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VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In front of the tomb of St. Peter, where they solemnly chanted the Creed in Latin, the bishops of New England contemplated the call and mission of the apostle, and how the Lord calls them as well.
The bishops, making their visits "ad limina apostolorum" -- to the threshold of the apostles -- celebrated an early morning Mass Nov. 7 in the grotto of St. Peter's Basilica before meeting St. Peter's successor, Pope Francis.
Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, principal celebrant and homilist at the Mass, noted how the prayer at the tomb of St. Peter and the earlier celebration at the tomb of St. Paul form "the very essence" of the pilgrimage bishops are required to make regularly to Rome to strengthen their faith and their bond with the pope and to report on the status of their dioceses.
Referring to St. Paul as "the Pharisee" and St. Peter as "the fisherman," Cardinal O'Malley said Jesus chose "very unlikely people to lead his church."
"I'm sure we feel that way about our vocations," he said. "We were not chosen because we were the best looking or the smartest or the holiest, but in God's providence he called us to this responsibility."
Cardinal O'Malley, whose birthday is the June 29 feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, said the two apostles, founders of the church of Rome, were very different from one another, "yet so human and so close to Jesus, so effective in spreading the faith by their preaching, by their witness, by shedding their blood."
Wearing red vestments to honor the martyred St. Peter, the cardinal encouraged the bishops to seek the apostle's intercession "to confirm us in our faith and help us to be good pastors of Christ's flock."
The Gospel reading at the bishops' Mass was from St. Matthew, when Jesus asks Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" And Peter responds, "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God."
Jesus then tells him, "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church."
"Jesus is building his church on the faith of Peter," Cardinal O'Malley said. And as bishops, "we must be men of faith, a faith that is a revelation of the Father, nurtured by prayer, the Scriptures, the sacraments and the witness of our fellow believers."
The bishops, like Peter, must evangelize and spread the faith, the cardinal said.
In emphasizing the continuing need for evangelization and education in the faith, Cardinal O'Malley pointed to the study released in August by the Pew Research Center, which reported that the majority of U.S. Catholics do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
That lack of belief, he said, is one cause of lower rates of Mass attendance and of the loss of "the sense of urgency to confess our sins to receive worthily."
The "last and greatest" question Jesus asked Peter is "Do you love me?" the cardinal said.
"Today, before Peter's tomb, let us bishops ask for the grace to answer these questions the way Peter did," he said: "with a profession of faith, a profession of hope and a profession of love."
The cardinal said the bishops can tell Jesus, "Because we love you, we will strive with all our strength to feed your flock and to follow you, O Lord, not at a safe distance, but up close."