The priesthood: John Paul II's Holy Thursday Letter sets guidelines

The priesthood: John Paul II's Holy Thursday Letter sets guidelines

Pope John Paul II

In his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2000, Pope John Paul II restates orthodox Catholic teachings on the meaning and role of the priesthood and Eucharist that have been de-emphasised in some quarters of the Church.

The Letter was presented in Jerusalem on 23 March during his visit to what is believed to be the Upper Room where Jesus' Last Supper took place. The Pope reminded the world's priests: "It was here that Christ gave us the immense gift of the Eucharist. Here too our priesthood was born." Each priest at his consecration, he said, is marked indelibly with Christ's image.

Reviewing the almost two thousand years that had passed since the Last Supper, John Paul II paid tribute to the many priests who were "exemplary disciples, saints, martyrs ... the many priests who have witnessed to Christ by their lives, even to the shedding of blood." Conversely, there were also priests whose "human frailty" had "made it hard to see in them the face of Christ." But this was not surprising, in light of Judas' betrayal and Peter's 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 Cor 4:7)".

The Holy Father invited priests to rediscover the "gift" and the "mystery" of their priesthood: "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 baptised, there exists another specific, ministerial participation which, although intimately linked to the first, nonetheless differs from it in essence (cf. Lumen Gentium, 10)."

The sacrificial aspect was stressed as "a profound mark of the Eucharist, an essential dimension of the priesthood of Christ and, therefore, of our own priesthood."

While priestly ministry is "not limited to celebrating the Eucharist," since it includes "the proclamation of the Word, the sanctification of the faithful through the Sacraments, and the leadership of God's People in communion and service" the Eucharist is "the point from which everything else comes forth and to which it all returns. Our priesthood was born in the Upper Room together with the Eucharist."

Christ's presence can be expressed in many ways, but, as the Pope pointed out, "of these his Eucharistic presence will certainly be supreme: no mere remembrance, but a 'memorial' which makes present what it commemorates; not a symbolic evocation of the past, but the living presence of the Lord in the midst of his own."

The Pope's Letter cited the importance for priests of "long and often" Eucharistic adoration as integral to the manner of witness they give to the People of God during celebrations of the Mass. Priests should help Catholic communities rediscover the "treasure" of the Eucharistic presence "in the daily celebration of Holy Mass, and especially in the more solemn Sunday assembly."

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