My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
The "ad limina" visit made every five years by diocesan Bishops entails venerating the tombs of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul and meeting the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
After warming up with visits to the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for Clergy, which were pretty boring, the "ad limina" began in earnest on Wednesday with the celebration of the Eucharist on the altar above the tomb of St. Peter early in the morning. The question that Jesus repeatedly put to Peter, "Do you love me?," was the focus of the homily. Our own lives mirror Peter's in so many ways with their ups and downs and yet we are still loved and called.
I skipped breakfast in order to visit the tomb of John Paul II and Pope John XXIII and reflected on their graced history and my own. Finally, I made my way to the entrance of St. Peter's Basilica and claimed a seat in the front row, immediately to the left of the papal throne, in a reserved section for bishops and cardinals on the raised dais with a canopy overhead, and watched the crowd of 50,000 assemble in the square.
The weather was a bit overcast and it started to rain gently but the umbrellas of people resembled a colourful procession of banners and the sense of excitement and expectation lifted everyone's mood. A band from Switzerland played several lively selections but each reminded me of a beer hall we used to frequent and how good the German beer tasted.
A helicopter flew over head signaling the arrival of Pope Benedict and before very long the pope-mobile (a wide-open roofless all-terrain vehicle) snaked its way through the crowd. I marveled at the animated outreach of the Pope and the warmth of the people's response to him. The atmosphere was electric. After his catechesis in five languages and greeting special pilgrimage groups, I had the honour of having my picture taken with the Pope and thanked him for his clarity of teaching and assured him of the love and prayers of the people of our diocese.
Although the Bishops from Western Canada make their "ad limina" at the same time, it is the individual Bishop who gives an account of the situation of his diocese and the hopes, joys and challenges of his pastoral ministry, meets the Successor of Peter personally, and retains the right and the duty to communicate directly with him and the Heads of Dicasteries.
It is also an opportunity to receive helpful counsel and guidance on the problems of his flock and to discuss issues concerning the mission of universal church. Over the two week period of our visit, we visited with the Cardinal Prefects of more than 25 Congregations and Pontifical Councils of the Curia and dined one evening at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See.
My private audience with the Holy Father began as a wonderful photo op as both L'Osservatore Romano and Felici were there snapping away and vying with one another for the best shots.
The Pope was in fine form, very hospitable and quickly put me at ease. Utilizing the enormous atlas on his desk, he asked me to trace the boundaries of the Diocese of Calgary. As I did so, he quipped: "You have to do a lot of driving, I hope that you have a good car!"
He asked about the number of parishes, priests and about their morale. I told him that the morale was pretty good but that there is always the loyal opposition to contend with. He laughed and said, "Yes, I know all about that myself."
We talked briefly about same sex-marriage, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue with the Muslim community and Catholic education. When I suggested that the educational challenge for us is to become who we say we are, i.e. Catholic, he said, "We have the same problem in Germany." He was very interested, even excited, to learn about St. Mary's University College and our plans to offer a bachelor of education degree. He suggested that education is the key to so many pastoral realities and, as an aside, applauded the African Bishops for prioritizing Catholic education.
I realized that my time was just about up and asked him about a dispensation that had been repeatedly turned down by one of the Congregations. He listened attentively to my presentation and said that the local bishop's opinion should prevail in these situations and he gave me the dispensation on the spot. Although laden down with a large envelope of rosaries, as I left, I felt like I was walking on air.
At the Western Bishops Conference, we also have the venerable tradition of meeting every evening after supper to pray together, review the events and exchanges of the day, prepare for the various meetings of the next day, and conclude with a night-cap. These sessions are extremely popular events and attendance is nearly 100%.
Although the Bishops from the four regions of Canada made their "ad limina" at different times, the Pope's four reflections are really one unit as he treats of a number of important topics for the Church's mission in Canadian society, marked by pluralism, subjectivism and increasing secularism.
With the Bishops of Quebec, the central role of the Eucharistic celebration in the life of the Christian community and the essential character of the ministerial priesthood were highlighted.
With the Bishops of the Atlantic Region, the Pope commented on the negative effects of secularism and its closure to the transcendent and the collapse of the birth rate as one of the symptoms of this reality. The Pope also referred to the restructuring of parishes and dioceses not as a social reality but as "an exercise of spiritual renewal" and spoke at length about the importance of catechesis.
Next, with the Bishops of Ontario, the Holy Father described the rupture between the Gospel and culture. In the name of 'tolerance,' the basic pillars of human history, life and marriage are being changed and destroyed. He underlined the unacceptable dichotomy between personal faith and the action of Catholics engaged in political life.
Finally, with the Bishops of Western Canada, the Pope commented on the loss of a sense of sin and the various aspects of mercy, conversion, reconciliation, and restoration of broken relationships. He also expressed his appreciation and his encouragement for the work of reconciliation with the First Nations.
This was my fourth "ad limina" so I was inclined to approach it with the attitude of "been there, done that" but this fraternal exchange with the Successor of Peter is one that I will never forget.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
☩ Frederick Henry