The priest's mission to be
the bridge between God and the world
On Thursday, 18 February , in
the Vatican's Hall of Blessings, the Holy Father met with the parish
priests of the Diocese of Rome for a "lectio divina" in which he
meditated on the passages from the Letter to the Hebrews [see
below]. The following is a translation of the Pope's Reflections,
which were given in Italian.
Dear Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
It is always a very joyful as well as an important tradition for me
to be able to begin Lent with my Presbyterium, the Priests of Rome.
Thus, as the local Church of Rome but also as the universal Church, we
can start out on this essential journey with the Lord towards the
Passion, towards the Cross, the Easter journey.
Let us meditate this year on the passages from the Letter to the
Hebrews that have just been read. The Author of this Letter introduced a
new way of understanding the Old Testament as a Book that speaks of
Christ. The previous tradition had seen Christ above all, essentially,
in the key of the Davidic promise, the promise of the true David, of the
true Solomon, of the true King of Israel, the true King since he was
both man and God.
And the inscription on the Cross truly proclaimed this reality to the
world: now there is the true King of Israel, who is King of the world,
the King of the Jews hangs on the Cross. It is a proclamation of the
kingship of Jesus, of the fulfilment of the messianic expectation of the
Old Testament which, at the bottom of their hearts, is shared by all men
and women who await the true King who will bring justice, love and
However, the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews discovered a
citation which until then had gone unnoticed: Psalm 110 :4 "You are
a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek". This means that not
only does Jesus fulfil the Davidic promise, the expectation of the true
King of Israel and of the world, but he also makes the promise of the
real Priest come true. In a part of the Old Testament and especially in
Qumran there are two separate lines of expectation: of the King and of
the Priest. In discovering this verse, the Author of the Letter to the
Hebrews realized that the two promises are united in Christ: Christ is
the true King, the Son of God
in accordance with Psalm 2:7, from which he quotes
but he is also the true Priest.
Thus the whole of the religious world, the whole reality of
sacrifices, of the priesthood that is in search of the true priesthood,
the true sacrifice, finds in Christ its key, its fulfilment. And with
this key it can reinterpret the Old Testament and show precisely that
also the religious law
abolished after the destruction of the Temple
was actually moving towards Christ. Hence it was not really abolished
but renewed, transformed, so that in Christ all things might find their
meaning. The priesthood thus appears in its purity and in its profound
In this way the Letter to the Hebrews presents the theme of the
priesthood of Christ, of Christ the priest, at three levels: the
priesthood of Aaron, that of the Temple; Melchizedek; and Christ himself
as the true priest.
Indeed, the priesthood of Aaron, in spite of being different from
Christ's priesthood, in spite of being, so to speak, solely a quest, a
journey in the direction of Christ, is nevertheless a "journey" towards
Christ and in this priesthood the essential elements are already
outlined. Then Melchizedek — we shall return to this point — who is a
The pagan world enters the Old Testament. It enters as a
mysterious figure, without father or mother
the Letter to the Hebrews says
it simply appears, and in this figure can be seen the true veneration of
the Most High God, of the Creator of the Heavens and of the earth. Thus
the pagan world too experiences the expectation and profound
prefiguration of Christ's mystery. In Christ himself everything is
recapitulated, purified and led to its term, to its true essence.
Let us now look at the individual elements concerning the priesthood
as best we can. We learn two things from the Law, from the priesthood of
Aaron, the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: if he is truly to
be a mediator between God and man, a priest must be man. This is
fundamental and the Son of God was made man precisely in order to be a
priest, to be able to fulfil the priest's mission.
He must be man
we shall come back to this point
but he is unable, on his own, to make himself a mediator for God. The
priest needs divine authorization, institution, and only by belonging to
the divine and the human
can he be a mediator, can he be a "bridge".
This is the priest's mission: to combine, to link these two realities
that appear to be so separate, that is, the world of God
far from us, often unknown to the human being
and our human world. The priest's mission is to be a mediator, a bridge
that connects, and thereby to bring human beings to God, to his
redemption, to his true light, to his true life.
As the first point, therefore, the priest must be on God's side. Only
in Christ is this need, this prerequisite of mediation fully brought
about. This Mystery was therefore necessary: the Son of God is made man
so that he may be the true bridge for us, the true mediation. Others
must have at least an authorization from God, or in the Church's case,
the Sacrament, that is they must introduce our being into the being of
Christ, into divine being.
