A visit to the threshold of the apostles
In November, I was in Rome with 19 other bishops of Region 1 (New England) of the United States Bishops’ Conference (USCCB) for our visit ad limina apostolorum. This is an opportunity for each bishop to make a report to the Holy Father on the affairs of his diocese, his part of the Church. It is not, however, just a normal business meeting. It has a spiritual importance as well. Central to the visit is the opportunity to join as fellow bishops in prayer at the tombs of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, in the basilicas named after them. This is why the meeting is given the Latin name it carries; the visit is made “to the thresholds of the tombs of the apostles.” We also celebrated Mass at the two other major churches in Rome, the one dedicated to the Blessed Mother, Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the principal Church of the Diocese of Rome, over which presides Pope Francis.
Bishops are called to make these visits every five years. The number of dioceses around the world, however, and the difficulty of scheduling meetings with so many bishops has resulted in the time between these meetings being extended. The last meeting of the American bishops with the Holy Father and the offices of the Vatican that help him to serve the Church happened in 2011.
Our meetings were scheduled to begin on Monday morning. We began with Mass at St. Mary Major and then visited the first office of the Vatican on our itinerary, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Between the church and the office, we ran into a perennial problem in Rome, a traffic snarl that had us 90 minutes late. Nonetheless, and without any hesitation, our meeting progressed when we arrived. Traffic is a part of the city, and everybody expects delays. In this dicastery, devoted to nurturing family life and faith in our young people, the pattern of our meetings was established. We were asked to present any thoughts or questions we had, and a discussion followed. We spoke of the challenges we faced in New England with a declining population and rising secularism. The dicastery spoke of the efforts it had made to respond to the culture.
I attended 15 more meetings with various offices during the five days on our schedule. We visited agencies devoted to the many works of the Church including ecumenism, divine worship, clergy issues, child protection, education, and evangelization. In each office, we were received with a warm welcome. To me, it was a sign of ecclesial communion. At each meeting, questions were exchanged, discussions were carried out, fraternal support was freely given.
The high point of our week was the visit with Pope Francis. Being the first group of American bishops to make this visit, we had no clear idea of how the pope would receive us. Pope Francis chose to have us all together in one meeting. We met in his library in the Apostolic Palace. The Holy Father insisted there were to be no speeches on his part or ours. He wanted us to share whatever we wanted to talk about, and he responded with his own thoughts, some based in his own experience as bishop. There were some specific questions raised. Obviously, the bishops are interested in a report on the investigation regarding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. We were assured that a report is being prepared and may be available after the first of the year. We talked as well about the challenges faced by young people in a culture which can be hostile to faith and the impact this was having on fostering vocations in the Church. We found Pope Francis approachable, welcoming, and prepared for a fraternal conversation sharing his wisdom and asking us to do the same. Our meeting lasted two hours. He shared stories about his own joys and challenges in ministry. We left the meeting strengthened in our pastoral ministry.
After such a meeting, what happens next? Early last year, we prepared an extensive report which was sent to the Holy Father showing the condition of the diocese, a valuable source of information when compared with the similar report done in 2011. It will not surprise you that the numbers are down from eight years ago, particularly the number of priests. Yet, the life of faith in the diocese is rich. Over the next months, we will be studying the contents of these reports in the Diocesan Pastoral Council and the Presbyteral Council. We can learn of the strengths and challenges of our Church. We look forward to sharing some of these studies with you going forward. It will help us to plan for the way in which we will support our priests as they strive to serve you, even with their smaller number.
Before we left Pope Francis, he asked us to pray for him, and he requested the same from all of you. As we begin a new year his request comes as a reminder of the gift we give to each other in keeping one another in prayer. We are all children of one loving God who calls us to care for one another. A blessed New Year.