In conversation with Pope Francis

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Pope Francis poses for a photo with U.S. bishops from New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Nov. 28, 2019. The bishops were making their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses to the pope and Vatican officials. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis greets Bishop Dennis Sullivan.

By Cindy Wooden

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — “Happy Thanksgiving,” Pope Francis said in English Nov. 28 at the beginning of a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with the bishops of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The meeting, a central part of the bishops’ “ad limina” visit, featured a wide-ranging conversation that, of course, included talk about the clerical sexual abuse scandal, Bishop Lawrence T. Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania, told Catholic News Service.

The bishop said the pope himself mentioned the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on abuse in six dioceses over the previous 70 years; “he was aware of it and he understood it,” the bishop said.

Especially considering that the pope had just returned from a weeklong trip to Thailand and Japan, giving the bishops more than two hours of his time “was really extraordinary,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told CNS.

One of the bishops told the pope “how ashamed his priests are of what went on in the States: the accusations of sexual abuse and cover up,” the cardinal said.

And the pope told the bishops he knew what that felt like because, “he said, ‘It’s happened to me.’ He talked about an experience in Buenos Aires, when he was still the archbishop, he was taking the subway to go hear confessions at a nuns’ convent,” the cardinal continued. “He said he walked past a little kid who was playing, and the parents sheltered the kid and said, ‘You have to be careful, there are child molesters around.’ He felt that, so he knows what it’s like.”

With the pope, the bishops also spoke about the diminishing number of Catholics in many parts of the East Coast, and the pope told them that in the Diocese of Rome there are more funerals than weddings, Bishop Persico said.

“When we were talking to him it was like speaking to an older pastor who was giving advice and showing concern for younger pastors,” Bishop Persico said.

The bishops also thanked the pope for the “gracious” way they were treated by officials of the Roman Curia. “They listened,” Bishop Persico said. “We were not treated like lower-management people.”

Cardinal Tobin was the principal celebrant and homilist at the Mass the group celebrated Nov. 29 at the tomb of Saint Peter in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

“Many commissions were given to the apostles in the Gospels,” the cardinal said. “The commission of the keys is given to one alone, to Peter” when Jesus says to him, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In light of the experience of the “ad limina” visit and “yesterday’s truly exhilarating experience with the successor of Peter,” Cardinal Tobin told his brother bishops, they might want to look at “how we might correct among us those who would separate us or separate portions of the church from the successor of Peter.”

As the bishops were about to profess in front of Saint Peter’s tomb, they believe in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and that church, the cardinal said, “is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”

Contributing to this story were Junno Arocho Esteves and Carol Glatz.