Every five years or so each bishop makes the Ad Limina visit to Rome. In fact it is ten years since the bishops of the twenty six dioceses of Ireland did so. In advance each bishop submits an account of the present situation in the diocese: all aspects of parish life and peoples’ living the faith; family life; handing on the faith in the home, parish and school; religious practice; care for the needs of individuals and communities; vocations and clergy numbers; female and male religious life; contribution to the quality of life in society; interaction with politics, economics etc. Arriving in Rome two things stand out; the INTERNATIONAL – people of all nations, TIME – evidence of life in every century back two thousand years and beyond. In Rome you cannot be either parochial or just living for today. The church where Daniel O Connell’ funeral Masses were celebrated in June 1847, another church the final resting place of Irish Princes who centuries earlier were part of the Flight of the Earls.
The Ad Limina visit is centred on faith. We stayed at the Irish College and they were wonderful hosts. The college is home to twelve students in the final years of their preparation for priesthood for Irish dioceses and also a small number of Irish priests doing further studies.
Visiting the offices dedicated to the various areas of Church Life.
The first act of our visit was at 7.30 am Monday morning, celebrating Mass together in the oratory, directly in front of the tomb of St Peter, and surrounded by the tombs of many other popes. There is good evidence for believing the place to be true and the spot is directly underneath (a flight of steps down) the great main altar of St Peter’s Basilica. Amazing to gather in prayer in a world so united to the first generation of Christians with Peter as their head. All of us possess the same faith, we are animated by the same Holy Spirit.
Each day for eight working days we had meetings with the various offices in the Vatican e.g. Education; Religious Life; Laity, Family and Life, to name but three we visited that first day. Our visit was seen as an opportunity to ask their opinion and advice, to see our Irish situation in a world context, to simply grow in unity and grow our common vision as Irish bishops. The office for Laity, Family and Life is newly formed, – the hope is to emphasise the overlap of the vocation of the Laity and the vocation to Family Life. We looked forward to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August 2018. A constant theme was life as lived in Western society today; the lived culture of modern societies; believing in a loving God who walks among us in Christ and living as Christ invites and enables us to. Alongside that the powerful message of Laudato Si that we hear and respond to both the Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor.
At the office of the Evangelisation of Peoples, conscious of our great missionary tradition of the past century and a half, we reflected on how we can be missionary abroad and here at home amid the realities of our time. How can we provide lay missionaries from among our people? Sharing what was happening in our contact with other Christian churches we realised it was more a question of the faith we share and the living out of that faith, rather than theological engagement regarding where we differ. A number of times we voiced concerns that it was regrettable that the New Missal had failings particularly as “a text to be proclaimed and heard”. It was an occasion of rejoicing that the Irish Language Missal is now set to print and in the very final stages of being approved for printing and publication.
Lengthy meeting with Pope Francis.
Our meeting with Pope Francis was most revealing of how he sees the People of God – the Church. He greeted each of us personally as we entered the library where our meeting was held and said goodbye to each as we left. He did not give any address except at the end to recite a prayer,- an Italian translation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate. We sat around in an oval shape – roughly 30 of us and just the pope and a priest translating into English. He said that like football let us just put the ball in the middle and play away. Archbishop Eamon gave an introduction, three minutes or so, then it was simply dialogue, a bishop would speak and each time the pope would address whatever matter was spoken of. In introducing it the pope said there would be no seniority, anyone could speak and it could be comments, questions or criticisms, – everything was for our good.
Over ninety minutes or so much was discussed. There was a focus on family- the pope spoke of families having time for children, playing with them, conversation at meal times, every child was a gift. He spoke warmly of how grandparents can hand on the faith, and a way of praying and basic Christian values. Speaking of prayer he notices the success of the “Eucharistic Adoration Movement” with laity organising it. He spoke of young people as always on the move: we accept this and move with them always listening to them. Talking of suicide, especially of young adult males, he highlighted the sad reality of the high unemployment rates of young adults in many, many countries, including Ireland. In such circumstances how can they have a positive sense of their value and dignity? A number of times he came back to saying that always a Christian must be active at three levels – head, heart and hands. The pope gave many examples and told many stories. Always hopeful and encouraging, and emphasising a constant element of evangelisation and mission. As always, from the heart, he asked, “please pray for me”.
Time to ponder all things, time to pray.
Over the days every topic you could think of was mentioned, – safeguarding, the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth, faith schools and their focus on God’s desire for all people to know life in its fullness, fewer and fewer priests in Ireland and most of the western World, the baptismal right of all to be fully involved in the whole life of the Church, the call to evangelisation and to mission of every baptised person (e.g. all parents to their children). There was time for prayer. We celebrated Mass together in the four major Basilicas: St Peter’s – our union with Rome, St Paul’s – our call to mission, St John Lateran – our love for Christ, and ‘Mary Major’s’ – the Mother of God.
Open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Our final two days were spent together as bishops thinking through the significance of our visit. What needs? What struggles? What failings? What graces? What is the Risen Lord saying to the People of God in Ireland at this time? Where is the Holy Spirit leading us? In the large mosaic in the sanctuary of the Irish College chapel Christ at the centre is uttering the words, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. A bishop is shepherd, a priest is a shepherd, parents are shepherds to their children. As shepherds, it is always Christ the Good Shepherd at work in us through our baptism. We know in our hearts that to live by faith is beautiful and joyful, satisfying and meaningful. With Christ the Good Shepherd let us be of good heart. Carry in your heart His Word:
Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.
Love one another as I have loved you.
Bishop Ray Browne 30.01.2017