April 12, 2000
volume 11, no. 73

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    Today we bring you the second 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 second part, the Vicar of Christ relives those special words uttered by Our Lord at the Last Supper and the Pope shows how the "priesthood of Christ" was so vital for the Church to begin, and, for each ordained priest since the meaning of alter Christus comes through clearly. The full English text was translated and provided by ZENIT news agency ZE00033022.

Holy Father's Annual LETTER TO THE PRIESTS for Holy Thursday
part two

    A treasure in earthen vessels

    6. It is true that in the history of the priesthood, no less than in the history of the whole People of God, the dark presence of sin is also found. Many times, the human frailty of priests has made it hard to see in them the face of Christ. Here in the Upper Room why should this amaze us? Not only did the betrayal of Judas reach its climax here, but Peter himself had to reckon with his weakness as he heard the bitter prediction of his denial. In choosing men like the Twelve, Christ was certainly under no illusions: it was upon this human weakness that He set the sacramental seal of His presence. And Paul shows us why: "We bear this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it might be clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and not from us" (2 Corinthians 4:7).

        For all the frailties of their priests, then, the People of God have not ceased to put their faith in the power of Christ at work through their ministry. How can we fail in this regard to recall the splendid witness of Saint Francis of Assist? Humility led him not to seek the priesthood, but in his Testament he expressed his faith in the mystery of Christ present in priests, declaring that he would turn to them even if they had persecuted him, taking no account of their sin. "And I do this", he explained, "because the only thing I see of the flesh of the most high Son of God in this world is His most holy Body and Blood which they alone consecrate and they alone administer to others" (Fonti Francescane, No. 113).

    7. From this place where Christ spoke the words instituting the Eucharist, I invite you, dear priests, to rediscover the "gift" and the "mystery" which we have received. To go to the heart of it, we must reflect upon the priesthood of Christ. Certainly, the entire People of God participates in this priesthood by Baptism. But the Second Vatican Council reminds us that, in addition to the participation proper to all the baptized, there exists another specific, ministerial participation which, although intimately linked to the first, nonetheless differs from it in essence (cf. Lumen Gentium, 10).

        In the context of the Jubilee of the Incarnation, we can approach the priesthood of Christ from a particular perspective. The Jubilee invites us to contemplate the intimate link between Christ's priesthood and the mystery of His person. The priesthood of Christ is not "incidental", a task which He might or might not have assumed: rather, it is integral to His identity as the Son Incarnate, as God-made-man. From now on, the relationship between mankind and God passes wholly through Christ: "No one comes to the Father, except through Me" (John 14:6). This is why Christ is a Priest endowed with an eternal and universal priesthood, of which the priesthood of the first Covenant was a prefigurement and a preparation (cf. Heb 9:9). He has exercised it fully from the moment He took His seat as High Priest "at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in Heaven" (Hebrews 8:1). From that time forth, the very nature of human priesthood changed: now there is but one priesthood, that of Christ, which can be shared and exercised in different ways.

    Sacerdos et Hostia

    8. At the same time, the meaning of sacrifice, the priestly act par excellence, was brought to perfection. On Golgotha, Christ made his own life an offering of eternal value, a "redemptive" offering which has reopened for ever the path of communion with God which had been blocked by sin.

        The Letter to the Hebrews casts light upon this mystery by placing on the lips of Christ the words of Psalm 40: "You desired neither sacrifice nor offering, but instead you prepared a body for Me... Here I am... I come to do your will, O God" (Heb 10:5-7; cf. Ps 40:7-9). According to the author of the Letter, these prophetic words were spoken by Christ when He first came into the world. They express His mystery and His mission. They begin to be accomplished from the very moment of the Incarnation and reach their completion in the sacrifice of Golgotha. From that time forward, every priestly offering is but a representing to the Father of the one offering of Christ, made once for all.

        Sacerdos et Hostia! Priest and Victim! This sacrificial aspect is a profound mark of the Eucharist; it is also an essential dimension of the priesthood of Christ and, therefore, of our own priesthood. In the light of this, let us read once again the words we speak every day, words which echoed for the first time here in the Upper Room: "Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is My Body which will be given up for you... Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of My Blood, the Blood of the new and everlasting Covenant which will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven."

        These are the words we find in the Evangelists and in Paul, with largely converging redactional forms. They were spoken in this Room in the late evening of Holy Thursday. By giving the Apostles His Body to eat and His Blood to drink, Jesus declared the deepest truth about what He would do shortly thereafter on Golgotha. For in the Bread of the Eucharist is present the very Body born of Mary and offered on the Cross:


      Ave verum Corpus natum / de Maria Virgine,
      Vere passum, immolatum / in cruce pro homine.

    9. How can we not return ever anew to this mystery, which contains the entire life of the Church? For two thousand years, this Sacrament has given nourishment to countless believers. It has been the source of great river of grace. How many saints have found in it not only the pledge, but as it were the foretaste of Heaven!

        Let us allow ourselves to be carried along by the contemplative impulse, rich in poetry and theology, which inspired Saint Thomas Aquinas to sing of the mystery in the words of the hymn Pange Lingua. Today, in this Upper Room, these words come to me as an echo of the voice of so many Christian communities throughout the world, of so many priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful, who each day pause in adoration of the Eucharistic mystery:

      Verbum caro, panem verum / verbo carnem efficit,
      fitque sanguis Christi merum, / et, si sensus deficit,
      ad firmandum cor sincerum / sola fides sufficit.

    Tomorrow: Part Three: "Do this in memory of Me"


April 12, 2000
volume 10, no. 73

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