Official visit to The Vatican
leaves much room for thought
After a very busy and eventful week in which I experienced my first ad limina visit as a diocesan bishop, I finally have a little bit of a chance to catch my breath. The visit certainly has given me much to reflect upon.
The week was mostly filled with visits to many of the Dicasteries of the Holy See. A "Dicastery" is a department of the Roman Curia, whose role is to assist the pope in his governance of the universal Church (much like a diocesan curia, or chancery office, assists the bishop in his pastoral governance of his diocese). At each Dicastery one of the bishops from our group made a presentation conveying the questions and concerns affecting the Church in our region, and then a discussion was held with the leadership of each department.
As it turned out, I was the speaker at our very first Dicastery visit, the Apostolic Signatura, which functions as a sort of supreme court in the Church's tribunal system. It was a little nerve-wracking not having done this before and so not being quite sure how it was supposed to work. What helped, though, was being in the presence of friends. Having worked there myself for seven years, I was in good company. And, both the Prefect, Cardinal Raymond Burke, and the Secretary, Bishop Frans Daneels, had been professors of mine when I studied canon law in Rome back in the 1980s. It was quite a reunion that I never would have imagined for myself a quarter of a century ago.
The week was filled with visits of this kind, and the topics covered at the numerous Dicasteries we met with reflected the full breadth of the life and activity of the Church: issues regarding marriage and family life, clergy and parish life, the appointment of bishops, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, issues affecting Catholic schools and universities, ongoing liturgical renewal, the call for the New Evangelization, the quest for unity among all Christians, and the role and vocation of the laity in the Church and society.
This is just a sampling to give a panorama of the sorts of topics we discussed. The officials in Rome are well aware of, and concerned about, the challenges we face in a society demonstrating increasing hostility toward the Church and the Christian faith in general. This is having dire consequences on many people's practice of the faith. While it is a concern we shared with them, at the same time we also spoke of the growth and vibrancy of the Church in our region, especially in our parishes and the many ecclesial movements that are thriving among us. We were, then, able to express this note of hope for the future in the midst of such unprecedented challenges.
An essential part of the bishops' ad limina visit is to pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul ("ad limina apostolorum," "to the thresholds of the apostles," i.e., the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul). Fittingly, then, we celebrated Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. These are two of the four major basilicas in the city of Rome.
We also celebrated Mass at the other two: the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, and therefore commonly referred to as the "Mother Church of Christendom;" and the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the first church in the Christian West dedicated to Our Lady under the title of "Mother of God" after the Council of Ephesus defined this article of faith in the year 431. Our Masses together heightened the sense of the communion we share not only among ourselves but also with all those generations of Christians who have preceded us in the same profession of faith going back to the time of the apostles themselves.
Our visit ended on a high note, as the last scheduled event of the week was our audience with Pope Benedict XVI. He began by offering us a brief reflection on the mystery of Easter and the cross, and then allowed each of us to informally share some thoughts for two or three minutes each. He listened attentively, and seemed genuinely interested in the state and life of the Church in our region.
There were 15 of us bishops from the San Francisco Province in attendance, and here again our comments reflected the broad range of issues facing our Church at this time: the pressing concerns of family life, marriage and religious liberty; the global crises of war, terrorism and economic meltdown; and, of course, the great ethnic diversity and vitality of the Church in our dioceses.
We all expressed great appreciation to the Holy Father for his teaching in so many areas of concern to us, which we have all experienced as a great support to us in our own ministry of teaching the faith in our respective dioceses.
But there was more to the week than even all of this. A sort of collateral benefit was the opportunity of staying at the North American College, the United States' seminary in Rome. Being the bishop from our region to serve on the College's Board of Governors, I was honored with the invitation to celebrate one of the weekday Masses for the community.
My experience here this week has been most heartening. I found a community of young men who truly love Christ and the Church. They pray well, paying close attention to the details of the liturgy, but without affectation and not for show but rather with an authentic spirit of celebration of the mysteries of the faith. And the quality of the seminarians was seen not only in the chapel. They consistently demonstrated the same attention to detail with regard to hospitality and courtesy. In addition, casual conversations manifested a true desire for learning and spiritual growth coupled with a cheerful disposition and great sense of humor. In short, they exhibited those sorts of qualities we are not frequently hearing about among young people throughout our country who are presenting themselves as candidates for priestly and religious vocations. It has given me great hope and confidence for the future of our Church.
Those who come to Rome as a pilgrim — whether on a journey, as a student, or on official Church business — come away with a greater appreciation of the rich universality and history of the Church. It helps to put into context the struggles and challenges we face in our own particular time and place. We are truly "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants," beginning with the two Princes of the Apostles who shed their blood for Christ here and to whom we bishops came to pay homage.
I leave with the hymn for their feast day ringing in my ears: O Roma felix, quae duorum principum es consecrata glorioso sanguine: Horum cruore purpurata ceteras excellis orbis una pulchritudines. ("O Rome! happy you that were consecrated with the glorious blood of the two princes: dressed of purple with their blood, you surpass all the beauties of the world").