Appeared in Spring/Summer 1995, Vol. XXI, Nos. 1, 2 Download PDF here

At five-year intervals, the Pope has the chance to direct his exclusive attention to the Bishops and faithful of every nation. Following an ancient custom, Bishops regularly go to Rome “to see Peter” (cf. Gal. 1:18), pray at the tombs of the Apostles and submit an account of their stewardship, through the Roman Curia, to the Successor of Peter.

Between March 20 and December 4, 1993, the Bishops of the United States, in eleven different regional groups, traveled to Rome for their visit ad limina apostoloncm – to the “threshold” or tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul. Besides meeting with every diocesan Bishop personally, as well as celebrating the Eucharist and sharing a meal with all the Bishops from a region, the Holy Father gives them a group talk. Whereas his encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, letters and Wednesday catecheses are for the universal Church, the ad limina addresses are aimed precisely at the United States. The discourses of 1993 provide a valuable insight into what Pope John Paul II thinks about the strengths and weaknesses of the Church in America.

John Paul’s talks to the American Bishops amount to a little more than 22,000 words – about 2,000 words each. Wishing to let the Pope speak for himself, in this essay I restrict my commentary to the minimum needed to provide the context for what he is saying about the principal issues facing Americans. Occasionally I hazard a guess as to why the Pope chooses to say what he does. Admittedly, this is speculation on my part, thoughmy comments are backed up from his talks. All citations come from the eleven discourses published in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano and Origins.1

Purpose of Ad Limina Visits

At the beginning of a group talk the Pope usually expresses his thoughts on its purpose. What he remarks to the first group of American Bishops is typical: “Your ad limina visit brings you to Rome to venerate the tombs of the glorious martyrs, Peter and Paul, who established this `greatest and most ancient church’ (St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 111.3.2) and to meet Peter’s Successor in this Apostolic See which `presides over the universal communion of charity’ (cf. St. Clement, Ad Rom., preface)” (1.1). Not only are the visits an instrument expressing the Bishops’ accountability to the Holy See, they also furnish the Pope with a way to fulfill his ministry to the other members of the Episcopal College. John Paul II considers these encounters as an opportunity to carry out his Petrine responsibility of strengthening the faith of his brothers (cf. Lk 22:32). Each visit is, he believes, “an occasion for us to support and encourage one another in the fulfillment of our ministry” (10.1). Moreover, the Holy Father points out to the Bishops that “while our private conversations deal with the situation of your individual dioceses, these group meetings give me an opportunity to share with you and your brother Bishops in the United States some thoughts on more general aspects of your ministry and of the Church’s life in your country” (1.1). His addresses have two aims: to confirm the Bishops in their episcopal ministry and to reflect on American Church life.

Repeatedly John Paul II refers to his group audiences as “moments of fraternal union” (5.1). They are times of “profound solidarity – sacramental and fraternal – which unites us in the episcopal ministry” (8.1). As “expressions of the collegial structure of the Church’s hierarchical communion” (1.1), the meetings show that the Pope and the Bishops “are joined in a communion that is both fraternal and hierarchical” (2.1). Accordingly, the age-old custom of ad limina visits expresses “the communion in truth and charity linking the members of the College of Bishops with the Successor of Peter” (9.1).

The Pope also tells the American Bishops that “for the members of your particular churches, the unity of their pastors with the Bishop of Rome is the sign that the community’s faith and evangelical service rest on rock” (9.1). On the one hand, the Holy Father asserts that his Petrine ministry is “intrinsic” to the diocesan churches’ “fullness of communion in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” (4.1). On the other hand, he admits that he, too, is enriched by the Bishops’ Roman pilgrimage. Within the Church, the Pope maintains, “there is a constant exchange of spiritual gifts from one particular church to another, and between the particular churches and the Church universal” (11.1).When the diocesan churches remain open to universalkoinonia,they, in turn, are enriched. From her “they welcome and receive the fullness of the apostolic faith, and they enrich the Church by contributing the wealth of their own gifts” (8.1). In this way ad limina visits testify to the collegial spirit uniting the head and members of the Episcopal College.



