By Fr. Francois-Marie Lethel
I write this testimony at Rome on this Sunday, June 28, day of the Lord’s Resurrection, Memorial of Saint Irenaeus of Lyon on the eve of the Solemnity of our two great Saints of Rome, Peter and Paul.
Along with other brothers of my Community, I was stricken by the coronavirus, despite our efforts to respect all the health rules. On the evening of June 8, I was very sick and an ambulance took me to the emergency room of the Gemelli Hospital, where Saint John Paul II was hospitalized after the attack <on his life>. On the morning of the 9th, I was hospitalized in the Columbus, the COVID section of the Gemelli, where I stayed for 17 days in complete isolation, shut in my room until I left the hospital on June 25, perfectly cured, without need of care or other controls. I thank Jesus and Our Lady for this somewhat miraculous “resurrection,” more critical at my 72 years of age!
In the previous months, beginning in March, I had written a whole series of texts on the Eucharist, lived in this great test of the pandemic, thinking especially of the suffering of the laity more wounded by the total privation of Holy Communion, especially in Italy and in France. Unfortunately, this privation was often called “Eucharistic fast,” with an abusive use of a traditional expression, according to a 1968 ideology opposed to daily Communion. Zenit published my texts in Italian and French.
Now, in this month of June, the Lord Jesus has given me the grace to take part more profoundly, as a priest, in this great test that touched the whole human family, in fact at the moment of the 45th anniversary of my priesthood, June 21, which was a Sunday. I felt closer to all the sick and especially to the other priests infected (many died in the previous months in Italy). Therefore, I celebrated this anniversary in total solitude, celebrating Mass in my room. The previous Sunday was the feast of Corpus Domini. I was able to celebrate Mass every day, also in the first days when I was very sick, seated on my bed in front of the night table, transformed into a small altar.
I must say that I was very much helped by the example of the Venerable Cardinal Van Thuan, about whom I had written a brief article entitled “’I Take You with Me Day and Night,’ the Eucharistic Spirituality of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan” (published by Zenit). In fact, when he was in prison, he celebrated Mass every day in solitude and in extreme poverty, always having a consecrated Host in the pocket of his shirt to prolong the celebration with Eucharistic Adoration, affirming that in sorrow his “only strength was the Eucharist.” Following his example, I celebrated daily Mass with great simplicity, and the first day I consecrated a small host, which I continually kept in a case, saying also to Jesus: “I take You with me day and night.” However, not long before Van Thuan, a consecrated laywoman, the Servant of God Vera Grita, Salesian co-operator, had lived a splendid mystical experience of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, who desires to make of us “Living Tabernacles.” To this end, I wrote a brief article entitled “Vera Grita, a Mystic of the Eucharist in the Great Crisis of 1968 (published by Zenit). I was in very profound communion with Saint Paul VI in this dramatic moment (the year of my religious profession), and, because of this, I wished to remember the great “Creed of the People of God” proclaimed by Paul VI on June 30, 1968.
It was for me a new and very intense experience of the Truth of the Eucharistic Mystery and of the grace of my Priesthood. It was not at all intimism or exaggerated spiritualism, but the strongest solidarity with all my sick brothers in the world, in communion with Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice and in continual union with His “True Body born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered and was immolated on the Cross for men” (Ave Verum). As a priest, I could really render present the Crucified and Risen Jesus in this place of pain of the body with the sickness and of soul, in total solitude, with the impossibility of the sick to go to Communion. It was my greatest service of priestly charity for the other sick people, but also for the doctors, nurses, and all the persons that took care of us with so much charity.
I experienced intensely the inseparability between the True Body of Jesus and His Word in Sacred Scripture, which I read constantly in these days, especially the Gospels and Saint Paul, Isaiah, and the Canticle of Canticles, praying also all the Liturgy of the Hours.
