Archbishop departs for ‘ad limina’ visit

News — both print and electronic — recently flashed that Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley would be visiting Rome Aug. 29. The tone of the reports implied that the archbishop was to make a kind of “summons to report” and that the primary purpose was to “give an account of the ‘clergy sexual abuse scandal’ and ‘the parish closings.’”

The media reports gave the impression that the archbishop is being hauled like some miscreant schoolboy to the proverbial woodshed for a dressing down, a correction of his ways and directions about what to do next.

Though issues such as the abuse scandal or parish reconfiguration may be raised in the meeting between the archbishop and the Holy Father, that is certainly not its primary purpose and the visit is far from a surprise. Some clear information needed to be given to area Catholics about the reality of what is commonly called the “ad limina visit.”

The Church’s law specifies in canon 400 the purpose of the visit: “During the year when he is bound to submit a report to the Supreme Pontiff, a diocesan bishop is to go to Rome to venerate the tomb of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and to present himself to the Roman Pontiff.”

Every five years, according to a schedule prescribed by the Holy See, each diocesan bishop is to submit a detailed report on the condition of his diocese to the “Supreme Pontiff.” The canon clearly states that this is a regularly scheduled visit and it is personal between the bishop and the Holy Father. Note that it does not say that the bishop is to submit the report to the Holy See, but personally to the Supreme Pontiff. Canon 399 of the present Code of Canon Law spells this out.

The report on the condition of the diocese covers everything for which the bishop has responsibility in his diocese. The larger and more complex the diocese the larger and more complex will be the report. In 1988 the Congregation for Bishops issued a Directory to assist diocesan bishops in preparing, compiling and sending their reports to the Holy See.

The reports follow a specific outline and ask for statistics (where appropriate); data about personnel, the condition of the physical and fiscal structure and condition of the diocese, the programs of education and religious formation, medical, charitable and social services offered by the diocese. If you wanted to know the “what” about which Archbishop O’Malley will be required to report, a copy of the “Boston Catholic Directory” would be a good starting point.

Since the visit is not simply the report of a franchise operator to the CEO, but rather a spiritual, pastoral and juridical visit of “brother helping a brother” the element of prayer permeates the Directory. Whether in the remote preparation when the bishop is urged to seek the prayers of the entire diocese as he readies to go to Rome or the time or prayer and the celebration of Mass at the various churches of Rome — especially the visit to the tombs of St. Peter at the Vatican or of St. Paul at the church of St. Paul Outside the Walls — it is clear that his is not just a regional meeting of a board of directors.

The bishops make their visits in coordinated groups, usually of an ecclesiastical province or of a pastoral region designated and directed and arranged by various offices in Rome and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In Rome bishops meet with certain officials based on matters that might be specific to their own dioceses. It is not unusual to see American bishops heading to the offices for liturgy and education since these are usually “front burner” topics. The Congregation for Bishops is a “must visit” for many bishops as this office is concerned with many of the day to day issues facing bishops, as well as those that might be of particular interest in a specific diocese. For example, if a bishop determines that he would like the assistance of one or more auxiliary bishops or he is nearing retirement age, he might make a stop at this office not only in a group meeting, but also in a personal one.

Local reports neglected to state that Archbishop O’Malley would not be going alone to Rome; in fact most, if not all of the diocesan, auxiliary and some of the retired bishops of New England will accompany him.

Interestingly, if the year designated for the ad limina visit falls within the first two years of his service, a diocesan bishop is not required to make the report.

In the case of USCCB Region I, the New England bishops, only the bishops of Burlington, Vt.; Manchester, N.H.; Providence, R.I. and Bridgeport, Conn. and the Eparch of Stamford, Conn. are required to make the report this year. All the other bishops fall into the exception provided in canon 399.2. This does not mean that each will take advantage of the exception. In any case the bishop still wants to go to Rome to meet with the Holy Father, because the visit is more than simply submitting reports.

In Rome the bishops will have a busy schedule of meetings in Roman offices. There will be time for them to celebrate Mass together not only at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s but also at other churches, frequently ones that have special meaning for them personally.

Depending on his schedule the Holy Father may meet individually with the bishops. Even in his advancing years, the pope is still vitally interested and alert when meeting one-on-one with bishops about their sees. This is one of the primary responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome expanding on Jesus’ command to Peter: “Strengthen your brothers.”

According to published reports from American bishops who have already made their “ad limina” visits this year, the Holy Father meets with each, though for a very brief time, and then meets with the whole group. If time permits he may deliver his message to the group orally or simply present it to them in printed form. The text of the address of the Holy Father is usually available to the public the next day on the Holy See’s web site,

From what has so far been conveyed by other reports, the bishops genuinely look forward to the “ad limina” visit. The visit, while providing the Holy Father and his collaborators in the Roman Curia with a detailed picture of each local church, provides each bishop a chance to “visit Peter” and to receive support and encouragement from the pope, and his brother bishops in his duties to teach, govern and sanctify the people of Christ entrusted to his care.