Structure and Literary Genre

When meeting privately with Bishops, the Pope discusses problems specific to their dioceses. He uses the group talks to develop a kind of mini-treatise for the whole Church in America. In his first address, the Holy Father announces that his discourses will follow the structure of Catechism of the Catholic Church. “With the various groups of Bishops,” he will meditate “on certain aspects of believing, praying, celebrating and living `the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles’ “(1.2). A glance at the structure of the Catechismreveals, however, that it deals with “believing, celebrating, living and praying.” Notice, therefore, that the Pope shifts the order, placing his discussion of spiritual renewal and holiness immediately after that on belief. While the Pope generally follows this scheme in his discourses, he does so rather flexibly. In his concluding address, he can still accurately recall, however, that “the thoughts which I have shared with the United States Bishops during this year’s ad limina visits have been guided by the outline and content of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (11.6). For the purpose of orderly analysis, I have linked the themes more closely, following the order originally proposed by the Pope.

The literary genre of ad limina addresses is unique among documents of the ordinary papal magisterium. They are neither homilies nor theological treatises. Addressed to Bishops and, through them, to the faithful, the discourses are more like spiritual-pastoral conferences. The tone is fraternal, exhortatory, frequently complimentary and, even more often, challenging. The Pope regularly describes a situation – for example, the underlying reasons of a pastoral problem – and then encourages the Bishops to take a specific line of action.

A survey of the different sources used in the 1993 series given to the American Bishops is instructive for revealing the mind of the Pope. Pride of place belongs to Sacred Scripture, to which he makes 156 direct citations or allusions. Of these, 149 are to the New Testament. He refers 75 times to the Pauline corpus, 16 of which are to Ephesians, and 30 to John..2 John Paul II’s own magisterium provides the next largest source of citations, 74 in all. Not surprisingly, the Pope concentrates on the documents issued since the Bishops’ last ad limina visit in 1988.3Combing the citations also reveals that for him the Second Vatican Council is a constant point of reference. He manages to cite the conciliar documents 35 times, 16 of which are to Lumen Gentium.4Additionally, he mentions the Catechism of the Catholic Church 17 times and the Code of Canon Law 7 times.5The Holy Father also refers to 7 different documents of the Roman Curia,6 and 11 issued by the American Bishops.7Such rich documentation reflects the continuity of the papal magisterium and his desire to highlight Church teachings which he regards as specially relevant to Americans.

What follows is a presentation of the five major areas treated in the eleven discourses of 1993: the creed, spiritual renewal, the sacramental economy, the Church’s internal unity and her mission to the world. In particular I wish to underscore the Pope’s own reading of the roots of current problems. This emphasis is in line with the plan he maps out. “If the `new evangelization’ is to bear fruit that will last,” he maintains, “it is first necessary to assess soberly the present situation. Only then can we ensure a proper response to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches today” (2.3). Merely passing attention is paid to his comments directed specifically to Bishops and to other groups, such as religious and youth.

Creed and Catholic Identity

In his first ad limina address, the Pope recalls his own “ministry as primary guardian of the deposit of faith” (1.3). This responsibility leads him to emphasize “the significance for the Church’s life of a better knowledge of the truths of the creed” (2.2). It is “the expression of the Church’s faith, the guarantee of her doctrinal apostolicity and unity” (2.2). He goes on to say that “it is not possible to think of the Church without her creed, without the truths which must be professed by those who wish to remain within the bounds of her visible communion” (2.2). The Pope’s concern for the integrity of Catholic teaching expressed in the creed stems from the twin challenges of religious ignorance and dissent in America.

John Paul sides with those who lament the widespread religious illiteracy among American Catholics, especially the younger generation. He notes that “in some places young people have not received adequate instruction in the basic truths of the faith. Parents are often ill-equipped to fulfill their role as primary educators in the faith. Even well-educated adults sometimes lack the ability to formulate their faith in relation to the many questions raised by the wide diversity of outlooks present in society.” At least in part, the reason for this situation lies in a catechesis which fails to give sufficient importance to the content of the truths of faith. “Certain methods have been adopted,” he states critically, “in which the fides quae creditur is too much neglected” (2.4).

According to John Paul, this disheartening situation is being met head-on by “a national recatechizing endeavor, of young and old alike” (1.5). The Catholic laity need more adequate catechesis. Bishops should see to it that they receive “continuing theological and spiritual formation, including formation in the Church’s social doctrine, of a sufficiently high level to enable them to fulfill their role in the Church and in society” (8.7). Moreover, “particular attention needs to be paid to the spiritual and doctrinal formation of all lay ministers” (6.4).