Only with the Sacrament, this divine act that makes us priests in
communion with Christ, can we accomplish our mission.
And this seems to me a first point for our meditation: the importance
of the Sacrament. No one can become a priest by himself; God alone can
attract me, can authorize me, can introduce me into participation in
Christ's mystery; God alone can enter my life and take me by the hand.
This aspect of divine giving, of divine precedence, of divine action
that we ourselves cannot bring about and our passivity
being chosen and taken by the hand by God
is a fundamental point we must enter into. We must always return to the
Sacrament, to this gift in which God gives me what I will never be able
to give; participation, communion with divine being, with the priesthood
Let us also make this reality a practical factor in our life: if this
is how it is, a priest must really be a man of God, he must know God
intimately and know him in communion with Christ and so we must live
this communion; and the celebration of Holy Mass, the prayer of the
Breviary, all our personal prayers are elements of being with God, of
being men of God. Our being, our life and our heart must be fixed in
God, in this point from which we must not stir. This is achieved and
reinforced day after day with short prayers in which we reconnect with
God and become, increasingly, men of God who live in his communion and
can thus speak of God and lead people to God.
The other element is that the priest must
be man, human in all senses. That is, he must live true humanity, true
humanism; he must be educated, have a human formation, human virtues; he
must develop his intelligence, his will, his sentiments, his affections;
he must be a true man, a man according to the will of the Creator, of
the Redeemer, for we know that the human being is wounded and the
question of "what man is" is obscured by the event of sin that hurt
human nature even to the quick.
Thus people say: "he lied"
"it is human"; "he stole"
"it is human"; but this is not really being human. Human means being
generous, being good, being a just person, it means true prudence and
wisdom. Therefore emerging with Christ's help from this dark area in our
nature so as to succeed in being truly human in the image of God is a
lifelong process that must begin in our training for the priesthood. It
must subsequently be achieved, however, and continue as long as we live.
I think that basically these two things go hand in hand: being of God
and with God and being true man, in the true sense meant by the Creator
when he formed this creature that we are.
To be man: the Letter to the Hebrews
stresses our humanity; we find this surprising for it says: "He can deal
gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with
weakness" (5:2). And then
even more forcefully
"In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,
with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard for his godly fear" (5:7).
For the Letter to the Hebrews, the
essential element of our being human is being compassionate, suffering
with others: this is true humanity. It is not sin because sin is never
solidarity but always tears solidarity apart, it is living life for
oneself instead of giving it.
True humanity is real participation in
the suffering of human beings. It means being a compassionate person
the Greek text says
that is, being at the core of human passion, really bearing with others
the burden of their suffering, the temptation of our time: "God, where
are you in this world?".
The humanity of the priest does not
correspond to the Platonic or Aristotelian ideal which claims that the
true man is the one who lives in contemplation of the truth alone and so
because he only has friendship with beautiful things, with divine
beauty, while "the work" is left to others.
This is a hypothesis; whereas here it is
implied that the priest enter, like Christ, into human wretchedness,
carry it with him, visit those who are suffering and look after them
and, not only outwardly but also inwardly, take upon himself,
recapitulate in himself the "passion" of his time, of his parish, of the
people entrusted to his care.
This is how Christ showed his true
humanity. Of course, his Heart was always fixed on God, he always saw
God, he was always in intimate conversation with him. Yet at the same
time he bore the whole being, the whole of human suffering entered the
In speaking, in seeing people who were
lowly, who had no pastor, he suffered with them. Moreover, we priests
cannot withdraw to an Elysium. Let us rather be immersed in the
passion of this world and with Christ's help and in communion with him,
we must seek to transform it, to bring it to God.
Precisely this should be said, with the
following really stimulating text: "Jesus offered up prayers and
supplications, with loud cries and tears" (Heb 57). This is not only a
reference to the hour of anguish on the Mount of Olives but sums up the
whole history of the Passion that embraces Jesus' entire life. Tears:
Jesus wept by the tomb of Lazarus, he was truly moved inwardly by the
mystery of death, by the terror of death. People forgive the brother, as
in this case, the mother and the son, the friend: all the dreadfulness
of death that destroys love, that destroys relationships, that is a sign
of our finiteness, our poverty. Jesus is put to the test and he
confronts this mystery in the very depths of his soul in the sorrow that
is death and weeps. He weeps before Jerusalem, seeing the destruction of
the beautiful city because of disobedience; he weeps, seeing all the
destruction of the world's history; he weeps, seeing that people destroy
themselves and their cities with violence and with disobedience.
Jesus weeps with loud cries. We know
from the Gospels that Jesus cried out from the Cross: "My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34; cf. Mt 27:46) and cried out once
again at the end. And this cry responds to a fundamental dimension of
the Psalm: in the terrible moments of human life many Psalms are a loud
cry to God: "Help us, hear us!".
On this very day, in the Breviary, we
prayed like this: God, where are you? "You have made us like sheep for
slaughter" (Ps 44: 11 [RSV]). A cry of suffering humanity! And
Jesus, who is the true subject of the Psalms, truly bears this cry of
humanity to God, to God's ears: "help us and hear us!". He transforms
the whole of suffering humanity, taking it to himself in a cry to God to
Thus we see that in this very way he
brings about the priesthood, the function of mediator, bearing in
himself, taking on in himself the sufferings and passion of the world,
transforming it into a cry to God, bringing it before the eyes and to
the hands of God and thus truly bringing it to the moment of redemption.
In fact the Letter to the Hebrews says
that "he offered up prayers and supplications", "loud cries and tears"
(5:7). It is a correct translation of the verb prosphèrein.
This is a religious word and expresses the act of offering human
gifts to God, it expresses precisely the act of offering, of sacrifice.
Thus with these religious terms applied to the prayers and tears of
Christ, it shows that Christ's tears, his anguish on the Mount of
Olives, his cry on the Cross, all his suffering are nothing in
comparison with his important mission. In this very way he makes his
sacrifice, he becomes the priest. With this "offered", prosphèrein,
the Letter to the Hebrews says to us: this is the fulfilment of his
priesthood, thus he brings humanity to God, in this way he becomes
mediator, he becomes priest.
We say, rightly, that Jesus did not
offer God some thing. Rather, he offered himself and made this offering
of himself with the very compassion that transforms the suffering of the
world into prayer and into a cry to the Father. Nor, in this sense, is
our own priesthood limited to the religious act of Holy Mass in which
everything is placed in Christ's hands but all of our compassion to the
suffering of this world so remote from God is a priestly act, it is
it is offering up. In this regard, in my opinion, we must understand
and learn how to accept more profoundly the sufferings of pastoral life,
because priestly action is exactly this, it is mediation, it is entering
into the mystery of Christ, it is communication with the mystery of
Christ, very real and essential, existential and then sacramental.
A second term in this context is
important. It is said that by means of this obedience Christ is made
perfect, in Greek teleiothèis
(cf. Heb 5:8-9). We know that throughout the Torah, that is, in all
religious legislation, the word tèleion,
used here, means priestly ordination. In other words the Letter to
the Hebrews tells us that precisely by doing this Jesus was made a
priest, and his priesthood was fulfilled. Our sacramental priestly
ordination should be brought about and achieved existentially but also
Christologically, and through precisely this, should bring the world
with Christ and to Christ and, with Christ, to God: thus we really
become priests, teleiothèis.
Therefore the priest is not a thing for a few hours but is fulfilled
precisely in pastoral life, in his sufferings and his weaknesses, in his
sorrows and also in his joys, of course. In this way we increasingly
become priests in communion with Christ.
Finally the Letter to the Hebrews sums
up all this compassion in the word hypakoèn,
obedience: it is all obedience. This is an unpopular word in our
day. Obedience appears as an alienation, a servile attitude. One does
not enjoy one's own freedom, one's freedom is subjected to another's
will, hence one is no longer free but determined by another, whereas
self-determination, emancipation, would be true human existence.
Instead of the word "obedience", as an
anthropological keyword we would like the term "freedom". Yet, on
considering this problem closely, we see that these two things go
together: Christ's obedience is the conformity of his will with the will
of the Father; it is bringing the human will to the divine will, to the
conformation of our will with God's will.
In his interpretation of the Mount of
Olives, of the anguish expressed precisely in Jesus' prayer, "not my
will but your will", St Maximus Confessor described this process that
Christ carries in himself as a true man, together with the human nature
and will; in this act
"not my will but your will" Jesus recapitulates the whole process of his
life, of leading, that is, natural human life to divine life and thereby
transforming the human being. It is the divinization of the human being,
hence the redemption of the human being, because God's will is not a
tyrannical will, is not a will outside our being but is the creative
will itself; it is the very place where we find our true identity.
God created us and we are ourselves if
we conform with his will; only in this way do we enter into the truth of
our being and are not alienated. On the contrary, alienation occurs
precisely by disregarding God's will, for in this way we stray from the
plan for our existence; we are no longer ourselves and we fall into the
Indeed, obedience, namely, conformity to
God, the truth of our being, is true freedom, because it is
divinization. Jesus, in bearing the human being, being human in himself
and with himself, in conformity with God, in perfect obedience, that is,
in the perfect conformation between the two wills, has redeemed us and
redemption is always this process of leading the human will to communion
with the divine will.
It is a process for which we pray every
day: "May your will be done" And let us really pray the Lord to help us
see closely that this is freedom and thus enter joyfully into this
obedience and into "taking hold of" human beings in order to bring them
by our own example, by our humility, by our prayer, by our pastoral
into communion with God.
Continuing our reading, a sentence of
difficult interpretation follows. The Author of the Letter to the
Hebrews says that Jesus prayed loudly, with cries and tears, to God who
could save him from death and that in his total abandonment he is heard
Here let us say: "No, it is not true,
his prayer went unheard, he is dead". Jesus prayed to be released from
death, but he was not released, he died a very cruel death.
Harnack, a liberal theologian, therefore
wrote: "Here a not is missing", it must be written "He was not
heard", and Bultmann accepted this interpretation. Yet this is a
solution that is not an exegesis but rather a betrayal of the text.
"Not" does not appear in any of the manuscripts but "he was heard"; so
we must learn to understand what "being heard" means, in spite of the
I see three levels on which to
understand these words. At a first level the Greek text may be
translated as: "he was redeemed from his anguish", and in this sense
Jesus is heard. This would therefore be a hint of what St Luke tells us:
an angel strengthened him (cf. Lk 22:43), in such a way that after the
moment of anguish he was able to go, straight away and fearlessly
towards his hour, as the Gospels describe it to us, especially that of
This would be being heard in the sense
that God gives him the strength to bear the whole of this burden and so
he was heard. Yet to me it seems that this answer is not quite enough.
Being heard, in the fullest sense
Fr Vanhoye emphasized this
would mean "he was redeemed from death", however not for the moment, for
that moment, but for ever, in the Resurrection: God's true response to
the prayer to be saved from death is the Resurrection and humanity is
saved from death precisely in the Resurrection which is the true healing
of our suffering and of the terrible mystery of death.
Already present here is a third level of
understanding: Jesus' Resurrection is not only a personal event. I think
it would be helpful to keep in mind the brief text in which St John, in
chapter 12 of his Gospel, presents and recounts, in a very concise
manner, the event on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus says: "Now is my soul troubled" (Jn
12:27) and, in all the anguish of the Mount of Olives, what shall I say?
"Father, save me from this hour... Father glorify your name" (cf. Jn
This is the same prayer that we find in
the Synoptic Gospels: "all things are possible to you... your will be
done (cf. Mt 26:42; Mk 14:36; Lk 22:42) which in Johannine language
appears: either as "save me" or "glorify" [your name]. And God answers:
"I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again" (cf. Jn 12:28). This
is the response, it is God hearing him: I will glorify the Cross; it is
the presence of divine glory because it is the supreme act of love. On
the Cross Jesus is raised above all the earth and attracts the earth to
him; on the Cross the "Kabod" now appears, the true divine glory
of God who loves even to the Cross and thus transforms death and creates
Jesus' prayer was heard in the sense
that his death truly becomes life, it becomes the place where he redeems
the human being, where he attracts the human being to himself.
If the divine response in John says: "I
will glorify" you, it means that this glory transcends and passes
through the whole of history over and over again: from your Cross,
present in the Eucharist, it transforms death into glory. This is the
great promise that is brought about in the Blessed Eucharist which ever
anew opens the heavens. Being a servant of the Eucharist is, therefore,
a depth of the priestly mystery.
