April 11, 2000
volume 11, no. 72

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    Today we bring you the first of three parts of the Holy Father's special LETTER TO PRIESTS for Holy Thursday 2000. He completed this touching letter, signing it in ceremonies during celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on Thursday morning, March 23rd during his historic "Jubilee Journey" in search of Salvation History. In this first part, the Pope greets every priest throughout the world, reminding them of their august privilege and the tremendous feelings he himself felt in this most holy place where the Blessed Sacrament was first instituted. Pope John Paul II also reminds them of John's emphasis on Christ's call for humility in the washing of the feet to remind all priests that as alter Christis they are servants to the flock. The full English text was translated and provided by ZENIT news agency ZE00033022.

Holy Father's Annual LETTER TO PRIESTS for Holy Thursday 2000
part one

My Dear Brother Priests!

    1. Jesus,"having loved His own who were in the world, loved them to the end" (John 13:1). Here in Jerusalem, in the place where according to tradition Jesus and the Twelve were present for the Passover Meal and the institution of the Eucharist, I am deeply moved as I read once again the words with which the Evangelist John introduces the account of the Last Supper.

        I give praise to the Lord for enabling me, in this Jubilee Year of the Incarnation of his Son, to trace the earthly footsteps of Christ, following the paths which He took from His birth in Bethlehem to His death on Golgotha. Yesterday I spent time in Bethlehem, in the cave of the Nativity. In the days to come I will visit various places associated with the life and ministry of the Savior, from the house of the Annunciation to the Mount of the Beatitudes and the Garden of Olives. Finally on Sunday I will be at Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre.

        Today, this visit to the Upper Room gives me an opportunity to survey the entire mystery of the Redemption. It was here that Christ gave us the immense gift of the Eucharist. Here too our priesthood was born.

    A letter from the Upper Room

    2. From this Upper Room I would like to address this letter to you, as I have done for more than twenty years, on Holy Thursday, the day of the Eucharist and "our" day par excellence. I am indeed writing to you from the Upper Room, thinking back to all that took place within these walls on that evening charged with mystery. Spiritually, I see Jesus and the Apostles seated at table with Him. I think of Peter especially: it is as if I can see him, with the other disciples, watching in amazement the Lord's actions, listening with deep emotion to His words and, for all the burden of his frailty, opening himself to the mystery proclaimed here and soon to be accomplished. These are the hours of the great battle between the love which gives itself without reserve and the mysterium iniquitatis which is imprisoned in hostility. The betrayal of Judas appears emblematic of humanity's sin. "It was night", observes the Evangelist John (13:30): the hour of darkness, an hour of separation and of infinite sadness. Yet in the emotion-filled words of Christ the light of dawn already shines forth: "I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22).

    3. We must never cease meditating anew on the mystery of that night. We should often return in spirit to this Upper Room, where we priests especially can feel in a sense "at home". With regard to the Upper Room, it could be said of us what the Psalmist says of the peoples with regard to Jerusalem: "In the register of peoples, the Lord will write: These were born here" (Psalm 86:6).

        In this holy room I naturally find myself imagining you in all the various parts of the world, with your myriad faces, some younger, some more advanced in years, in all the different emotional states which you are experiencing: for many, thank God, joy and enthusiasm, for others perhaps suffering or weariness or discouragement. In all of you I honor the image of Christ which you received at your consecration, the "character" which marks each of you indelibly. It is a sign of the special love which every priest has come to know and upon which he can always rely, either to move ahead joyfully or to make a fresh start with renewed enthusiasm, in the hope of ever greater fidelity.

    Born of love

    4. "Having loved His own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end." In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John does not relate the institution of the Eucharist, of which Jesus had already spoken at length in Capernaum (cf. Jn 6:26-65); instead it dwells upon the washing of the feet. Even more than an example of humility offered for our imitation, this action of Jesus, so disconcerting to Peter, is a revelation of the radicalness of God's condescension towards us. In Christ, God has "stripped Himself", and has taken on "the form of a slave" even to the utter abasement of the Cross (cf. Philippians 2:7), so that humanity might have access to the depths of God's very life. The great speeches which in John's Gospel follow the washing of the feet and are in some way commentaries upon it, serve as an introduction to the mystery of Trinitarian communion to which we are called by the Father Who makes us sharers in Christ by the gift of the Spirit.

        This communion must be lived in compliance with the new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34). It is not by chance that the priestly prayer is the culmination of this "mystagogy", since it shows us Christ in His oneness with the Father, ready to return to Him through the sacrifice of Himself, and wanting only that the disciples come to share His unity with the Father: "As You, Father, are in Me and I in You, may they too be one in Us" (John 17:21).

    5. From the small group of disciples who heard these words the whole Church was formed, growing through time and space as "a people gathered together by the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (Saint Cyprian, De Orat. Dom., 23). The profound unity of this new people does not mean that there are not different and complementary tasks in its life. Those whose task it is to renew in persona Christi what Jesus did at the Last Supper when He instituted the Eucharistic Sacrifice, "the source and summit of the entire Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11), are thus linked in a special way to those first Apostles. The sacramental character which distinguishes them by virtue of their reception of Holy Orders ensures that their presence and ministry are unique, indispensable and irreplaceable.

        Almost two thousand years have passed since that moment. How many priests have repeated what Jesus did! Often they were exemplary disciples, saints, martyrs. How can we forget, in this Jubilee Year, the many priests who have witnessed to Christ by their lives, even to the shedding of blood? Such martyrdom has accompanied the entire history of the Church; it has also marked the century just passed, a century characterized by different dictatorial regimes hostile to the Church. From the Upper Room, I wish to thank the Lord for the courage of these priests. Let us look to them and learn to follow them in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd Who "lays down His life for His sheep" (Jn 10:11).

    Tomorrow: Part Two - "A treasure in earthen vessels"


April 11, 2000
volume 10, no. 72

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