Every five years in keeping with tradition and the prescriptions of canon law, each bishop presiding over a particular Church is to approach the tombs of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, and to present to the Roman Pontiff a report on the state of the diocese. The Bishops of Western and Northern Canada made their "ad limina" visits in late October and early November.
These kinds of visits have a special importance in the life of the Church, highlighting the relationship between the bishops and the Pope. For the Pope meets with his brother bishops and deals with them about matters concerning the good of the Churches and the bishops' role as shepherds, and he confirms and supports them in faith and charity. This strengthens the bonds of hierarchical communion and openly manifests the catholicity of the Church and the unity of the episcopal college.
During their "ad limina" visits the bishops also dialogue with the various Congregations and Councils of the Roman Curia. Information is shared. Advice and timely suggestions are brought forward for the greater good and progress of the universal and particular Churches.
Pope John Paul II has brought his own particular style to these visits as he meets individually with each bishop and with the bishops as a group. We are also invited to lunch with him and celebrate the Eucharist one morning with him in his private chapel.
At our lunch together I shared the following story with the Pope.
Upon returning home from Sunday mass, a mother was preparing pancakes for her son Kevin, and his younger brother Ryan. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake (because they're boys), and the mother saw the opportunity for linking the Sunday homily with real life. She asked them: "What would Jesus do if He were sitting here?" Meeting with nothing but a stony silence, she replied: "He would say, 'Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.'" At that moment Kevin's eyes got really big, then he turned to his younger brother and said, "Ryan, you be Jesus!"
The Pope laughed and I added, "Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" [Ps.133:1]
That simple Scriptural verse captures so much of my "ad limina" experience as the dialogue strengthened the bonds of faith and communion linking the particular Church of Calgary with, and even beyond, the Apostolic See.
As I was leaving my private audience with the Pope, I met the Dali Lama, some of his Buddhist monks, and Cardinal Francis Arinze in the papal corridor. Later that evening I attended the concluding ceremonies of the Inter-Religious Assembly in St. Peter's Square. What a joy to hear the participants affirm their conviction that we must work together to solve the problems and challenges of the modern world. They proclaimed an urgent need for inter-religious collaboration based on a new spiritual consciousness, on human dignity as the source of human rights and their corresponding duties, and the rejection of fanaticism, extreme and mutual antagonism which so often lead to violence.
We also met with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and discussed with Bishop Walter Kasper the October 31 signing of the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification.
From a Roman Catholic perspective, the signing of the Joint Declaration is in keeping with Pope John Paul's hope, as expressed in his apostolic letter on the Coming of the Third Millennium, that "we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium." This is the first time that such a major ecumenical agreement is recognized officially and mutually received by the respective Church bodies.
Since the issue of justification was at the heart of the controversies that divided the Churches at the time of the Reformation, the approval of the Joint Declaration is in fact an historic achievement. The text states that the dialogue has reached "a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification" and that "the earlier mutual condemnations do not apply to the teaching of the dialogue partners as presented in the Joint Declaration."
In the Joint Declaration, justification is defined as "the forgiveness of sins, liberation from the dominating power of sin and death... acceptance into communion with God." Together, Lutherans and Catholics affirm, "By grace along, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works."
The two Churches are committed to continuing study of the biblical foundations of the doctrine of justification and to ongoing efforts in common witness to interpret the message of justification in language relevant for today's society.
We were able to share with the Bishop Kasper that to assist in the process of reception of the Joint Declaration, the Canadian Bishops and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada have jointly published a booklet of study resources on the Joint Declaration.