Friday, February 08, 2008

Romans, Hebrews and a French Jesuit -- Papal Retreat Pre-Game '07

On Sunday evening, the annual Lenten Retreat for B16 and the top brass of his Curia begins, and the Vatican essentially shuts down for the week.

This year, reflecting both the upcoming Pauline Year and October's Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, the French scripture scholar Cardinal Albert VanHoye SJ (left) has been tapped to preach the seven-day gathering.

Before B16, the naming of the preacher was always heavily awaited as a glimpse into the Pope's mind -- not for the present, that is, but the future.

For successive pontiffs, Retreat Week has been the time when death looms large in their thoughts, and under Paul VI and John Paul II the preachers were almost-invariably already numbered among the papabile, or rose on the list.

Both Cardinals Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger gave the Lenten retreat to the Papal Household, with the former's 1976 "Sign of Contradiction" conferences serving as the "introduction" without which he arguably wouldn't have been elected to Peter's chair two years later. Among the preachers John Paul himself chose were Cardinals Christoph Schönborn OP of Vienna, Claudio Hummes OFM (then in Sao Paulo), Francis George OMI of Chicago and Ratzinger himself, who delivered the 2002 talks (the close of which saw him receive, in a unique gesture, the pallium from the hands of the Pope).

As the Neapolitan theologian Bruno Forte wrapped the 2004 retreat, the late Pope reportedly signaled his satisfaction by telling the priest "I will make you a bishop."

Three months later, Forte was named a metropolitan archbishop and, at 58, is still viewed as a significant figure for the future, both in the Italian church and beyond.

Undoubtedly aware of the "rising star" tradition -- and the chattering class' near-obsession with it -- Benedict XVI has effectively kiboshed the practice, instead naming retired cardinals to give the retreat. However, while Cardinals Marco Cè and Giacomo Biffi (respectively, the 2006 and 2007 preachers) had led Italian archdioceses, VanHoye approaches the retreat as an academician.

The former rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and onetime #2 of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (where he served under then-Cardinal Ratzinger), the famed Pauline exegete was created a cardinal at Benedict's first consistory in 2006.

A simple priest, he was entitled to receive episcopal ordination prior to the conferral of the red hat. However, in keeping with the custom of Jesuits raised to the college, he declined the bishopric.

Drawing from the Letter to the Hebrews, he's chosen "We Welcome Christ Our High Priest" as the theme of this year's retreat.

As a cardinal deacon, VanHoye was tapped to assist the Pope at Wednesday's traditional rites on the Aventine Hill. He turns 85 in July.