By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 8, 2004
U.S. bishops focused on good news when they sat down to talk with Pope John Paul II during “ad limina” visits in late March.
The bishops said they found the 83-year-old pontiff frailer and less verbal than in previous years, but they were certain that he was mentally attentive during their 10- to 20-minute private audiences.
Unlike previous “ad limina” visits, held every five years, this time the bishops were not scheduled to concelebrate Mass with the pope or dine with him in the papal apartment. That made their one-on-one meetings all the more important.
“The thing that surprised me was how alert he was. He listened and asked questions about what I said. He was wonderful,” said Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta.
“His mind is clear as a bell,” Archbishop Donoghue said after his meeting March 29.
But bishops who met the pope March 30 said the pope seemed less energetic and less able to express himself. He takes medication for a neurological disease, and his energy level seems to vary considerably from day to day.
“His reactions are slower, and he’ll respond to you in one or two words,” said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga. The pope remained seated, often nodding in affirmation at what he was told.
The pope’s first questions were always about vocations, and bishops from the Southern states found they had something positive to report.
“I was able to tell him that I ordained 84 priests in the past 10 years. He asked, ‘Why do you have so many vocations?’ And I explained that I think much of it has to do with perpetual adoration,” said Archbishop Donoghue.
He explained to the pope that the Atlanta Archdiocese has 10 parishes with perpetual adoration, another 30 parishes with adoration one day a week and others with adoration once a month.
“Thank goodness I had good things to share,” Archbishop Donoghue said. As for the sex abuse crisis, the archbishop said: “It didn’t come up at all. He didn’t mention it, nor did I.”
Bishop Boland said he told the pope he was about to ordain four priests and also reported growing interest among young people in religious life.
“He reached out to touch my arm, in a sign of affirmation,” Bishop Boland said.
When Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora met with the pope, he brought along an auxiliary bishop, Cuban-born Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez. The pope was interested in ministry to the Hispanic and immigrant population in the archdiocese.
Archbishop Favalora was able to tell the pope about impressive church growth in southern Florida.
“He was very happy to hear that Catholic education is just galloping in the state of Florida—we can’t build enough schools. In my nine years as archbishop, we’ve built 15 new schools and 15 new churches,” Archbishop Favalora said.
He also told the pope the archdiocese has 60 seminarians and a growing number of religious sisters.
This was Archbishop Favalora’s fourth “ad limina” visit. He said that although the pope’s health has clearly slipped, his persistence and courage are an inspiration to the bishops and to the world’s elderly and infirm.
“It reflects what his life has been all about—life, life, life and not death,” he said.
Several of the bishops said they wanted to communicate the affection their Catholics feel for the pope and the overall vitality of their Catholic communities.
Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., said he visited Catholic groups in homes before coming to Rome and said he was moved by their deep faith in the face of everyday problems.
He said some were curious about the “ad limina” visits and said: “Tell the Holy Father we’re praying for him.”
Bishop Ricard said that despite the pope’s infirmity many people still look to him as a unifying figure at a time of global insecurity.
“They see the pope as a pre-eminent moral guide who speaks to Catholics and non-Catholics, who speaks the truth and draws on his own personal journey of faith, who does not hesitate to pray in public. He is a profound example,” he said.
Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden.