VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II will sign a new encyclical letter on the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, April 17, during the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.

The Holy Father himself made the announcement during his Angelus address March 30.

“The sacrament of the Eucharist is the perennial memorial of this supreme testimony of love,” the Holy Father said, referring to the sacrifice of Calvary. “In it Jesus, bread of life and true 'manna,’ sustains believers in their journey across the ‘dsert’ of history toward the ‘promised land’ of heaven.”

“I wanted to dedicate to the Eucharist the encyclical which, on the occasion of next Holy Thursday, God willing, I will sign during the Mass of the Lord's Supper,” John Paul said. “I will deliver it symbolically to the priests in place of the letter which I usually address to them on that occasion, and by means of them, to the whole people of God.”

For his first Holy Thursday as Pope in 1979, John Paul wrote two letters, the first addressed to all the bishops of the world and the second to all the priests. The following Holy Thursday, 1980, he addressed a lengthy letter to all the bishops titled “On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist.” That 1980 letter remains, until now, John Paul's fullest treatment of the Eucharist.

In 1981, the Holy Father wrote again to all the bishops and beginning in 1982 wrote every year to all his brother priests. So much has the annual letter become a hallmark of John Paul's papacy that during his March 2000 visit to the Holy Land, he signed that year's Holy Thursday letter in the Cenacle in Jerusalem.

The encyclical on the Eucharist will be John Paul's 14th and the first since Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) was released on the occasion of his 20th anniversary as pope in October 1998. The Eucharist encyclical will be his first dedicated to a sacramental topic.

Early reports of the forthcoming encyclical raised expectations that the new document could fill a gap in the vast papal magisterium of John Paul.

Addressing the Liturgy?

Despite comprehensively treating almost every aspect of Church life and her relationship with the world, the Holy Father has not devoted a solemn document to the liturgy, one of the most contested areas of post-conciliar Catholic life. It has been reported that directives related to the celebration and worship of the Eucharist will be released by curial departments, either together with the new encyclical or soon afterward.

But the encyclical will not be primarily a disciplinary or reforming document. Vatican officials speaking off the record have indicated it will be theological and devotional in character.

“From the very first years of my priesthood, the celebration of the Eucharist has been not only my most sacred duty but [also] above all my soul's deepest need,” John Paul wrote on the occasion of his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination in 1996.

The last two of John Paul's major documents — at the end of the Great Jubilee and at the beginning of the Year of the Rosary — have contained deeply personal reflections, and the new Eucharist encyclical is expected to do the same.

Traditionally, an encyclical letter has been the most solemn exercise of the papal magisterium. Nevertheless, a hierarchy of documents cannot be applied too strictly, as John Paul and his recent predecessors have also used other types of papal documents — apostolic constitutions, exhortations and letters — for significant teachings.

Besides his 14 encyclicals, John Paul has written 13 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions and 42 apostolic letters, the most recent of which was last October's letter on the rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae(On the Rosary of the Virgin Mary).

Father Raymond J. de Souza writes from Rome.