Along with my Bible, I took with me two essential books, which were like to “beacons” since the beginning of my religious life, 52 years ago: “The Story of a Soul” of Saint Therese of Lisieux and the “Treatise of True Devotion to the Holy Virgin” of Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort. So I wrote the brief article entitled “To Live with Jesus on Earth as in Heaven According to Therese of Lisieux (published by Zenit), adding later a text entitled “The ‘Totus Tuus’ of Saint John Paul II and of Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort.”
I had also taken a collection of texts of Saint John Eudes, who together with Montfort, is a candidate to be declared a Doctor of the Church. He is the great theologian of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, so united that they are as just one Heart. And, in fact, the two days before the anniversary of my priesthood were the feasts of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I took up particularly in prayer his two most important texts, signed with his blood: “The vow of Martyrdom” and the “Contract of Alliance with the Virgin Mary.” Sickness lived in union with Jesus’ Passion is a form of martyrdom, and this month of June is, par excellence, the month of martyrs: Justin, philosopher and martyr (1), Blandine and the Martyrs of Lyon (2), the Martyrs of Uganda (3), Thomas More (22), John the Baptist (24), Irenaeus of Lyon (28), Peter and Paul (29) and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome (30). The “Contract of Alliance with the Virgin Mary” is a most beautiful prayer of consecration that every priest could do, to consecrate his heart to the one love of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, as heart of spouse.
The last book I had was a collection of the spiritual writings of Vera Grita published by the Salesians under the title: “Take Me with You” (Turin, 2017, published by Elledici). I opened it every day, experiencing in a new way the profundity and timeliness of this great Eucharistic and Marian, missionary, and priestly spirituality. Only with Mary, sharing Her faith, hope and charity, is it possible to live such an intimate and continuous communion with the True Body of Jesus, present in the Eucharist. I always had the Rosary beads in my hand.
I never put the television on, but with a smartphone, I used the means of communication (telephone, WhatsApp and e-mail) to have contact with Carmelite brothers, family members, and friends.
For me, these 17 days of hospitalization were the best spiritual retreat of my life as a Carmelite priest, not being able to do anything other than pray from morning until evening, with this form of personal prayer that Teresa of Avila calls Oracion, and which is inseparable communion of love with Jesus and the whole Trinity and continuous intercession for the Church and the whole world. From my window, I could see the cupola of Saint Peter’s and I prayed a lot for our Pope Francis. With Therese of Lisieux, so dear to him, I had to pray continually with “raised hands,” like Moses who prayed on the mountain when the People of God were fighting on the plain (cf. Exodus 17:8-12), sharing Therese’s boundless hope for the eternal salvation of all souls. However, I must add that this retreat was also “Carthusian”! I had the grace to teach for some years the Theology of the Grande Chartreuse, founded by Saint Bruno in France and of making a personal retreat in the Charterhouse of Serra San Bruno in Calabria, where the Saint died. In fact, I was “imprisoned” in my room as the Carthusians are in their cells!
Finally, I experienced myself the charity of the doctors, nurses, and all the persons that came into my room for care, for cleaning, always clothed with the heaviest protection, doing such a courageous service, with the constant danger of contagion. In these very brief daily encounters, there was a very strong current that came from Jesus’ Presence and from the grace of my Priesthood. Almost all, men and women, were young, and I was able to talk with all of them, praying for them and for their families, asking for the protection of Jesus and Mary. I was grateful for everything there, also for the food that was of good quality! I also thanked the Hospital’s Chaplain, whom I asked for wine for the Mass and, especially, the Sacrament of Forgiveness. Being unable to come into the COVID sector, he came as close as possible and gave me Absolution (as provided by the Bishops).
I had an intense experience of filial abandonment in the “two Hands of the Father that are Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Saint Irenaeus), living more profoundly Therese of Lisieux’s spiritual childhood, being fragile and totally dependent as a child. In the uncertainty of the future, I often took up her poem “Just for Today.”
There is no merit in all of this. Everything was given to me by Jesus and Our Lady for my brothers, to walk together to holiness. Truly, everything is grace!