.- The preacher of this year’s spiritual exercises in the Vatican designed this week’s meditations on the theme of the universal call to holiness to anticipate the May 1 beatification of Pope John Paul II.
Fr. Francois-Marie Lethel, a Carmelite priest, professor and theologian, led the series of meditations at the Pope’s private chapel, Redemptoris Mater.
He had to think of the exercise for the Pope and the Roman Curia as “spiritual preparation” for the beatification, the priest told CNA on March 12. He chose the theme “The Light of Christ in the Heart of the Church - John Paul II and the Theology of the Saints” to guide the March 13-19 exercises.
He was inspired by the approaching official recognition of the John Paul II’s holiness and also by the late pontiff’s role in beatifying and canonizing more people than all the Popes before him.
This flurry of official recognition took place not to exaggerate numbers but to show “the deepest fidelity to the Second Vatican Council,” said Fr. Lethel. “The heart of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal vocation to sanctity,” he explained.
Fr. Lethel thought that John Paul II's “formidable Christocentric and Marian spirituality” and his record of raising new saints and blesseds to the altars was backed up by his strong example of sanctity, which was evident in his personal testimony.
John Paul II was tied closely to the theology of the saints, said the Carmelite priest, because he presented them as examples of Christian life and also as theologians. Even the smallest of them such as St. Therese of Lisieux “make the truth of the faith shine,” said Fr. Lethel.
The influence of the saints has also been strong in Fr. Lethel’s own faith. He was born in Paris in 1948 into a devout Protestant family. It was his mother’s discovery of the Catholic faith, especially through her devotion to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary, that led to her conversion and his siblings’ subsequent baptisms as Catholics. His father also became Catholic.
Fr. Lethel learned to love the Bible and the doctrine of Carmelite saints that he saw in his mother’s example. He attributes his vocation to the Carmelite order to the teachings of Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and John of the Cross -- all “Doctors of the Church” – who influenced his mother's spirituality.
The theology of these saints and others buoyed him through the crisis of spirituality during the late 1960s in France.
“I found in the saints and only in the saints all the light, holy teachers of faith and love,” he told CNA.
When he learned from the Vatican that he would be leading the meditations for the Pope and the Roman Curia, he prayed and celebrated Mass.
In his latest spiritual exercises, he spoke of the “ring of saints” who influenced the late Pope’s spirituality. He cited the examples of St. Therese and other towering figures of holiness such as Sts. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena and Sts. Joseph, Thomas Aquinas and Anselm.
He also tied in two modern examples of holiness: Venerable Concepcion Cabrera de Armida, a Mexican wife and mother, and Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, an Italian teenager who exhibited extraordinary faith in a life shortened by cancer.
All these figures of holiness “extend a hand” to John Paul II in this “ring of saints” guided principally by the Virgin Mary and by St. Joseph her husband, said Fr. Lethel. Each of the figures represent the universal call to sainthood.
“I think of these spiritual exercises on figures of sanctity: a holy Pope, a girl who died at 18 years old, a mother of a family, St. Joan of Arc and Catherine of Siena who were lay women consecrated in virginity, and I think also of the Gospel of the good thief.
“The good thief, one could say, is the only saint canonized by Jesus. (He was) the saint of the final hour."
Above all, Fr. Lethel sought to transmit a “message of love” in the exercises. He pointed especially to the example of St. Therese of Lisieux, “the saint of mercy and hope” that he advocated for elevation to the status of Doctor of the Church.
The message of the talks, said Fr. Lethel, is that “up to the last moment, it is still possible to give a complete ‘yes’ to the mercy of Jesus and become saints.”
He thought the principal fruit of the exercise is to return participants to “this marvelous call to holiness for all people on the occasion of the beatification of John Paul II. This is the most beautiful meaning of life and the desire of every human being to love in the Trinity and to love with all of our hearts.”
As for the beatification, it will be an “immense joy” for Pope Benedict, the Church and the world, he said.
“Cardinal Ratzinger was the closest person to Pope John Paul II as a collaborator but also as a friend. So, I think that we are preparing for this event with much joy.”