Vatican Letter for World Day of Prayer for Sanctification of Priests

Sent by the Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 26, 2003 ( Here is a translation of a letter that Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy, sent on the occasion of the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests, which will be observed this Friday, solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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The feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is an invitation for us to contemplate the love which unceasingly flows from Christ and spreads through the whole human race through «the gift par excellence» which is the Eucharist. Pope John Paul II’s recent encyclical draws our attention to the completely exceptional importance of this gift. The divine gift is given in a very special way to us priests. In receiving that gift, we bear responsibility for the efficacy of the Eucharist in the world.

The Call of Faith

At every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, having consecrated bread and wine so that they may become the Body and Blood of Christ, the priest proclaims: «The Mystery of Faith.» Here we are placed before a miracle which evinces adoration. To the material eye, nothing appears changed. In his encyclical, the Holy Father expresses his desire to be with us «in adoration before this Mystery: this great Mystery, this Mystery of Mercy» (11). He adds: «What more could Jesus have done for us? Truly, in the Eucharist, he shows us a love which goes ‘to the end’ (cf. Jn 13:1), a love which knows no measure.»

The Mass is the memorial of the sacrifice of the Cross. The Church constantly draws her life from the redeeming sacrifice; she approaches it not only through faith-filled remembrance, but also through actual contact, since this sacrifice is made present ever anew, sacramentally perpetuated, in every community which offers it at the hands of the ordained minister. The Eucharist thus applies to today’s men and women the reconciliation obtained once and for all by Christ for mankind in every age. Indeed, «the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice» (12).

The Eucharist is a sacrifice in the proper sense of the term. Firstly, it is the gift of Christ to the Father. It is a «sacrifice that the Father accepted, giving, in return for the total self-giving of his Son, who became obedient unto death (Phil 2:8), his own paternal gift, that is to say, the grant of new immortal life in the resurrection. In giving his own sacrifice to the Church, Christ has also made his own the spiritual sacrifice of the Church, which is called to offer herself in union with the sacrifice of Christ» (13).

More particularly, the Supreme Pontiff emphasizes that «the Eucharistic Sacrifice makes present not only the mystery of the Savior’s passion and death, but also the mystery of the resurrection which crowns his sacrifice. It is as the living and risen One that Christ can become, in the Eucharist, the ‘bread of life’ (Jn 6:35, 48), the ‘living bread’ (Jn 6:51).»

The offering of the sacrifice is therefore the source of new life. The saving efficacy of the sacrifice is fully realized when the Lord’s Body and Blood are received in communion: «we receive the One who offered himself for, we receive his body which he gave for us on the Cross and his blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'» (Mt 26:28).

«Through communion with his Body and Blood, Christ also grants us his Spirit (17): grant that we who are nourished by his Body and Blood may be filled with his Holy Spirit so that we may become one body, one spirit in Christ. Thus, by the gift of his Body and Blood, Christ increases within us the gift of his Spirit, already poured out in Baptism and bestowed as a ‘seal’ in the Sacrament of Confirmation.»

Moreover, the words «until you come in glory» affords us the opportunity better to discover the eschatological implications of the Eucharist: «the Eucharist is a straining towards the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (cf. Jn 15:11): it is in a certain sense the anticipation of heaven, ‘the pledge of future glory.'»

These horizons which open on to communion with the heavenly Church should always be before our hearts and minds. While they may appear distant, they do inspire «our sense of responsibility for this world,» «and plants a seed of living hope in our commitment to the work before us» (20).

The call to this sense of responsibility is valid for everyone. For us priests, however, it is especially resonant. Every Eucharistic celebration is bound to awaken to conscience of those who partake in it. For the priest, it awakens his responsibility towards a world which has to be transformed, transformed by the Eucharist. In pronouncing or hearing the words: «Let us proclaim the Mystery of Faith,» the priest understands better that this call of faith urges him towards a world in which Christ works miracles. He feels within himself the urgency of the mission to extend his kingdom everywhere.

