LETTER OF THE HOLY FATHER
POPE JOHN PAUL II
FOR HOLY THURSDAY 1999
Dear Brothers in the priesthood, my Holy Thursday appointment with you in
this year which immediately precedes the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 focuses
on this invocation in which, the exegetes tell us, we hear the ipsissima vox
Iesu. It is an invocation which encloses the unfathomable mystery of the Word
made flesh, sent by the Father into the world for the salvation of humanity.
The mission of the Son of God reaches its fulfilment when, offering himself,
he brings about our adoption as sons and daughters and, by giving the Holy
Spirit, makes it possible for human beings to share in the very communion of the
Trinity. In the Paschal Mystery, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, God the
Father stoops down to every man and woman, offering the possibility of
redemption from sin and liberation from death. By grace we are the ministers of
1. In the Eucharistic celebration we conclude the Opening Prayer with the
words: "Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you,
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever". He lives and reigns with you,
Father! This conclusion, we may say, has the nature of an ascent: through
Christ, in the Holy Spirit, towards the Father. This is also the theological
outline behind the three-year period of preparation, 1997-1999: first the year
of the Son, then the year of the Holy Spirit and now the year of the Father.
This ascending movement is rooted, as it were, in the descent described by
the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Galatians. We pondered this text with
particular intensity in the liturgy of the Christmas season: "When the fullness
of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,
to redeem those who were under the Law, so that they might receive adoption as
sons and daughters" (Gal 4:4-5).
Here we find expressed the descending movement: God the Father sends the Son
to make us, in him, his adopted children. In the Paschal Mystery, Jesus
accomplishes the Father's plan by giving his life for us. The Father then sends
the Spirit of the Son to enlighten us with regard to this extraordinary
privilege: "Because you are sons and daughters, God has sent the Spirit of his
Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father! So through God you are no longer
slaves but sons and daughters, and if sons and daughters, then heirs" (Gal
How can we fail to notice the uniqueness of what the Apostle writes? He
declares that it is precisely the Spirit who cries out: Abba, Father!
Historically in fact, through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption, the
witness to the fatherhood of God has been the Son of God: it was he who taught
us to turn to God and call him "Father". He himself invoked God as "my Father",
and he taught us to pray to God with the affectionate name of "our Father". Yet
Saint Paul tells us that it is through the inner instruction of the Holy Spirit
that the Son's teaching must, in a certain sense, be brought to life in the soul
of those who listen to him. In fact, only through the work of the Spirit are we
able to adore God in truth, invoking him as "Abba, Father".
2. I write these words to you, dear Brothers in the priesthood, with Holy
Thursday in mind, picturing you gathered round your Bishops for the Chrism Mass.
It is my earnest wish that, as you meet in the communion of your local
presbyterates, you may feel united with the whole Church as she lives the year
of the Father, the year which is the prelude to the end of the twentieth century
and, at the same time, of the second Christian millennium.
In this perspective, how can we fail to give thanks to God as we think of the
hosts of priests who, in this vast span of time, have spent their lives in the
service of the Gospel, sometimes to the point of the supreme sacrifice of life
itself? In the spirit of the coming Jubilee, while confessing the limitations
and shortcomings of past Christian generations, and therefore also of the
priests of those times, we recognize with joy that a very significant part of
the Church's inestimable service to human progress is due to the humble and
faithful work of countless ministers of Christ who, in the course of the
millennium, have been generous builders of the civilization of love.
The immensity of time! If time is always a movement away from the beginning,
it is also, when we think of it, a return to the beginning. And this is of
fundamental importance: if time did no more than take us ever further from the
beginning, and if its final orientation — the recovery of the origin — were not
clear, then our whole existence in time would lack a definite direction. It
would have no meaning.
Christ, "the Alpha and Omega ... the One who is, who was and who is to come"
(Rev 1:8), has given direction and meaning to our human passage through time. He
said of himself: "I came from the Father and have come into the world; now I am
leaving the world and going to the Father" (Jn 16:28). Thus the Christ-event
pervades the passage of each one of us. It is with Christ that we pass through
time, going in the same direction that he has taken: towards the Father.
This becomes even more evident during the Sacred Triduum, the holy days par
excellence during which we share, through the mystery, in Christ's return to the
Father through his passion, death and resurrection. Faith assures us that this
journey of Christ to the Father, his Passover, is not an event which involves
him alone. We too are called to be part of it. His Passover is our Passover.
So then, together with Christ we journey towards the Father. We do so through
the Paschal Mystery, reliving those crucial hours when Christ, dying on the
Cross, cried out: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mk 15:34), and
then: "All is accomplished" (Jn 19:30), "Father, into your hands I commit my
spirit" (Lk 23:46). These expressions from the Gospel are familiar to every
Christian and in a particular way to every priest. They speak of our living and
of our dying. At the end of each day, we say in the Liturgy of the Hours: "Into
your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit", to prepare ourselves for the great
mystery of our passage, our own personal Easter experience, when Christ, by
virtue of his death and resurrection, will take us to himself in order to
present us to the Heavenly Father.
3. "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these
things from the learned and clever and revealed them to little children. Yes,
Father, for this was your gracious will. All things have been given to me by my
Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father
except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Mt 11:25-27).
Yes, the Son alone knows the Father. He who "is in the bosom of the Father" —
as Saint John writes in his Gospel (1:18) — has brought the Father close to us,
has spoken to us of him, has revealed to us his face and heart. At the Last
Supper, when the Apostle Philip asks, "Show us the Father" (Jn 14:8), Christ
replies: "Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me, Philip? ...
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?" (Jn 14:9-10).
With these words, Jesus bears witness to the Trinitarian mystery of his own
eternal generation from the Father as Son, the mystery which is the deepest
secret of his divine Person.
