Presentation of Holy Thursday Letter to Priests 2002

Author: Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos


Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos


On Thursday, 21 March, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, presented to the press the Holy Father's Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002. Here is a translation of the introduction he used at his press conference. "The Holy Father also urges priests, who are sinners like all men to open their inner dwelling to Christ to receive God's merciful embrace and re-establish the full friendship shattered by sin. Offending God—let us remember—does not nullify the holiness of the Church where the love of Christ poured out by the Holy Spirit sustains the holiness of life of all the baptized and particularly that of her sacred ministers, called to the full gift of themselves to a heroic degree, to sanctify the People that God has entrusted to their care (cf. 7-10). The whole Christian community and civil society benefit from the renewal brought about by the Sacrament of Reconciliation".

At the press conference the Cardinal Prefect did inform the journalists about the canonical procedure that is based on the canon in the 1917 Code of Canon Law represented in the Code of 1983 and in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Already in the Code of Canon Law of 1917, Canon 2359 § 2, stated. "If they were to admit an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with minors under 16 years of age ... they must be suspended, be declared infamous, be deprived of any office, benefice, dignity or function that they might hold, and, in more serious cases, be deposed". The canon 1395 § 2 of the 1983 revised Code: "The cleric who commits any other offense against the sixth precept of the Decalogue, if the offense was committed with violence or threats, or publicly or with a minor who is under 16 years, must be punished with just punishments, not excluding expulsion from the clerical state, when the case requires it" and the same is said in canon 1435 § 1 of the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO).

Our Holy Father Pope John Paul I/ has deplored this behaviour, firmly calling bishops and priests to be vigilant in their fidelity to the commitment of being moral examples, both when he wrote to and spoke to the bishops of the United States of America. (In 1993 the Pope wrote to the American Bishops about this problem, in 1995 during his visit he deplored the problem of pedophilia among priests, and in 1999, addressing the Irish Bishops during their 'ad limina' visit, he spoke of the victims of sexual abuse by the clergy.) Recently, in the Apostolic Exhortation "Church in Oceania" the Pope states: "In some parts of Oceania, sexual abuses on the part of priests and religious were the cause of great suffering and spiritual damage for the victims. They also caused grave damage to the life of the Church and became an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel. The Synod Fathers have condemned all forms of sexual abuse as well as all forms of abuse of power, either within the Church or in society in general. Sexual abuse within the Church is in profound contradiction to the teaching and testimony of Jesus Christ. The Synod Fathers have expressed their unconditional apologies to the victims for the pain and disappointment caused to them. The Church in Oceania is seeking proper procedures to respond to the complaints in this area, and is absolutely determined to provide compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community, and the culprits themselves" (n. 49).

On 30 April 2001, the Holy Father published the Apostolic Letter Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (The safeguarding of the holiness of the sacraments), along with the Normae de gravioribus delictis Congregationi pro Doctrina Fidei reservatis which reserved competence to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a series of serious offenses, against the sanctity of the sacraments and against the educational mission of sacred ministers with young people.

Assuming this special competence, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to the bishops of the world and now joins them in taking responsibility for dealing with such serious misdemeanours, so as to avoid the risk of negligence and to provide better communication and coordination between the local Churches and the centre of government of the universal Church. The goal is to establish a uniform approach on the part of the local Churches, while respecting the difference of situations and persons.

Canon law also includes what we might call an element of guarantee. Its purpose is to remove the dangers prevailing in a culture of suspicion. It provides for an authentic, regular process, to ascertain the facts, and to confirm the evidence of guilt before a court. Of course there is emphasis on the speed of the process.

1. If every Letter of the Holy Father to Priests for Holy Thursday is always a living testimonyof the solicitous love of the Successor of Peter—alove that aims to confirm priests in their faith and their mission (cf. Lk 22,32)—this Letter does that in a special way, because basically the Pope aims to help priests rediscover the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the personal encounter with Christ in the mysterium pietatis [mystery of divine love] (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 37), and to ensure through their priestly ministry that all the faithful may have "an intense experience of the face of Christ the Good Shepherd" (Letter to Priests forHoly Thursday 2002, n. 4). In this context, I would like to stress three aspects of the Letter.

First aspect, close connection between Penance and Eucharist

2. First of all, the Letter highlights the close connection between the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist,"the source and summit of all Christian life"(Lumen gentium, n. 11).

"With deep emotion I am sending you this traditional Holy Thursday Letter, taking my seat beside you as it were at the table in the Upper Room at which the Lord Jesus celebrated with his Apostles the first Eucharist" (n. 1). The Pope's affection for priests and his deep spirit of fraternal communion with them comes to light in the opening words.

The One who is the universal Shepherd of the flock (cf. Jn 21,15-17) and the visible foundation of the unity of the Church (cf. Mt 16,18), addresses his "dear Brother Priests", empowered to act in persona Christi Capitis [in the person, of Christ the Head]: indeed, sharing in the same mission of the Bishops, they are true apostles of Christ (cf. n. 1). Let us remember that priests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit which they received in their priestly ordination, are sealed with a special and indelible character that configures them to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the name and in the person of Christ the Head (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 2c).

The vocation to the ordained priesthood shows us the "wonderful exchange" between God and man: the human creature gives Christ his humanity—his voice, his hands, his vision ... —so that he may use them as an instrument of salvation, making him over into himself. "Unless we grasp the mystery of this 'exchange', we will not understand how it can be that a young man, hearing the words 'Follow me!', can give up everything for Christ, in the certainty that if he follows this path he will find complete personal fulfilment" (Giftand Mystery, Englishedition, p. 89).

For this reason we reassert that the vocation to the ordained ministry "is essentially a call to holiness, in the form which derives from the Sacrament of Orders" (Pastores dabo vobis,n. 33).

Then when in this letter John Paul II exclaims: "How marvellous is this vocation of ours, my dear Brother Priests! Truly we can repeat with the Psalmist: 'What shall I render to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift upthe cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord' (Ps 116,12-13)" (n. 1), wecan easily understand his words. The Pontiff continues the reflection he began last year on the mission that the Lord has entrusted to priests "to represent him not just in the Eucharistic sacrifice, but also in the Sacrament of Reconciliation" (n. 2).

On this subject, the Letter recalls that, in the school of faith, one must learn that for a Christian the Sacrament of Penance is the ordinary way to obtain pardon and the forgiveness of one's serious sins, committed after Baptism; and quoting the Holy Father's words in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, I add: "It would therefore be foolish, as well as presumptuous to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness" (n. 31).

Reaffirming that the Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1395), the Letter recalls the importance for every priest of discovering and of helping everyone to rediscover the riches of God's forgiveness.

Second, the Sacrament of Penance offers a chance for a personal and saving conversation with Christ who forgives

3. Secondly, it states that sacramentalconfession is a special personal and saving conversation of the human person with Christ who forgives.

If many can no longer distinguish between good and evil, it is because they have lost the sense of God, and especially because they interpret guilt from a psychological or sociological viewpoint. Liberation from the depths of sin, the recovery of one's own interior truth, troubled and overwhelmed by the offence one has given to God, is the winning back of the lost joy of being saved that so many people today do not know how to savour.

The Holy Father recalls that in the Jubilee Year the Sacrament of Reconciliation, carefully presented and celebrated, was rediscovered with "abroad appeal, even among the young" (n. 3), eager to know and experience personally "the merciful heart of Godthrough the friendly face of a brother"(n. 3).

We know that the maturity of ecclesial life depends in great part on the renewed experience by all of the faithful of the divine tribunal of pardon. Therefore in his pastoral ministry the priest cannot ignore the phase of pastoral care that shows the effectiveness of this sacrament as a personal conversation with God that brings salvation. The priest's proclamation of reconciliation, the personal path of conversion and the celebration of the sacrament must work together and touch the depths of the human heart.

In particular, we read in the Letter this exhortation of John Paul II:"With joy and trust we rediscover this sacrament. Let us experience it above all for ourselves, as a deeply-felt need and as a grace which we constantly look for, in order to restore vigour and enthusiasm to our journey of holiness and to our ministry"(n. 4). Priests know that they are good confessors if they are humble and regular penitents. They rediscover daily the absolute need for their own personal holiness. "We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others", St Gregory Nazianzus says, "we need to be instructed to be able to instruct, to become light to be able to enlighten, to be close to God to bring others close to him, to be sanctified in order to sanctify" (Orationes, n. 2, 71: PG 35, 480).

Every priest is invited to offer everyone the opportunity of a personal conversation with the divine Emanuel, God-with-us (cf. Mt 1,23), whose conclusion is sacramental Communion. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, (cf. Lk 15,11-32) after the Father's embrace comes the festive banquet for the son who has been found. Likewise, sacramental pardon makes it possible "once more [to] take part in the Eucharist as the sign that he has again found communion with the Father and with the Church" (Bull Incarnationis mysterium, n. 9).

Here lies the secret of the fidelity and perseverance of Christians, the security and solidity of their inner dwelling place in the midst of the afflictions and difficulties of the world.

Third aspect: biblical image of Jesus meeting with Zacchaeus in Luke shows the dynamic of the Sacrament of Penance

4. Lastly, the Letter presents the biblical icon of the conversation between Jesus andZacchaeus (cf. Lk 19,1-10), a wonderful expression of divine mercy that precedes and leads the repentant man to a sincere existential conversion: to be opened to love, to making reparation for the evil he has done and to a firm resolution of new life.

The Holy Father carries out a penetrating exegesis of the passage from the Gospel of St Luke: "When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, make haste and come down for I must stay at your house today' (Lk 19,5)". The Holy Father highlights the personal meeting with Jesus who seeks out his creature, who has gone astray and was lost through sin. It is the divine Word who takes the initiative, stops and raises his eyes to that man who had cheated so many, who perhaps was there out of mere curiosity.

Divine mercy anticipates the conversation and prepares Zacchaeus for a sincere conversion. Christ says to the publican of Jericho, "I must stay at your house today", implying the desire to fulfil a mandate of God the Father, to bring everyone back to the path of holiness, of communion with the Father. This is we read in the Letter about God's activity: "Beforebeing man's journey to God, confession is God's arrival at a person's home" (n. 6).

The house of Zacchaeus becomes the place of his repentance and conversion. The Holy Father also urges priests, who are sinners like all men to open their inner dwelling to Christ to receive God's merciful embrace and re-establish the full friendship shattered by sin. Offending God—let us remember—does not nullify the holiness of the Church where the love of Christ poured out by the Holy Spirit sustains the holiness of life of all the baptized and particularly that of her sacred ministers, called to the full gift of themselves to a heroic degree, to sanctify the People that God has entrusted to their care (cf. 7-10). The whole Christian community and civil society benefit from the renewal brought about by the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In referring to the episode of Zacchaeus, we can remember how many creditors obtained justice and abundant compensation through the conversion of the publican that Christ brought about!

The Church always lives the Gospel of peace. She announces it to all peoples and all nations. Without stop, she points out the ways of peace and introduces it, tearing down the barriers of prejudice and hostility among men. And she does so first of all through the sacrament of forgiveness: bringing the grace of divine mercy as through her sacred ministers the Church reaches to the very roots of human anguish, heals consciences wounded by sin, so that the person feels the strength of divine power and becomes a peacemaker.

How much innocent blood is unfortunately being shed before our eyes in so many parts of the world! The Holy Father speaks of this with words of greet feeling (cf. n. 11).

Societies and nations need men of peace, true heralds of harmony and reciprocal respect, men who fill their hearts with the peace of Christ and communicate it to others, taking it to homes, offices, institutions, and work places all over the world: first of all there are and must be the priests of Christ, instruments of divine grace, administrators of divine gifts, and, especially, of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Eucharist.

May the Virgin Mary in whose womb the true reconciliation was celebrated watch over priests, her beloved sons, so that in peace with God they may be a living source of Reconciliation for society!  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 March 2002, page 5

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