1. "Ecce Sacerdos magnus, qui in diebus suis placuit Deo".
The great Priest, indeed the High Priest, is Jesus Christ. He -
as the Letter to the Hebrews affirms - entered the sanctuary with
his own blood once and for all, achieving for us eternal redemption
(cf. Heb 9: 12). Christ, Priest and Victim: he "is the same
yesterday and today and for ever!" (Heb 13: 8). We who, as
priests, have been called to share in his priesthood in a specific
way are gathered together this morning to reflect on it.
The ministerial priesthood! Today's liturgy speaks of it to us,
taking us back in spirit to the Upper Room, to the Last Supper, when
Christ washed the Apostles' feet. The Evangelist John bears witness
to it. So does Luke, but, in the passage just proclaimed, he offers
us the correct interpretation of this symbolic gesture of Christ,
who says of himself: "I am among you as one who serves" (Lk
22: 27). The Teacher leaves to his friends the commandment to love
one another as he has loved them, by serving one another (cf. Jn 13:
14): "I have given you an example, that you also should do as I
have done to you" (Jn 13: 15).
2. The ministerial priesthood! It refers us above all to the
Eucharist, in which Christ instituted the new rite of the Christian
Passover, at the same time establishing the priestly ministry in the
Church. At the Last Supper Christ took bread into his hands, broke
it and gave it to the Apostles, saying: "This is my body which
will be given up for you" (Rite of Mass, cf. Lk 22: 19). Then
he took the cup filled with wine and gave it to the Apostles,
saying: "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. Do this in memory of me" (Rite of Mass).
As often as you repeat this rite, the Apostle Paul explains,
"you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor 11:
Beloved priests, in this way Christ places in our hands, under
the appearances of bread and wine, the living memorial of the
Sacrifice he offered to the Father on the Cross. He has entrusted it
to his Church, to celebrate it until the end of the world. In the
Church, as we know, it is he himself as the Eternal High Priest of
the New Covenant who down the centuries acts through us, through his
"Do this in memory of me": every time you do this, you
will proclaim my death until my final coming.
3. The ministerial priesthood! We all share in it, and today we
want to offer God a unanimous thanksgiving for this extraordinary
gift. A gift for all times and for people of every race and culture.
A gift that is renewed in the Church, through God's unchanging mercy
and the generous, faithful response of so many frail men. A gift
that never ceases to amaze those who receive it.
After more than 50 years of priestly life, I feel an intense need
to praise and thank God for his immense goodness. My thoughts return
at this moment to the Upper Room in Jerusalem where, during my
recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I was able to celebrate Holy
Mass. In that place my priesthood and yours arose from the mind and
heart of Christ. This is precisely why I wanted to address my Letter
to Priests for Holy Thursday from that "room on the upper
floor", a Letter which I again offer to you today.
In the Upper Room, on the eve of his Passion, Jesus wanted to
give us a share in the vocation and mission entrusted to him by the
heavenly Father, that is, to bring people into his universal mystery
4. I embrace you with deep affection, dear priests of the whole
world! It is an embrace that knows no bounds and extends to the
priests of every particular Church, reaching you especially, dear
sick priests, who are alone or troubled by various difficulties.
I am also thinking of the priests who for different reasons no
longer exercise their sacred ministry, but continue to bear in them
that special configuration to Christ inherent in the indelible
character of Holy Orders. I pray for them often and invite everyone
to remember them in prayer, so that, through the properly obtained
dispensation, they may continue to fulfil the commitment to
Christian integrity and ecclesial communion.
5. Dear priests of every country and every culture, this is a day
wholly dedicated to our priesthood, to the ministerial priesthood.
With great affection I greet and thank Cardinal Darío
Castrillón Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, who
at the beginning of the celebration addressed cordial best wishes to
me, in your name as well, on this day which is very significant for
me. I greet the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops present. I greet
all of you, dear brothers in the priesthood, who have wished to be
here with me today, even by coming from afar at the cost of
considerable sacrifice. I hold you all close to my heart.
We have been consecrated in the Church for this specific
ministry. We are called in various ways, to contribute, wherever
Providence puts us, to the formation of the community of God's
People. Our task - the Apostle Peter reminded us - is to tend the
flock God entrusted to us, not by constraint but willingly, not as
domineering over those in our charge, but by setting them an example
(cf. 1 Pt 5: 2-3); a witness that, if necessary, can reach the point
of shedding one's blood, as many of our confrères did in the
century which has just ended.
This is our way of holiness, which leads us to our ultimate
meeting with the "supreme shepherd" in whose hands is the
"crown of glory" (1 Pt 5: 4). This is our mission at the
service of the Christian people. May Mary, Mother of our priesthood,
help us. May we be helped by the many holy priests who have gone
before us in this sublime mission that is laden with responsibility.
Pray for us too, dear Christian people who have gathered round us
today in faith and joy. You are a royal people, a priestly race, a
holy assembly. You are the People of God who, in every part of the
earth, share in Christ's priesthood. Accept the gift which we renew
today in the service of this your special dignity. O priestly
people, thank God with us for our ministry and sing with us to your
Lord and ours: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for the gift of the
priesthood! Grant that the Church of the new millennium may count on
the generous work of many holy priests! Amen.