He receives a fresh insight into his the priestly mission which has been given to him and into the role which he has to assume so that the power of the Eucharist may be able to have full effect in the life of every human being. The priest is vested with responsibility for building a new society in Christ. More particularly, he can give witness to faith in the new presence welling up from every consecration which changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord.

The miracle of this presence opens the way in every priest’s heart to a new hope which overcomes all of the obstacles which have accumulated during his ministry, even those burdened by tribulations and struggles.

Building Up the Church and Prayerful Adoration

The encyclical sets out to show the full spiritual riches of the Eucharist. On the one hand, it highlights the essential contribution of the Eucharist to the Church’s growth, on the other, it draws attention to the importance of the cult of the real presence outside of the Holy Mass. This is a rich and highly significant aspect of the Eucharist to be inculcated in ourselves and among the faithful.

In harmonious continuity with the preceding Magisterium, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the Eucharist is central to the Church’s growth. It explains how the kingdom of Christ grows in the world: «As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our pasch is sacrificed’ (1 Cor 5:7), is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out. At the same time in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of the faithful, who form one body in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 10:17), is both expressed and brought about.»

From its origins, a causal influence of the Eucharist is present in the Church’s development, as is clear from the Last Supper. The words and deeds of Christ «laid the foundations of the new messianic community, the People of the new covenant.» «From that time forward, until the end of the age, the Church is built up through sacramental communion with the Son of God who was sacrificed for our sake» (21).

Hence we clearly see the constructive role of the priest who is charged by Christ with most important task of transforming the world which is effected through the power of the Eucharist. To this task is also added another: that of beholding the eucharistic presence in prayerful adoration and with the utmost tact.

«The worship of the Eucharist outside of the Holy Mass,» says the encyclical, «is of inestimable value for the life of the Church» (25). The priest’s responsibility for this cult is describe as follows: «It is the responsibility of Pastors to encourage, also by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the Eucharistic species.»

The Holy Father not only invites every priest t
o give this witness but also offer us his own personal testimony: «it is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in his heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the ‘art of prayer’, how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brothers and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support!»

This practice has been repeatedly recommended by the constant Magisterium of the Church and by the example of numerous Saints. The personal testimony of the Vicar of Christ is an encouragement for every priest who reads the encyclical to know and appreciate the secret movements of grace which flow from adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The Eucharist become, therefore, the source of fruitful and contemplative sanctification.

The Eucharist and Ministerial Priesthood

The eucharistic Sacrifice absolutely requires a ministerial priesthood. The encyclical reminds us that the common priesthood is not sufficient for the eucharistic celebration. According to the Second Vatican Council «the faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood» but it is the ministerially ordained priest who, «acting in the person of Christ, «brings about the Eucharistic Sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people» (LG 10). This ministry implies an apostolic succession, «that is, the uninterrupted sequence, from the very beginning, of valid episcopal ordinations» (28). The term «in persona Christi» means: «in specific, sacramental identification with the eternal High Priest who is the author and principal of this sacrifice of his, a sacrifice in which, in truth, nobody can take his place» (29).

«The assembly gathered together for the celebration of the Eucharist, if it is to be a truly Eucharistic assembly, absolutely requires the presence of an ordained priest as its president. On the other hand, the community is by itself incapable of providing an ordained minister. This minister is a gift which the assembly receives through episcopal succession going back to the Apostles. It is the Bishop who, through the Sacrament of Holy orders, makes a new priest by conferring upon him the power to consecrate the Eucharist» (29).

The need for an ordained minister poses problems in ecumenical relations. «The Ecclesial Communities separated from us, says the Second Vatican Council («Unitatis Redintegratio,» 22), lack that fullness of unity with us which should flow from Baptism, and we believe that especially because of the lack of the Sacrament of Orders, they have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery. Nevertheless, when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and they await his coming in glory.»

