Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us!
Every five years bishops throughout the world are required to travel to Rome in what is called a visit “ad limina Apostolorum” to pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, meet with the Holy Father and consult with him on the state of their dioceses and the faithful they shepherd.
In early February, I will be making this visit to Rome in the company of my brother bishops from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Every bishop responsible for shepherding a diocese or eparchy reports on their diocese to Pope Francis and the cardinals and bishops who head up various departments that make up the Holy See.
You might wonder, especially in this age of the internet and email, why each bishop is required to go to Rome in person. Is it really necessary to travel all that way to have a face-to-face meeting with the Holy Father?
As it so happens, the journey to Rome and the personal meeting with the Bishop of Rome are essential elements of every “ad limina” visit. The visit that each bishop makes every five years is much more than a meeting. First and foremost, it is a spiritual pilgrimage in the service of unity and communion.
The name of the visit itself is revealing, “ad limina Apostolarum.” This phrase in Latin means, “to the threshold of the Apostles,” that is, to the two churches in the city of Rome where the bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul are entombed and venerated. For almost two millennia, Catholics have journeyed to Rome as pilgrims to pray at their tombs to express their unity with the Church of Rome and with the successor of Peter whose ministry is to confirm the Church in the faith handed down from the apostles and in hope and charity.
As successors of the apostles, each bishop is required to journey to Rome on a regular basis as a pilgrim. They do this to reaffirm their unity with the successor of Peter and their communion with their brother bishops who shepherd the particular Churches throughout the world.
In the 1988 Directory for Ad Limina Visits, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) points out that this personal pilgrimage by each bishop is grounded in the very nature of the Church itself. Noting that the Lord is present in each of the local Churches which make up the universal Church, through the mutual indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s communion and unity is not merely an abstract principle, but as he writes, “has a name: Peter, and a see: Rome.” Thus, affirming the unity of the local Church with the universal Church is personal and relational.
As then Cardinal Ratzinger noted: “The “ad limina” visit is thus an instrument, and a real expression of the catholicity of the Church, of the unity of the College of Bishops, embodied in the person of the Successor of Peter and symbolized by the place of Peter’s martyrdom.”
Because the unity of the Church is relational, he points out that it requires “a reciprocal exchange.” That is, just as the universality of the Church requires personal communion between the bishops (both individually and as a body) and the successor of Peter, so too does the Holy Father need to personally encounter and come to know each of the shepherds of the particular Churches that make up the universal Church. This is in order to carry out his unique ministry to maintain and foster the unity and communion of the whole Church.
So, with all of this in mind, as your shepherd, I am preparing for this pilgrimage “ad limina Apostolorum,” “for the good” as the Directory proposes, “of [this] diocese and for the whole Church, in order to foster unity, charity and solidarity in faith and the apostolate.” In the time remaining before my departure in late January, I will be praying for the needs of all of the people of the diocese and asking God to give me the openness of heart and mind to receive generously the many graces of this time of prayer, communion, and dialogue in Rome.
I ask for your prayers as well, and for our Holy Father, as my brother bishops and I prepare to embark on this pilgrimage.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M.