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Fr. Thomas Lehning to retire, after sharing 50-year passion for theology

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Father Thomas J. Lehning has had a passion for theology ever since he studied the relationship between revelation, Christology and faith in Rome in the late 1960s.

He was excited by "the idea that the faith we have received from Jesus Christ through the church is something you can think about, something you should think about," he said. "What does it mean for me to believe in Jesus Christ?"

I don’t think I have done that many great things in my life. But I can see that the Lord has used me as his instrument to do some great things in other people’s lives.” Father Thomas J. Lehning

Father Lehning, 75, will retire June 24 after 50 years of sharing that passion for the faith with parishioners, most recently as pastor of St. Clare of Assisi Church in Clifton for 17 years.

He once thought about teaching at the seminary level, but after earning his licentiate in sacred theology in 1971 and later a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, he realized he liked the variety of working with people of all ages and backgrounds.

"My personality is cut out to be a parish priest," he said. "But an awful lot of what a priest is supposed to do is give the best understanding he can of the faith of the church, and to make sure the way you approach it represents the breadth of Catholicism, rather than a narrow perception of what the Catholic faith is.

"If we say the Gospel faith of the church is God among us, well, it’s as infinite as he is. You need to preach to everybody in the congregation, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in my preaching for 50 years."

The theme his theology keeps pointing him back to is "the goodness of our God in sending his Son into the world so we might have life in him," Father Lehning said. "That, to me, is what we need to be emphasizing to people."

Before being assigned to St. Clare, Father Lehning was pastor of St. Thomas à Becket Church in Reston (1980-87), St. Francis de Sales Church in Kilmarnock (1987-95) and Sacred Heart Church in Manassas (1995-2004). He also served as parochial vicar at St. John the Beloved Church in McLean (1971), Star of the Sea Church in Virginia Beach (1971-73), Holy Family Church in Dale City (1973-75), St. Michael Church in Annandale (1975-79) and St. Agnes Church in Arlington (1979-80).

After his retirement, he plans to spend some time in the Northern Neck and then decide where to settle near a church where he can help out. Wherever he settles, marriage ministry will continue to be part of his focus. He has worked with the diocesan tribunal since 1974, most recently as Defender of the Bond, and was involved in Worldwide Marriage Encounter for many years.

He sees his work with the tribunal as ministering to "people who have made serious mistakes about who to marry or how to live their marriages and offering them a share in the mercy of Christ and of the church," he said. "Part of the strength of the tribunal process is that it forces people to go back and confront what actually went on" in their relationship and acknowledge mistakes and failures, so they can heal the pain before moving on. "You can’t sweep it under the rug, but that’s part of what we do as human beings. We’re taught to just move on, and our culture reinforces this."

Father Lehning was born in Washington and attended St. James School in Falls Church and Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington for a year, then St. John Vianney Seminary in Richmond. He graduated from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 1967, then resided at Pontifical North American College in Rome while attending the Pontifical Gregorian University for four years. His diaconate assignment was with the Army and Air Force in Germany.

He was ordained Dec. 18, 1970, by then-Bishop (later Washington Cardinal) James A. Hickey, rector of the NAC, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and earned a licentiate in sacred theology. His doctorate in theology is from The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Reflecting on his half-century of ministry, "I don’t think I have done that many great things in my life," he said. "But I can see that the Lord has used me as his instrument to do some great things in other people’s lives. It’s not my Gospel, it’s Jesus’ Gospel, and my job is to let you know that, and step out of the way so you can experience it." 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021