National Catholic Register


Ad Limina Visits: Facts, Figures, & A Blueprint for Spreading Gospel

Bishops offer look behind process of reporting to Rome every five years


June 14-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/14/98 at 1:00 PM


NEW YORK—Rome as the Eternal City took on an especially acute resonance for New York Auxiliary Bishop Robert Brucato when he arrived there this past February. It was his first visit to the city since he was raised to the episcopate last year, and his first ad limina visit—the trip to Rome required of the heads of dioceses every five years to venerate the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul and deliver a report on their Sees to the Pope. (The term ad limina [apostolorum] means “to the threshold [of the Apostles].”)

Bishop Brucato and his fellow auxiliaries traveled with John Cardinal O'Connor and the other ordinaries and auxiliary bishops of New York state in the first ad limina visit of 1998 by U.S. bishops.

“I had been to Rome as a tourist many times, but this was a completely different experience,” Bishop Brucato told the Register. “Saying Mass at St. Peter's Basilica and St. Paul's [Outside the Walls] with the other bishops gave me such a sense of collegiality, and a more profound understanding of the antiquity of the episcopacy.”

The bishops met three times in five days with Pope John Paul II to report on the state of their dioceses. The Pope told them that in his addresses to the U.S. bishops this year, he will reflect on the coming Jubilee Year 2000 and develop certain themes of the second Vatican Council “to discern how best we can ensure that all God wishes for the Church will become a reality.”

In his meetings with the New York bishops, the Pope concentrated on the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, on divine revelation found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and how the catechetical efforts of a diocese must be centered on the Word of God.

Each address of the Pope is not meant solely for the group of bishops to whom he delivers it and may not be specifically written with them in mind. The messages are to be read and digested by the entire American episcopacy, and are meant to edify all bishops around the world.

Thus far, six U.S. episcopal groups have had their “threshold” visits, and the rest of the bishops are scheduled through the end of the year. Arrangements for the visits are made through the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan.

The visits are always more than routine, but especially shocking was the sudden death of Bishop John Keating of Arlington, Va., March 22, near the end of the ad limina for the provinces of Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Miami. Plans for Arlington, of course, have changed with the diocese in the hands of an administrator and the Holy Father expected to appoint a new bishop soon. Still, the ad limina visit has been a guiding experience for the diocese, said its chancellor, Father Robert Rippy.

“We received a very positive response to the developments in Arlington,” he said. “We stressed the growth of the diocese especially in Catholic education. Over the last six years, each year we have opened a new elementary school or added on to an existing one. These are the type of issues they want to hear about, and how we are providing for this growth.”

In between meetings with the Holy Father, the bishops visit with various Vatican congregations and commissions to discuss particular issues, make suggestions, and receive advice. Formal reports on the dioceses are sent to the Pope and heads of the Vatican departments at least two months earlier.

The New York archdiocese, with some 2 million Catholics in 413 parishes spread over 10 urban, suburban, and rural counties, weighed in with a 321-page document, with statistical analyses, pie charts, and reports on parishes, schools, charitable works, evangelization, the lives of priests and religious communities, the numbers of baptisms, weddings, funerals, confirmations, and conversions, as well as the bottom-line money matters. In all, the Vatican required 22 topics to be covered.

The bishops have stayed in the recently built housing complex that will serve as the consistory headquarters when the cardinals meet to elect the next Pope.

Bishop Brucato admits to having been “awestruck” by the whole experience, but was level-headed enough to take away an important lesson.

“I was struck by the sense of responsibility shown by everyone in the Vatican, and the weightiness of the issues they dealt with,” he said. “I came away with a heightened respect for the ordinaries of all the dioceses — the amazing amount of responsibility they have and the commitment they have to their obligations and their people.”

The ad limina visit is an ancient practice that underlines the structure of authority within the universal Church and the ultimate source of that authority in Christ's commission to the Apostles. The Code of Canon Law lays out the practice and the purpose clearly. Canon 399 states that a diocesan bishop is to present a report on his See to the Pope every five years (known as the Quinquennial Report) and canon 400 adds, “During the year in which he is bound to present his report to the Supreme Pontiff, and unless other provisions have been made by the Apostolic See, the diocesan bishop is to come to Rome to venerate the tombs of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul and is to appear before the Roman Pontiff.”

