning about St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, the early Church Fathers and St. Catherine of Siena. “I found in the saints much pure light and became interested in their personalities, their theology,” he said.
He said he believes the many beatifications and canonizations proclaimed by John Paul II “underlined the holiness of the Church and the vocation to holiness.” This was consistent, he said, with two important chapters in the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium, which underlined the importance of the vocation to holiness of all the faithful.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.