The Gospel is a continuous revelation of the Father. When the twelve-year-old
Jesus is found by Joseph and Mary among the teachers in the Temple, he replies
to his Mother's words, "My son, why have you done this to us?" (Lk 2:48), by
referring to the Father: "Did you not know that I must be about the things of my
Father?" (Lk 2:49). Even at the age of twelve he already has a clear awareness
of the meaning of his own life, of his mission, which, from the first moment to
the last, is wholly dedicated to "the things of the Father". This mission
reaches its high point on Calvary, with the sacrifice of the Cross, accepted by
Christ in a spirit of obedience and filial devotion: "My Father, if it be
possible, let this cup pass from me! Yet not as I will, but as you will ... Your
will be done!" (Mt 26:39, 42). And the Father in turn accepts the sacrifice of
the Son, for he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that man
might not die but have eternal life (cf. Jn 3:16). Yes, the Son alone knows the
Father and therefore he alone can reveal him to us.
4. "Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso ...". "Through him, with him and in
him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, Almighty
Father, for ever and ever".
Spiritually united and visibly gathered in our Cathedral Churches on this
special day, we give thanks to God for the gift of the priesthood. We give
thanks for the gift of the Eucharist which we celebrate as priests. The doxology
with which the Canon ends has a fundamental importance in every Eucharistic
celebration. In a certain sense it expresses the crowning moment of the
Mysterium Fidei, of the central core of the Eucharistic sacrifice, realized at
the moment when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we effect the changing of the
bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, just as he himself did for the
first time in the Upper Room. When the great Eucharistic Prayer reaches its
climax, the Church, at that precise moment, in the person of the ordained
minister, addresses these words to the Father: "Through him, with him and in
him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, Almighty
Father". Sacrificium laudis!
5. After the assembly has responded with the solemn acclamation "Amen", the
celebrant intones the "Our Father", the Lord's Prayer. The succession of these
two moments is very significant. The Gospel relates that the Apostles,
marvelling at the Master's inner recollection in his dialogue with the Father,
asked him: "Lord, teach us to pray" (Lk 11:1). Then, for the first time, he
spoke the words which would become the principal and most frequently used prayer
of the Church and of individual Christians: the "Our Father". When we, as the
liturgical assembly, make these words our own during the Eucharistic
celebration, they take on a particular eloquence. It is as though we were
professing at that moment that Christ taught us his own prayer to the Father in
the fullest and most definitive way by explaining it through his sacrifice on
It is in the context of the Eucharistic Sacrifice that the "Our Father",
recited by the Church, discloses its whole meaning. Each of its invocations
acquires a special ray of truth. On the Cross the name of the Father is
supremely "hallowed", and his Kingdom irrevocably comes; in the "consummatum
est" his will is definitively done. And is not the petition "Forgive us our
trespasses, as we forgive those ..." perfectly reflected in the words of the
Crucified Jesus: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk
23:34)? Asking for our daily bread becomes more meaningful than ever when, under
the species of "broken bread", we receive the Body of Christ in Eucharistic
Communion. And does not the prayer, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us
from evil", attain its greatest efficacy at the very moment when the Church
offers to the Father the ultimate price of our redemption and our deliverance
6. In the Eucharist the priest personally draws near to the inexhaustible
mystery of Christ and of his prayer to the Father. He can immerse himself daily
in this mystery of redemption and grace by celebrating Holy Mass, which retains
its meaning and value even when, for a just reason, it is offered without the
participation of the faithful, yet always for the faithful and for the whole
world. Precisely because of this indissoluble bond linking him to the priesthood
of Christ, the priest is the teacher of prayer, and the faithful can rightly put
to him the same request which the disciples put one day to Jesus: "Teach us to
The Eucharistic liturgy is a pre-eminent school of Christian prayer for the
community. The Mass opens up a wide variety of possibilities for a sound
pedagogy of the spirit. One of these is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,
which is a natural prolongation of the Eucharistic celebration. Through
Adoration, the faithful can enjoy a particular experience of "abiding" in the
love of Christ (cf. Jn 15:9), entering ever more deeply into his filial
relationship with the Father.
It is precisely in this context that I exhort all priests to carry out with
confidence and courage their duty of guiding the community to authentic
Christian prayer. This is a duty which no priest may ever forsake, even though
the difficulties caused by today's secularized mentality can at times make it
extremely demanding for him.
The powerful missionary impulse which Providence has inspired in the Church
in our time, especially through the Second Vatican Council, is a challenge above
all to her ordained ministers, calling them first of all to conversion. They
themselves must be converted in order to convert others or, in other words, they
themselves must experience intensely that they are children of God in order to
help all the baptized to discover the dignity and joy of belonging to our
7. On Holy Thursday we shall renew, dear brothers, our priestly promises. In
doing so, we desire that Christ may somehow enfold us once more in his holy
priesthood, in his sacrifice, in his agony in Gethsemane and his death on
Golgotha, and in his glorious resurrection. Retracing, as it were, the footsteps
of Christ in all these saving events, we discover his profound openness to the
Father. And it is for this reason that every Eucharist in a way repeats the
request of the Apostle Philip in the Upper Room: "Lord, show us the Father",
and, in the Mysterium Fidei, Christ seems to reply each time: "Have I been with
you so long, and yet you do not know me? ... Do you not believe that I am in the
Father and the Father in me?" (Jn 14:9-10).
This Holy Thursday, dear priests throughout the world, as we recall the
anointing with chrism received on the day of our Ordination, we shall proclaim
with one voice and with renewed gratitude:
Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso,
est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti,
in unitate Spiritus Sancti,
omnis honor et gloria
per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen!
From the Vatican, on 14 March, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, in the year 1999,
the twenty-first of my Pontificate.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion