The bishops’ purpose in going to the Eternal City

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Pope Francis meets with U.S. bishops from the New England States at the Vatican Nov. 7, 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)

The Code of Canon Law §400 mandates that every diocesan bishop in the world visit Rome regularly “to venerate the tombs of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and to present himself to the Roman Pontiff.” This visit, usually referred to by the Latin phrase “ad limina Apostolorum,” [to the threshold/doorstep of the Apostles],” or more simply “ ad limina,” is technically obligatory every five years. But there has been a tremendous increase in global dioceses, prelatures and vicariates, with roughly 600 being added since 1978. So the backlog has grown and the visits have, despite the relative ease of global travel, become an enormous undertaking. When the bishops of the United States began arriving this week, it marked the first American ad limina visits in eight years.

Given the amount of logistical time and planning that go into the visits, a not insubstantial portion of the contemporary duties of the papacy revolve around the ad limina conversations. Pope Benedict began meeting with groups of bishops instead of each one individually, and Pope Francis has widened this circle even further. His gatherings can include 20 or more bishops in a more collegial and freewheeling discussion that many report are markedly different from the one-on-one interview style of the past. All of this is in line with his vision of moving the church ever further away from imagining the bishop as an administrator, and instead seeing him as a brother pastor walking with his people on the path of synodality — best envisioned as a co-traveling, dialoguing, fraternal bond.

The heart of the visit is not, of course, a chance to get the pope’s ear for a precious few minutes or to lay out the specific problems of the diocese he shepherds, in what is called the “quinquennial report.” (The adjectival form of “recurring every five years.”)

Rather, it is a spiritual pilgrimage to the burial “trophies” in the city where Peter and Paul gave their lives for the fledgling community and the timeless Gospel. As the curial document on preparing the visits puts it, “These practices have retained their deep spiritual meaning and their significance for ecclesial communion. It is precisely for this reason that these practices were institutionalized for the bishops.”

All of the directives around the visit mandate “reflection and prayer,” in addition to data-collection and presentation. In addition to Masses at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, many bishops participate in liturgical rites at the other major basilicas of Saint John Lateran and Saint Maria Maggiore. Cardinals often visit their titular churches spread throughout the city. The teachers of the faith also often sit at the feet of experts, to learn from various dicasteries or those engaged in charitable offices under the aegis of the Holy See, which (optimally) include the voices of laypeople, and humble men and women religious who are on the front lines of responding to so many of the world’s most pressing needs.

Bishop Sullivan is scheduled to attend his first and last ad limina as bishop of Camden, with all of the bishops of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including those of Eastern rites, during the last few days of November. (He participated as Auxiliary Bishop of New York last time). These dates fall in the earlier portion of the 14 groupings of Americans, with Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas closing the cycle in mid-February. 

Let us pray for all of the bishops of the church in our country to find inspiration in the Eternal City, so as to be attentive to the most victimized, to root their ministry ever more firmly in the waves of generations that have preceded them in the pilgrimage of faith, and to preach the Good News of Christ’s redemptive offer of salvation to every human person, whether in or out of season.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.