An exceptionally valuable tool for this monumental catechetical effort is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For the Pope, it is a “gift of divine Providence … among the principal fruits of the Second Vatican Council and one of the most significant events of my pontificate” (1.1). He proposes the Catechism as “an authoritative guide to sound and vibrant preaching, an invaluable resource for parish adult formation programs, a basic text for the upper grades of Catholic high schools, colleges and universities” (4.2). A more specific suggestion for guaranteeing that American Catholics will receive a thorough knowledge of their faith can hardly be imagined. The Catechism is, the Pope affirms, “an extremely effective help in making available to all the faithful the inexhaustible riches of what the Church believes, prays, celebrates and lives” (11.6). Contrary to the opinion of those who would restrict the Catechism to Bishops and a limited number of experts, John Paul promotes its widest possible diffusion.

Besides expressing his concern for inadequate catechesis, the Holy Father also betrays a preoccupation for what Americans call “cafeteria” Catholicism. This entails a selectivity with regard to Church teachings and, consequently, a partial identification with the Body of Christ. In this regard, the Pope observes that “the moral, psychological and cultural pressures of life in the United States today are tempting some in the Church to compromise her teachings and her discipline to the grave detriment of souls” (1.4). He further describes this problem: “In a climate of religious individualism some assume the right to decide for themselves, even in important matters of faith, which teachings to accept, while ignoring those they find unacceptable” (1.4). John Paul then makes a weighty judgment, affirming that “selectivity in adhering to authoritative Church teaching … is incompatible with being `a good Catholic’ and by its very nature it poses an obstacle to full participation in ecclesial life” (1.4). Thegood of the Church in the United States calls for an end to “the disharmony and confusion produced by teachings on questions of faith, morals and discipline which are at odds with the Church’s magisterium” (1.5).

The challenge presented by selective Catholicism can be met by vigorous teaching and a renewed sense of the integrity of the faith. First, he recalls the Bishops’ responsibilities to teach Catholic doctrine in its fullness. “God’s people need, now and always,” the Pope reminds them, “to be able to count on the clear witness of the faith of the Church’s Bishops” (2.1). They are to proclaim it “in a way that is clear and uncompromising, yet attractive and encouraging” (6.1). The Holy Father recommends that every effort should be made to guarantee that preaching, religious education programs, and Catholic schools and colleges “present serenely and convincingly- but without embarrassment or compromise – the whole treasury of Church teaching”(7.4). Only if the Bishops’ “teaching is clear, unambiguous and united,” says John Paul, “will it rise above the clash of conflicting opinions with the forcefulness and power of the truth” (1.5). It is therefore “the Bishops’ task to call the whole Catholic community to accept in its fullness the Church’s authoritative teaching on faith and morals” (1.4).If they do, the Pope is persuaded that they will have the support of American youth. “It is clear that the controversies and dissent of past decades are of little interest to them,” he explains. “They are not inspired by a Gospel which is diluted, disguised or made to seem effortless” (7.4).

Second, the Holy Father emphasizes that “it is necessary to recover a sense of the wholeness and interior logic – the `symphony’ of the faith” (1.5). There is an integrity to Catholicism as a seamless garment of beliefs which is to be preserved. This is the “fullness of the truth” to which the Pope so frequently refers in his discourses.8

According to John Paul II, not only are individual Catholics to give their assent to the whole of Church teaching but so also is every institution which claims to be Catholic. Orthodoxy has repercussions on the ecclesial character of the vast network of Catholic educational, health-care and social service facilities in the United States. While recognizing the difficulties of survival faced by these institutions, the Pope identifies a waning commitment to Church teaching as an even more serious problem. A regrettable symptom of this predicament shows itself “when the mission and policies within such institutions have too uncritically followed secular models.” Such fruitless emulation should be curtailed as contrary to the mind of the Church. Instead, these institutions should “be more active in fostering their Catholic identity, and thereby fulfill their responsibilities to the Church and to society” (2.4).

Most particularly John Paul points to Catholic institutions of higher education and of health and social services. They need to reaffirm their catholicity in all aspects of their life. Concerning Catholic colleges and universities, the Pope notes that “the claim to be Catholic involves a relationship to the Church’s teaching in all aspects of the life of such an institution: in the ethical and moral implications of its scholarship, the witness of intellectual integrity and principled conduct of its professors and teachers, and the models of goodness, discipline and knowledge offered to students” (2.6).Turning to Catholic health and social services, the Holy Father observes that “to make such institutions flourish, precisely as Catholic, is a task requiring determination and courage” (2.7). Catholic institutions have a specific contribution to make to the common good in America, a contribution whose efficacy is diluted to the extent that their catholicity is weakened.

Spiritual Renewal and Holiness

Confiding in the Bishops, John Paul shares his conviction “of the urgent need for a genuine spiritual renewal in the life of the Church” in the United States (5.1). The many preoccupations he mentions throughout his talks undoubtedly furnish the reason for this pressing appeal. Above all, the new evangelization of the Church in America must be grounded in “a profound spiritual renewal … the holiness of her members and communities”(11.3). The Pope also reminds the Bishops that “holiness of life is of the essence of the Church’s mission and ministry” (3.1).

This call to holiness “needs to be presented once more in all its evangelical urgency” (3.1). In the period before the Jubilee of 2000, “the Holy Spirit is summoning the Church to purification, repentance and renewed spiritual fervor” (7.2). Every aspect of ecclesial reform “must have as its goal the revitalization and growth of grace in our hearts, the deepening of communion with the Triune God” (8.3). If such a spiritual revolution fails to materialize in America, any other changes will be in vain.

The time, however, is ripe for such a renewal. John Paul frequently recalls that “despite the inroads of secularization, people crave a genuine experience of God in prayer and an inner spiritual life as antidotes to the dehumanizing elements in modern living” (1.2). He goes even further, observing that “the often silent pilgrimage to the living Truth … is a`sign of the times’ ” (3.3). People are searching for meaning. The Holy Father reminds the Bishops that they “cannot ignore the deep desires that are stirring in people’s hearts today. In spite of negative signs, many hunger for an authentic and challenging spirituality … and young people especially are looking for a solid foundation upon which to build their lives” (7.2).A growing “spiritual thirst” and a “longing for transcendence” are increasingly manifest (10.2). This religious yearning challenges the Bishops to proclaim enthusiastically “the fullness, relevance, and unifying force of the mystery of Christ” (10.2). Even more, John Paul thinks that the authentic renewal of ecclesial life depends on “the apostolate of prayer rooted in faith, strengthened by the sacramental and liturgical life, and active in charity” (7.3). In order to satisfy Americans’ longing for God, Bishops are “to be teachers of truly Christian prayer” (7.3).

There are then signs in the United States of “a new quest for `spirituality’.” It appears in “many religious and healing movements which look to respond to the crisis of values in Western society.” On the one hand, the constructive results of this quest include “the search for new meaning in life, a new ecological sensitivity, and the desire to go beyond a cold, rationalistic religiosity.” So much for the positive. On the other hand, this religious reawakening, as the Holy Father points out, contains “some very ambiguous elements which are incompatible with the Christian faith” (3.2). Unfortunately, not every spiritual search reaches the Truth.

In this spirit of caution, John Paul treats the New Age movement, a set of beliefs and code of behavior increasingly significant in the United States. Its “ideas sometimes find their way into preaching, catechesis, workshops and retreats, and thus influence even practicing Catholics, who perhaps are unaware of the incompatibility of those ideas with the Church’s faith” (3.2). While he never attacks the religious beliefs of the great world religions, the Pope is at his sternest when dealing with this uniquely American religious phenomenon. He believes that its syncretistic and pantheistic tendencies, ignorance of revelation, relativizing of dogma, and denial of personal responsibility before God undercut the very meaning of redemption.

With similar firmness the Pope also recalls the “sad fact” that today some people reduce Christianity to “a pseudo-science of well-being” (3.3). In other words, “to neglect the supernatural dimension of the Christian life is to empty of meaning the mystery of Christ and of the Church” (3.3). This situation calls for “more vigorous preaching and catechesis on eschatological themes. .. in order to eliminate confusion regarding the true nature of Christian life” (3.3). His recommendation that preaching include “a sober reflection on the existence of hell” and “the awesome reality of human freedom” is far from a scare tactic. Rather, such realistic teaching entails “defending the worth and dignity of every individual against all efforts to trivialize human existence” (3.4).

Sacramental Celebration

While the Holy Father offers the Bishops some theological reflections on the sacraments, he devotes most of his attention to concrete pastoral concerns. At the core of the crisis in sacramental practice is loss of the belief that “through these actions of Christ himself, the Bridegroom communicates to his Bride the power of his saving death until he comes again in glory” (4.2). In light of this fundamental principle, the Pope deals with specific issues regarding baptism, reconciliation, Eucharist, holy orders and marriage.


