EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment of a two-part column on the New York state bishops’ ad limina visits in Rome. Look for the second and final installment on Dec. 16.
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI sends to all in the Diocese of Rochester his apostolic blessing and affectionate good wishes.
His holiness conveyed these greetings to you when I met him in the course of our visit ad limina Apostolorum on Thanksgiving Day.
This moment was for me the center of gravity and the highlight of the visit we bishops of New York state made to the threshold of the apostles from Nov. 22-Dec. 1.
Twenty bishops and nine priests from the eight dioceses of our state made our official visit to the Holy Father and to several of the dicasteries (or administrative departments) that assist him in carrying out his enormous responsibilities. In anticipation of our visit, every diocesan bishop in our state sent a very detailed report on the pastoral situation of our respective dioceses. We sent those reports to Rome in May so that those with whom we met might have an opportunity to make comments or ask questions about the life of the church in our area of the country.
This was my sixth such visit but the first since Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005 and chose the name Benedict XVI.
It was, as always, a moving experience for us bishops to spend time with the successor of St. Peter — to hear his words of encouragement and share with him something of the life, hopes and dreams of our respective dioceses.
Benedict XVI’s practice is to receive visiting bishops twice during the course of our visit. First he saw us in small groups on Thanksgiving Day, then he received all 20 of us on Saturday.
On the Thanksgiving Day visit mentioned above he received the bishops from upstate New York: Howard Hubbard from Albany, Robert Cunningham from Syracuse, Terry LaValley from Ogdensburg, Edward Kmiec and his auxiliary Edward Grocz from Buffalo, and me.
The Holy Father greeted us and the priests who accompanied us very warmly. As we entered to greet him he presented gifts to each of us and posed for photographs. Following that brief ceremony the priests left and the bishops sat for our conversation with Pope Benedict.
He thanked us for coming and expressed his gratitude for the ministry we share with him as a member of the College of Bishops. Then he invited each of us in turn to share with him in a free and easy manner anything that was on our minds. It was good to hear my brother bishops speak of their hopes and concerns. Common notes sounded were a deep appreciation of the faith and generosity of the people among whom we are privileged to serve; the hope we have in our young people who are gifted and anxious to live in a way that benefits others; and gratitude for all coworkers in the ministry whose generous work daily manifests to others the loving face of Christ.
With those positive notes came also the expression of some concerns. These included a decline in Mass attendance, a diminishment among many of their understanding of and regard for the sacrament of marriage, the lingering effects of the sex-abuse scandal that has so badly compromised the moral authority of the church.
My comments had to do with the difficulty we all experience in sharing our faith, in passing on the richness of our tradition in a time when people come to church in smaller numbers and when every day they are flooded with messages that contain values at odds with our deepest faith convictions.
Our plenary session on Saturday was a bit more formal. Our Holy Father opened the session with a prayer and offered warm words of greeting, before inviting Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, to make some opening comments. Archbishop Dolan spoke of the work of the church in our state, naming in particular education, health care, concern for immigrants and the defense of all vulnerable life.
The Holy Father’s response, of which we were all given a copy, was brief but most encouraging. In essence, he recognized the challenges to faith in this age but urged us to persevere in the church’s mission to share the treasure and mystery of the Risen Christ with the people entrusted to our care.
At the conclusion of the session the Holy Father presented to each of us a copy of his address and a beautiful pectoral cross. A group photo ended the session.
While it is true that these events with the Holy Father are at the heart of the ad limina visit, another important element is the opportunity it affords to deepen or begin friendships with our brother bishops. We prayed together. We played together and had many opportunities to share our experiences, to tell stories, to get to know one another a little better.
Peace to all.