At the Threshold of Peter

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia was joined by the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey in an “ad limina” visit to Pope John Paul II Sept. 11. Bishops make these visits every five years to the Vatican to report on the state of their dioceses.

The cardinal, who spent many years in Rome as a student, professor and Vatican official, was archbishop of St. Louis from 1994 to 2003 before his appointment as archbishop of Philadelphia.

He spoke to the Register's Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, about his visit with the Pope.

How helpful has the “ad limina” visit been to you?

It's been a wonderful experience of communion with the Holy Father and with the other bishops. All of us are very, very thrilled to have this experience, and we have been buoyed up by this visit, to come to the tombs of the apostles and to be with the successor of Peter. Also very important and helpful were the individual meetings with the Holy See and heads of the various dicasteries.

What, to you, were the most important matters discussed?

Usually, the discussions with Holy Father himself, and the individual topics which concern each bishop and his diocese, are not topics we announce. It's important that we all discuss, as a common denominator, the pastoral good of the local churches and how issues there relate to the universal Church. It's always beneficial to meet prefects of the congregations and other department heads at the Holy See who are trying to help us, as bishops, to help serve people of good will. We discuss what is of interest, challenges, problems and needs. They are there to help us, they bring their observations, and we bring ours.

What is your position on the issue of administering holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians?

Every bishop has a challenge to deal with his flock, whether they be 100% Catholic or straying. This is a role which each bishop tries to fulfill in accordance with the teaching of the Church. The Holy See is totally committed to helping individuals to help the bishop fulfill his role. This doesn't only go for one area, but also for various areas of the Church.

Some Catholics are disappointed with what came out of the bishops' meeting in Denver in June, saying that the bishops needed to be firmer and clearer. Some even have gone so far as to question whether the American bishops are serious about protecting the Eucharist from scandal. What do you say in response to that?

What we have to realize is that the Lord, in his infinite mercy, gave his body and blood to be our food and drink in our sinful condition, but at same time, in order to participate in the banquet of life, he has challenged us to conversion, and this is a condition for everyone in his Church. As St. Paul magnificently points out, everyone must examine himself and not take lightly the body and blood of Christ. We are calling all people to conversion, to realize that before we receive holy Communion that we are in a state of grace. As St. Justin wrote, we are only in communion and only receive if we are in agreement with what the Church teaches.

As Catholics, we believe what the Church teaches. This is our commitment. Now, various people are confused; there is bad will, there is good will, there are all kinds of dangers of confusion. We don't want the sacrament to be abused in any way; we want politicians to love and serve life and not to do anything contrary to serving life. But anyone of good will who is looking at the Church knows what the position of the Church is and is careful not to impute a motivation that is not correct.

But, in order to allay some of this confusion, some would argue that the bishops could be clearer.

The bishops have proclaimed the teaching of the Church in and out of season, and for people of good will, this is very, very clear. Everyone is called to follow this teaching. Now, at what point in the life of the Church, in the apostolic community or the community as a whole, does the Church put people out, or excommunicate them? At what point does the Church declare that belonging to the Church must cease?

The Church is a community of people called to conversion, but also of those who are sinners. And part of the sinful condition is to be confused, and many people are confused about different things here on earth, though we won't be confused in heaven. Our job is to proclaim the Gospel, constantly challenging everyone to be consistent, and to receive the Eucharist because we belong to a community of faith, of charity — the communion of the Church.

How is the English Mass translation progressing?

As you know, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy has prepared a first draft of the Ordo Missae (Order of the Mass), and that has gone through various revisions and has been sent out for observations to bishops' conferences. But it's just that, a draft. People have said there are deficiencies, but this applies to all drafts, so it's true, there are some, but no one ever says that first editions will please everyone. People must realize that this is a first draft, but it is a draft that has clear ideas of what the translation involves. Our imperfection as human beings means that we're not able to reach perfection straight away. But we have Liturgiam Authenticam (the 2000 Vatican instruction on translation of the Latin Mass), in which there are two very important criteria: fidelity and proclaimability.

The Holy See is trying to lead the way, and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy is made up of experts who are endeavoring to accept this criteria. They're putting forth their best effort, in writing the draft, making observations, as more suggestions come in and a final text is presented. Therefore, tremendous work has been done; it's a work of scholarship. Is it perfect? No, but we just have to be patient; it has to go through the process. People who criticize it should be offering positive suggestions, and every suggestion should take into account the essential principles and criteria. A good start has been made, there's a lot of work to be done to get the final goal, and it's a very arduous road.

Was the issue of fostering vocations raised in your discussions?

As I said, individual discussions with the Pope and with the heads of dicasteries are not areas we publicize. But you can imagine the tremendous interest there is within the Holy See, as well as among us bishops, of vocations to the priesthood. Fostering vocations is paramount, and if you read the discourses of the Pope and the documents of the Holy See, you'll see this confirmed. So it's no surprise that the Holy See would see immense interest in vocations to priesthood.

Have there been any developments concerning the mandatum?

This is an ongoing topic in the life of the Church. No one thinks the question of the mandatum has been exhaustively treated, and it remains part of (the) law of the Church and the structure of the Church. Everyone is committed to it; the bishops are committed to applying its principles as faithfully and as rapidly as possible. The bishop must be the judge of the local situation and be able to size up the local situation and act accordingly.

What is your opinion on the apparent trend towards legitimizing the killing of individuals who are mentally incompetent and not “brain dead” in the sense that the Church defines the term?

The Church is so vitally interested in protection of human life — from conception to death, but that passes through difficult ways and involves complicated problems. But always, the Church is there to remind the world of the value of every human person and also the primacy of God in what concerns human life. For the rest, we want to make it absolutely sure that no one is denied the right to life, and no one is killed and yet might be in an impaired condition. Also, the Church proclaims the value of the human person, and the value of the defenseless human person who is suffering and cannot defend himself or herself.

Would you like to say anything more?

For the bishops, the “ad limina” is a wonderful opportunity for bishops to experience the community of Church but also to make explicit our proclamation of our faith in Jesus Christ, son of the eternal father, son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the savior of mankind, and the celebrations at the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul help us to return to our diocese with renewed vigor to proclaim the core of our faith, Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.