Another brief word, at least about
Melchizedek. He is a mysterious figure who enters Sacred History in
Genesis 14. After Abraham's victory over several kings, Melchizedek,
King of Salem, of Jerusalem, appears and brings out bread
This uncommented and somewhat
incomprehensible event appears only in Psalm 110  as has been said,
but it is clear that Judaism, Gnosticism and Christianity then wished to
reflect profoundly on these words and created their interpretations. The
Letter to the Hebrews does not speculate but reports only what Scripture
says and there are various elements: he is a king of righteousness, he
dwells in peace, he is king where peace reigns, he venerates and
worships the Most High God, the Creator of Heaven and earth, and he
brings out bread and wine (cf. Heb 7:1-3; Gn 14:18-20).
It is not mentioned here that the High
Priest of the Most High God, King of Peace, worships God, Creator of
Heaven and earth with bread and wine.
The Fathers stressed that he is one of
the holy pagans of the Old Testament and this shows that even from
paganism there is a path that leads to Christ. The criteria are:
worshipping God Most High, the Creator, fostering righteousness and
peace and venerating God in a pure way. Thus, with these fundamental
elements, paganism too is on its way to Christ, and in a certain way,
makes Christ's light present.
In the Roman canon after consecration we
have the prayer supra quae that mentions certain prefigurations
of Christ, his priesthood and his sacrifice: Abel, the first martyr,
with his lamb; Abraham, whose intention is to sacrifice his son Isaac,
replaced by the lamb sent by God; and Melchizedek, High Priest of God
Most High who brings out bread and wine.
This means that Christ is the absolute
newness of God and at the same time is present in the whole of history,
through history, and history goes to encounter Christ. And not only the
history of the Chosen People, which is
the true preparation desired by
God, in which is revealed the mystery of Christ, but also in paganism
the mystery of Christ is prepared, paths lead from it toward Christ who
carries all things within him.
This seems to me important in the celebration of the Eucharist: here
is gathered together all human prayer, all human desire, all true human
devotion, the true search for God that is fulfilled at last in Christ.
Lastly, it should be said that the Heavens are now open, worship is no
longer enigmatic, in relative signs, but true. For Heaven is open and
people do not offer some thing, rather, the human being becomes one with
God and this is true worship.
This is what the Letter to the Hebrews says: "Our priest... is seated
at the right hand of the throne... in the sanctuary, the true tent which
is set up... by the Lord" (cf. 8:1-2).
Let us return to the point that Melchizedek is King of
The whole Davidic tradition refers
to this, saying: "Here is the place, Jerusalem is the place of the true
worship, the concentration of worship in Jerusalem dates back to the
times of Abraham, Jerusalem is the true place for the proper veneration
Let us take another step: the true Jerusalem, God's
is the Body of Christ, the
Eucharist is God's peace with humankind. We know that in his Prologue,
St John calls the humanity of Jesus the tent of God,
(cf. Jn 1:14). It was here that God himself pitched his tent in the
world, and this tent, this new, true Jerusalem is at the same time on
earth and in Heaven because this Sacrament, this sacrifice, is
ceaselessly brought about among us and always arrives at the throne of
Grace, at God's presence.
Here is the true Jerusalem, at the
same time heavenly and earthly, the tent which is the Body of God, which
as a risen Body always remains a Body and embraces humanity. And, at the
same time, since it is a risen Body, it unites us with God.
All this is constantly brought about anew in the Eucharist. We, as
priests, are called to be ministers of this great Mystery, in the
Sacrament and in life. Let us pray the Lord that he grant us to
understand this Mystery ever better, that he make us live this mystery
ever better and thus to offer our help so that the world may be opened
to God, so that the world may be redeemed. Thank you.
based on three biblical passages
The Holy Father drew inspiration for his "lectio
divina" from the following passages from the Letter to the Hebrews.
1 For every high priest
chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation
to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal
gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with
weakness. 3 Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice
for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And
one does not take the honour upon himself, but he is called by God, just
as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be
made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, "You are
my Son, today I have begotten you"; 6 as he says also in
another place, "You are a priest for ever, after the order of
Melchizedek". 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up
prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was
able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. 8
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;
9 and being made perfect he became the source of eternal
salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a
high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
26 For it was fitting that we
should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated
from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need,
like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own
sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he
offered up himself. 28 Indeed, the law appoints men in their
weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later
than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever.
1 Now the point in what we
are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the
right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a
minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man
but by the Lord.