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John Paul II’s Holy Thursday Letter

Posted in SACRED TRIDUUM, and ST. JOHN PAUL II

Last updated on April 30, 2021

Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Passover Meal of Jesus Christ when he established the Holy Eucharist in the Upper Room with his disciples. There he took bread broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying: “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you” (cf. Mt 26:26; Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24). Then he took the cup of wine and said to them: “Take this, all of you and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven” (cf. Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25).

Holy Thursday also commemorates the Lord’s institution of the priesthood. We are brought into union with the Paschal Mystery through the priest’s actions during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,  the memorial in which Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is perpetuated.

Every year beginning in 1979 Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to priests to encourage and strengthen their call from Christ. The following is taken from his first.

For you I am a Bishop, with you, I am a Priest

I think of you all the time, I pray for you, with you I seek the ways of spiritual union and collaboration, because by virtue of the sacrament of Orders, which I also received from the hands of my Bishop… you are my brothers. And so, adapting the words of Saint Augustine, (Vobis enim sum episcopus, vobiscum sum Christianus: Serm. 340, 1: PL 38, 1483). I want to say to you today: “For you I am a Bishop, with you I am a Priest”.

The Priest as a gift of Christ for the Community

This sacrament, dear Brothers… serves to make the faithful aware of their common priesthood and to activate it (cf. Eph 4:1-12): the sacrament reminds them that they are the People of God and enables them “to offer spiritual sacrifices” (cf. 1 Pt 2:5), through which Christ himself makes us an everlasting gift to the Father (cf. 1 Pt 3:18). This takes place, above all, when the priest “by the sacred power that he has… in the person of Christ (in persona Christi) effects the Eucharistic Sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people”, (Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 10).

Every day we have to be converted anew

“What must we do, then?” (Lk 3:10): dear Brothers, this seems to be your question, just as the disciples and those who listened to Christ the Lord asked him so often. What must the Church do, when it seems that there is a lack of Priests, when their absence makes itself felt especially in certain countries and regions of the world?

How are we to respond to the immense needs of evangelization, and how can we satisfy the hunger for the Word and the Body of the Lord? The Church, which commits herself to maintaining priestly celibacy as a particular gift for the kingdom of God, professes faith in and expresses hope in her Teacher, Redeemer and Spouse, and at the same time in him who is “Lord of the harvest” and “giver of the gift” (Mt 9:38; cf. 1 Cor 7:7). In fact, “every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). We for our part cannot weaken this faith and confidence with our human doubting or our timidity.

In consequence, we must all be converted anew every day. We know that this is a fundamental exigency of the Gospel, addressed to everyone (cf. Mt 4:17; Mk 1: 15)… Being converted means returning to the very grace of our vocation; it means meditating upon the infinite goodness and love of Christ, who has addressed each of us and, calling us by name, has said: “Follow me”.

Being converted means continually “giving an account” before the Lord of our hearts about our service, our zeal and our fidelity, for we are “Christ’s servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1). Being converted also means “giving an account” of our negligence and sins, of our timidity, of our lack of faith and hope, of our thinking only “in a human way” and not “in a divine way”. Let us recall, in this regard, the warning that Christ gave to Peter himself (cf. Mt 16:23).

Being converted means, for us, seeking again the pardon and strength of God in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and thus always beginning anew, and every day progressing, overcoming ourselves, making spiritual conquests, giving cheerfully, for “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).

Being converted means to “pray continually and never lose heart” (Lk 18:1).

In a certain way prayer is the first and the last condition for conversion, spiritual progress and holiness. Perhaps in these recent years—at least in certain quarters—there has been too much discussion about the priesthood, the priest’s “identity”, the value of his presence in the modern world, etc., and on the other hand, there has been too little praying…It is prayer that shows the essential style of the priest; without prayer this style becomes deformed.

Prayer helps us always to find the light that has led us since the beginning of our priestly vocation, and which never ceases to lead us, even though it seems at times to disappear in the darkness. Prayer enables us to be converted continually, to remain in a state of continuous reaching out to God, which is essential if we wish to lead others to him.

Prayer helps us to believe, to hope and to love, even when our human weakness hinders us…

Dear Brothers: you who have borne “the burden of the day and the heat” (Mt 20:12), who have put your hand to the plough and do not turn back (cf. Lk 9:62), and perhaps, even more, those of you who are doubtful of the meaning of your vocation or of the value of your service: think of the places where people anxiously await a Priest, and where for many years; feeling the lack of such a Priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence.

And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a Priest can efficaciously utter. So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion, in which they can share only through the ministry of a priest, just as they also so eagerly wait to hear the divine words of pardon: Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis! So deeply do they feel the absence of a Priest among them!… Such places are not lacking in the world. So if one of you doubts the meaning of his priesthood, if he thinks it is “socially” fruitless or useless, reflect on this!

We must be converted every day, we must rediscover every day the gift obtained from Christ himself in the sacrament of Orders, by penetrating the importance of the salvific mission of the Church and by reflecting on the great meaning of our vocation in the light of that mission.

About the author

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A retired Catholic teacher with a freelance writing stint, I love playing the best game on earth, hockey, or paddling kayaks on a river, lake, or ocean. My home is in the heart of Christ, held in the arms of His Mother who accompanies me when I receive the Eucharist. My seven kids range from 21 to 38 years old.