Hence, we have the rule: «The Catholic faithful, therefore, while respecting the religious convictions of these separated brethren, must refrain from receiving the communion distributed in their celebrations, so as not to condone an ambiguity about the nature of the Eucharist and, consequently, to fail in their duty to bear clear witness to the truth» (30).

«Similarly, it is unthinkable to substitute for Sunday Mass ecumenical celebrations of the word or services of common prayer with Christians from the aforementioned Ecclesial Communities, or even participation in their liturgical services.»

In Catholic communities, the celebration of the Eucharist can be impeded by a shortage of priests. The Encyclical notes «distressing and irregular is the situation of a Christian community which, despite having sufficient numbers and variety of faithful to form a parish, does not have a priest to lead it. … When a community lacks a priest, attempts are rightly made somehow to remedy the situation so that it can continue its Sunday celebrations, and those religious and laity who lead their brothers and sisters in prayer exercise in a praiseworthy way the common priesthood of all the faithful based on the grace of Baptism. But such solutions must be considered temporary, while the community awaits a priest» (32).

Only one remedy can be applied to this situation: «The sacramental incompleteness of these celebrations should above all inspire the whole community to pray with greater fervour that the Lord will send laborers into his harvest (Mt 9:38). It should also be an incentive to mobilize all resources needed for an adequate pastoral promotion of vocations, without yielding to the temptations to seek solutions which lower the moral and formative standards demanded of candidates for the priesthood» (32).

Faced with communities which cannot have the celebration of the Eucharist because of a shortage of priests, the priest becomes more aware of the importance of his responsibility and of the need for his presence. He should be aware also that through prayer, in the first place, and an unambiguous commitment to his ontological identity which is also given external form, he is responsible for the sowing, growth and fidelity of priestly vocations. By giving witness to a committed and joyful acceptance of his own identity, and to the apostolate, the priest can contribute much to the pastoral promotion of priestly vocations. While other priests devote themselves full time to the promotion of vocations, every priest is personally bound to foster vocations to the priesthood.

The Eucharist and Ecclesial Communion

The Encyclical devotes a special chapter to the theme of ecclesial communion. This is a central theme since the object of the document is to highlight the role of the Eucharist in the building up and growth of the Church. The communion which characterizes the Church must be understood in its deepest sense: «The Church is called during her earthly pilgrimage to maintain and promote communion with the Triune God and communion among the faithful» (34). «The Eucharist appears as the culmination of all the sacraments in perfecting our communion with God the Father by identification with his only-begotten Son through the working of the Holy Spirit. […] God joins himself to us in the most perfect union. […] Precisely for this reason it is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist.»

The ecclesial communion of the eucharistic assembly is communion with its proper Bishop, visible principal and foundation of unity in the particular Church. It is also communion with the Roman Pontiff, and also with the Episcopate, the clergy and the entire people (39).

Among the consequences following on this communion, we have to emphasize a greater openness in ecumenical matters, especially to our [Eastern] brethren since they are closer to the Catholic Church. When they spontaneously ask to receive the Eucharist and are properly disposed, that request can be met, and with possible reciprocity.

«It is a source of joy,» declares the encyclical «Ut Unum Sint,» «to note that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church» (46). This is also reciprocal.

The object of these norms is not to effect a form of intercommunion, but to provide for the grave spiritual need of eternal salvation for each and every member of the faithful. In this respect, it was enough to have a common understanding on the doctrine of the Church and of the Eucharist.

With Mary’s Faith

It should come as no surprise that the Holy Father, at the end of the Encyclical, directs our attention to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

If the Eucharist is the mystery of faith, this mystery was proposed to the faith of the Blessed Vir
gin Mary which received it in the most perfect way. Sharing her faith with us priests, the Holy Mother of God assists us in assuming our duty to promote the Eucharist for the life of the Church and she tells us «do whatever he says» (Jn 2:5).

[Translation issued by the Congregation for Clergy; slightly adapted here]

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