In his defense of infant baptism, John Paul first reaffirms “the salutary counsel that baptism is to be celebrated only when a well-founded hope exists that the child will be raised as a Catholic and so allow the sacrament to bear fruit.” After observing that considerable legislation exists for receiving this sacrament, he remarks that “such diocesan or parish guidelines have sometimes been applied in more restrictive ways than prescribed by the Holy See.” While encouraging suitable preparation for parents before their child’s baptism, he rejects a false rigorism. It is a misplaced zeal which makes “demands not required by Church doctrine or law.” Advocating pastoral charity in this area, the Pope reminds the Bishops “that this sacrament of initiation is first of all a gift from the Father to the child itself’ (4.3). Only when the minimal conditions set by the Holy see are not met should a priest refuse to baptize an infant.


According to the Holy Father, the drop in the number of confessions in the United States is “a grave and urgent pastoral problem.” The reason for this decline is the loss of “a proper sense of sin.” A healthy understanding of responsibility for evil needs to be restored. “It is only God’s grace,” he affirms, “not therapeutic or self-convincing schemes, which can heal the divisions in the human heart caused by sinfulness.” Only if peoples’ hearts are roused to “an ardent desire for forgiveness” can they “rediscover the beauty and joy” of sacramental reconciliation (4.4).

In order to respond to this decline, the Pope offers four practical suggestions. First, Catholics in the state of mortal sin need to be taught that “individual and integral confession and absolution remains the ordinary way of being reconciled with God and the Church.” Second, confession should be personal and individual. General absolution is to be restricted only to the situations of “gravis necessitas” foreseen by Church law. Third, confession must be integral. Confessors are never to limit “the number of sins they [penitents] can confess.” Fourth, with a practical realism often ignored in America, the Holy Father recommends that “parishes should guarantee scheduled times for penance or, when pastoral need recommends it, make the sacrament available to the faithful before Mass” (4.5). Clear catechetical instruction and ready availability of confession are the first steps necessary to renewing the practice of sacramental penance.


With regard to Eucharistic celebration, John Paul draws the Bishops’ attention to three issues of concern: the contempt of liturgical norms, the translation of the liturgical texts and the increasing number of non-Eucharistic Sunday services.

First, the Pope turns to abuses concerning the sacramental form of the Eucharist. Regrettably he observes that “it can sometimes happen that the liturgy is seriously marred by illicit omissions or additions to the approved texts.” If any such practices exist in their dioceses, “it is for the Bishops to root out such abuses, because the regulation of the liturgy depends on the Bishop within the limits of the law” (4.6). John Paul regards fidelity to liturgical discipline as a sign of fidelity to the Church.

After observing that the American Bishops are working on the revision of some liturgical texts, the Holy Father recalls the general principles that they are to keep in mind during this process. Without mentioning the debate about inclusive language, from what he says, this is surely one reason prompting his remarks. Above all, the Pope affirms that “the arduous task of translation must guard the full doctrinal integrity and, according to the genius of each language, the beauty of the original texts.” Moreover, the language of prayer, “free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence, should foster the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while faithfully expressing the Church’s faith and unity” (11.2). The lex orandi must fully reflect the lex credendi.

A third preoccupation of the Pope regarding the Eucharist is the situation of those Bishops who are unable to provide every congregation with a priest for Sunday Mass. In some regions of the United States, the absence of a priest has led to Sunday celebrations conducted by a lay person or religious. While praising these para-liturgies as occasions of grace for the participants, John Paul views such measures “as an interim and emergency measure – for Catholic doctrine would admit no other judgment” (4.6). They cannot be considered as substitutes for the Church’s full Eucharistic worship. The Pope is particularly wary lest confusion arise between the “ministerial” responsibilities of the laity and “the specific sacra potestas proper to the ordained priesthood” (6.3). Consequently, he counsels that “it is not a wise pastoral strategy to adopt plans which would assume as normal, let alone desirable, that a parish community be without a priest pastor” (6.3). Because “a truly living community cannot resign itself to being without a priest to offer the Eucharist for them” (4.6), it must seek to resolve its plight. Praying more ardently for an increase of vocations is, he believes, faith’s answer to the current shortage of priests.