I recently returned from a required visit to Rome which every bishop must make on a regular interval. The visit is called an ad limina visit because it is one to the “threshold of the apostles.” On the visit, the bishop celebrates Mass at this threshold which is the tombs of the foundational apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul. He also visits with the pope and the various congregations that assist the pope in his ministry. Before making the visit, the bishop sends a report to Rome on the state and condition of his particular diocese. The report is referred to as the quinquennial report as it is required to be made every five years that was the traditional time for the bishop’s visit to Rome.
Recently, under Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, these visits and reports have taken place on an eight-year interval since the number of dioceses and bishops throughout the world has grown too large for a five-year period to be feasible.
I have been privileged, as a bishop, to make four ad limina visits to the threshold of the apostles and to visit with the pope and his curia. The first was in 1998, when I was an auxiliary bishop in Brooklyn. I had the privilege of visiting with St. John Paul II and, since that visit fell during the week of Ash Wednesday, I had the opportunity to receive ashes from the pope. This was a great experience for me. The privilege of meeting with St. John Paul II was again repeated in 2003, shortly after I became the Bishop of Palm Beach. That year I was scheduled for the visit as the Bishop of Ogdensburg, but my transfer to the Diocese of Palm Beach made for a different venue. I was also privileged to make this visit in the year 2012 and met with Pope Benedict XVI. My recent meeting with Pope Francis was on the fourth of these visits. Each pope had a different style and manner of conducting the visit, but each visit truly was an encounter with the successor of St. Peter and a very enriching experience.
This year, as in the past, the visit was carried out as part of the region of bishops to which one belongs. Our Region XIV in the southeast area of United States includes all the dioceses in Florida as well those of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. This made for a truly fraternal gathering among the bishops as we carry out our ministry as successors of the apostles by going to the threshold of the apostles and being with the pope as the successor of St. Peter. We celebrated Mass at the tomb of St. Peter in the Vatican Basilica which is his burial place and the center of the Church. We celebrated Mass at the tomb of St. Paul where his burial place is located at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. We also celebrated Mass at the other two Major Basilicas of Rome, St. John Lateran which is the Cathedral of the Holy Father as the Bishop of Rome and St. Mary Major where Pope Francis visits to pray to Mary before and after his pilgrimages around the world. The celebration of the Masses at the basilicas were truly deeply spiritual experiences, reminding all of the bishops of our role within the Church and the deep need for prayer and communion with the Lord that is central to our role.
During the ad limina visit, the bishops meet with the various congregations of the pope which carry out the day-to-day business of the Church. During this visit, these include the Secretary of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Each of the meetings was held with the head of the congregation, generally a Cardinal, as well as some of the bishops and staff which comprise them. We had very fruitful discussions with these congregations who very much reflected the spirit of Pope Francis in wanting to hear what we had to say and to respond to it in a manner that was helpful. Our meetings made for a valuable but busy time.
Aside from the particular questions and concerns raised by the bishops at these meetings, we expressed to the congregations how we were blessed in the southeast portion of the United States to be part of a continually growing Church where the population increases, both from members of other dioceses within the country as well as many immigrants from other countries. While we face many challenges, we do not have the burden of the closure of churches so many other dioceses in the country are facing. Each of the bishops present had already forwarded the quinquennial report from their dioceses as I did for the Diocese of Palm Beach. Our particular report of 148 pages reflecting the work of the various offices of the Diocese was truly a positive picture of the life of the Church in Palm Beach. I emphasized in the report, while not establishing an order among them, the priorities I consider essential in my ministry as Bishop of the Diocese. They are: the protection of children and vulnerable adults; my brother priests; marriage and family life; Catholic schools; attending to the diverse population of our Diocese; and communication of the Good News of Christ through the media and other means of modern communication.
Of course, the high point of the week of the ad limina visit was the meeting with Pope Francis. As the bishops of Region XIV gathered with him, he made it very clear that he wanted the meeting to be informal as we were to be present to one another as brother bishops. He also made it clear that he was not there to lecture us but to answer whatever questions we brought to him. He spoke in Italian and had an excellent translator who obviously not only understood the words of the pope but his heart as well. Needless to say, from the very beginning of the meeting until its conclusion almost three hours later, we had quite a few observations and questions for Pope Francis which he answered and responded to with a great deal of information, support and patience. The meeting truly captured the open spirit of the pope and his desire to be a true shepherd for the Church. It also captured his love for our Catholic faith and his deep spirituality. For all of us, it was a great support and source of encouragement.
As a bishop, I have been privileged to know the heart of the Church over the years in many different ways, and in a particular one, through the ad limina visits. Each pope that I have had the joy of meeting has been a personal inspiration for me and has given me much reason to believe in the goodness of the leaders of the Church. Despite the difficulties which the Church currently faces and has faced in different ways for many centuries, it is the Lord’s Church and as He promised, He will never let us down. That is why it is a blessing to visit “the threshold of the apostles.”