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.