A commentary on this canon by the Canon Law Society of America states that this venerable practice was originally required only of the bishops of the province of Rome but had been extended to the entire Church by the 13th century. In days when travel and communications were slower, the ad limina visit served as an indispensable link between pontiff and bishop, and with the foundations of the Church built upon the Apostles. It was meant to highlight the fact that although a bishop is the head of his diocese, he must rule in communion with the Pope.

In the age of fax and e-mail, the informational part of the visit is less vital, but the personal, hierarchical, and symbolic aspects are just as important as ever. It is a good example of the Church bringing out things old and new through her venerable practices.

In his remarks to Pope John Paul, Cardinal O'Connor said the ad limina gathering reminded him that “ubi Petrus ibi Ecclesia,” (where Peter is, there is the Church). He compared the visits to the chair of Peter to the renewal of marriage vows: “Every five years we repeat our loyalty, commitment, and most importantly, our love for each other.”

Speaking as head of the New York Province, he continued, “Every bishop of this province accepts fully and entirely the teaching of the Church and the Magisterium. To such we pledge our fidelity and loyalty, especially to the Holy Father.”

Preparations for the ad limina are much the same in large archdioceses such as New York and smaller dioceses such as upstate Ogdensburg.

“We are not as complex and deal with things on a very different scale,” Msgr. John Murphy, moderator of the curia for Ogdensburg, told the Register, “but the outline of our report is every bit as detailed as any large diocese, and we have to make the copies and send them off on deadline.”

The Vatican supplies each bishop with a lengthy questionnaire that serves as the format for the Quinquennial Report. Most bishops assign the heads of different diocesan departments to draft a response to particular parts of the questionnaire (such as parish population and life, sacraments, education, charities) that then become the working copy for particular sections of the report. When checked, edited, and finalized, the well-groomed report is copied and each copy placed in a ring binder.

The volumes are sent off to the U.S. nuncio, who retains a copy and forwards the others to Rome. The binders allow different Vatican departments to remove sections that pertain to their oversight. When the bishops arrive, they are ready with questions and insights.

“It was obvious they had read the report and knew from these the states of the different dioceses,” said Msgr. Murphy, who had helped to draft his diocese's report. “A real, informed dialogue could go forward, and a mutual understanding was formed about the situations of the dioceses.”

Apart from the formal reports, particular problems also gain the attention of the Pope and his assistants. Bishop Paul Loverde of Ogdensburg had an urgent message for the Holy Father about the severe February freeze in his area that had made living conditions unbearable and required federal disaster aid. The Holy Father promised his prayers and was pleased to hear that neighboring dioceses were helping with money, food, and material aid, said Msgr. Murphy.

In subsequent addresses to other U.S. episcopal groups, the Pope continued his reflections on Vatican II, speaking about the Church's understanding of herself, as found in Lumen Gentium; a new “springtime for the Gospel” through evangelization in the year 2000, basing his words on the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes; the Mass as the source and summit of the Catholic life, as explained in the liturgical document Sacrosanctum Concilium; the Church as expositor of the natural law and a witness to the necessary link between freedom and the truth that is found only in Jesus Christ (Gaudium et Spes, developed more particularly in the Pope's encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae); the state of Catholic education and its potential to renew American higher education if it remains true to a Catholic identity that is active and reflected in the faculty and curriculum, as stated in the Pope's apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae; and the reasons why only men can be ordained to the priesthood, although the “genius” of women and their contributions to the Church have yet to be fully realized, expounding on the formal teaching of his 1994 document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

The ad limina and the process of preparing for it also causes a diocese to assess its operations and plan for improvement, said Msgr. Murphy.

“It's a process of self-reflection and assessment,” he said. “It doesn't replace comprehensive pastoral planning but it allows you to step back and see yourself in terms of the universal Church. You can take that information and understand better the work of the particular Church which you are in.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.