Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Vatican City

Archbishop Donoghue Among U.S. Bishops Having ‘Ad Limina’ Meetings With Pope In Late March

By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published March 25, 2004

U.S. bishops, including Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta, begin their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican in late March, a series of encounters that combine prayer, pastoral planning and personal conversations with Pope John Paul II.

Conducted by regional groupings over the next 10 months, the visits will represent the most exhaustive review of church life in the United States since the sex abuse crisis erupted into a national scandal two years ago.

But while the pope is expected to speak about priestly sex abuse, the agenda for the “ad limina” visits is much broader than that. Diocese by diocese, the meetings will take the pulse of sacramental life, vocational trends, liturgical developments, religious education and a host of other areas.

The visits are made every five years, and their name comes from the Latin phrase “ad limina apostolorum” (to the thresholds of the apostles), a reference to the pilgrimage to the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul that the bishops are required to make.

Archbishop Donoghue will make his “ad limina” visit between March 27 and April 5.

From the outside, “ad limina” visits may look a lot like branch managers being called to the head office. The bishops say that’s not the mood on the inside.

“We’re actually looking at it as a spiritual pilgrimage. The first thing is visiting the tombs of the apostles, and the second is spending time with the pope. Those are the priorities, although visiting the Vatican congregations is an important exercise in communion,” said Australian Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville, who was in Rome for his “ad limina” visit in mid-March.

Because of his frailty, Pope John Paul’s participation in the visits has lessened in recent years. Unlike previous visits, this time U.S. bishops cannot count on concelebrating Mass with the 83-year-old pontiff or having lunch with him in his private apartment.

The pope still greets the bishops as a group and either delivers a talk or hands them the text. He still takes the time to meet with each bishop individually, although these encounters often last less than the standard 15 minutes of previous years.

Especially for bishops on their first “ad limina” visit, the papal audience is an important moment. Typically, the pope listens more than he talks but intersperses enough detailed questions to amaze some of his guests.

“We talked a quarter of an hour. He was very clear-minded and put questions to me, even recalled my predecessor and their days as students together. I explained to the pope the problems we have in Holland, and he was very interested in what we’re doing to re-evangelize society. He had a big map of Holland in front of him,” said Dutch Bishop Willem Eijk of Groningen, who met the pope in early March.

“It was very short, of course, but I found it very exciting to have, for the first time in my life, the possibility of speaking face-to-face with the successor of Peter,” Bishop Eijk said.

Media attention on these visits frequently focuses on problem areas, and the pope is sometimes depicted as a tough CEO who dishes out criticism. In fact, the pope takes care to highlight the positive as well as the negative, and generally he’s very encouraging to the bishops.

Vatican sources said the pope’s speeches to U.S. bishops are likely to cover a wide range of issues, including:

– Pastoral challenges in the wake of the clergy sex abuse crisis.
– The bishop’s role as teacher and a figure of doctrinal unity.
– Formation and selection of priesthood candidates.
– Evangelizing in a pluralistic society.
– Pro-life issues like abortion, euthanasia and genetic experimentation.
– The importance of the Eucharist and proper liturgical celebration.
– The ongoing tensions between the clerical and lay role, along with the decline in priestly vocations.
– Marriage and family life and pastoral outreach to young people.

The sources said the pope’s words undoubtedly will strike some political nerves during an election year. Abortion, homosexual unions, the death penalty, economic justice and the U.S. role in the world are all likely campaign issues that will find an echo in some papal speeches.

But the pope will try to make sure his words cannot be seen as meddling in partisan politics.

“He will state the principles and let others draw the conclusions,” said one Vatican official.

Preparation for the “ad limina” visits begins long before the bishops arrive in Rome. Based on a 25-page list of questions from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, each local bishop prepares a five-year report detailing diocesan life under headings like family, education, doctrine and morals, clergy and Religious.

The report goes to the Vatican, where a summary is prepared for the pope. In theory, the reports are due six months before the visits begin, but in practice they arrive much closer to the “ad limina” dates, according to several bishops. The Vatican also encourages a separate common report from each group of bishops, presenting issues that need to be taken up with Vatican offices during their visit.

When the bishops arrive in Rome, they typically go as a group to the major congregations—the Vatican departments dealing with bishops, doctrine, education and seminaries, and liturgy and sacraments. The bishops like to have quality time with the cardinal-prefect of the congregations, but that doesn’t always happen.

On the third or fourth day of the visit, bishops usually split into subgroups or call individually on other Vatican departments, depending on personal interest or pending diocesan issues. They gather in the evening to share the results of their conversations.

All bishops say a spiritual highlight is concelebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, near the tomb of the first pope. They celebrate a similar liturgy in Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Both moments remind the bishops of how, in the earliest days of the church, St. Paul journeyed to Jerusalem and spent two weeks consulting with St. Peter about their respective ministries. In those days, the traveling was harder, the agenda was simpler, and St. Paul wasn’t carrying a five-year report in his suitcase.