Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- U.S. bishops are preparing to make their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican, an intense series of encounters that will bring many of them face-to-face with Pope Benedict XVI for the first time.
Beginning in early November and extending through much of next year, the visits will constitute the most comprehensive assessment of church life in the United States since the German pope was elected in 2005.
A statue of Jesus handing St. Peter keys rests in front of the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica on the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul June 29. As part of their "ad limina" visits to Rome, bishops are required to make a pilgrimage to the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul in their respective basilicas. (CNS/Paul Haring)
The approximately 200 heads of U.S. dioceses, some accompanied by auxiliary bishops, will arrive in Rome in 15 regional groups, and each will bring a "Report on the State of the Diocese" that will serve as the basis for discussions. The schedules for the weeklong visits combine prayer and liturgy with more businesslike encounters at key Vatican offices.
The meetings with the pope have always been the highlight of the "ad limina" visits. Pope Benedict has lately adopted a modified format, meeting with 7-10 bishops at a time instead of individual encounters. U.S. bishops can expect small group discussions lasting about 45 minutes to an hour, featuring a relatively unstructured give-and-take with the pontiff.
The pope also addresses the larger regional groups of bishops, usually on a particular theme or aspect of the church's experience in the United States. He will not give a formal speech to each regional group, however. Instead, plans call for him to address only five of the groups -- part of a cutback in papal appointments that has been instituted gradually over the last few years.
Pope Benedict's talks will undoubtedly be combed for comments relevant to the 2012 election year campaign in the United States. Vatican insiders say the pope will avoid wading into partisan politics. Nevertheless, his talks are expected to touch on perennial hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage -- not because they may be electoral topics, but because they are challenges to fundamental Catholic moral teaching.
Vatican sources said that under the general theme of new evangelization, which aims to strengthen the faith and "evangelize culture" in traditionally Christian countries, the pope is likely to focus on several key areas:
-- How culture and religion should intersect, especially in current situations found in secular society.
-- Education and the particular importance of Catholic schools.
-- Building good relationships between bishops and priests, which have suffered in the clerical sex abuse scandal.
-- Religious freedom as a challenge not only in countries where Christians are a minority, but in places where radical secularism is taking root.
The "ad limina" visits are often described as the Catholic version of branch managers reporting to the head office. Vatican officials say that's a misconception.
"If we only looked at the administrative aspect of these visits, we would not understand them. They are first of all moments of communion and collegiality, a faith experience," Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops, told Catholic News Service.
He said that when the groups of bishops pray and celebrate liturgies together, hold meetings with the Vatican and then engage in informal conversations among themselves, they are able to take a break from purely local affairs and look at things from a more universal perspective.
The visits are also a time when bishops and the Vatican can remove "prejudices" that may arise on issues that are treated in the media or public debate, but often without much direct communication between Rome and local church leaders, Cardinal Ouellet said.
"They clarify questions with us and we clarify questions with them. It is really very positive," the cardinal said.
The title of the visits comes from the Latin phrase "ad limina apostolorum" (to the thresholds of the apostles), a reference to the pilgrimage to the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul that the bishops are required to make.
Several U.S. groups also plan to celebrate Masses at the altar of the tomb of Blessed John Paul II. Many of the bishops were, in fact, appointed by the late pope and feel a special connection to him.
Cardinal Ouellet's office coordinates preparation for the "ad limina" visits. Each bishop is asked to prepare in advance a report on virtually every aspect of diocesan life, including family life, education, clergy and religious, lay involvement, vocations, priestly formation, religious practices and demographics.
These reports are taken seriously at the Vatican, Cardinal Ouellet said. They are circulated to heads of Vatican agencies and to the pope ahead of time, so that meetings can be productive.
The U.S. bishops plan group meetings with officials of several Vatican agencies. They include the congregations in charge of doctrine, clergy, bishops, worship, education and religious orders, and pontifical councils that deal with ecumenism, the family and laity. The bishops are being encouraged to meet with the council for new evangelization, and some will hold talks with the council for health care.
These discussions involve shared concerns and interests, but some bishops also schedule private meetings with Vatican officials to deal with specific diocesan issues.
The group encounters are usually hosted by the prefects or presidents of Vatican congregations or councils. That isn't always possible, but Cardinal Ouellet said the top officials of Roman Curia departments "must have a very good reason not to meet the group." Meeting with the world's bishops is considered a priority task for curia agencies, he added.