COMMUNION AND FORMATION ~ Bishop Michael McKenna reflects on his Ad Limina visit 2019
The Australian bishops travelled to Rome in late June 2019, at the invitation of Pope Francis, to make our pilgrimage ad limina Apostolorum (to the threshold of the Apostles). The last time we made this visit was to Pope Benedict in 2011. The purpose of the visit is to affirm and strengthen our communion with the Universal Church, in the person of the Successor of Peter. I would like to share with you some reflections on how that purpose was achieved.
These pilgrimages are also a time of spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral formation for the bishops who undertake them. A recurring theme in our meeting with the Pope and with the various departments of the Holy See was a reminder of our responsibilities as pastors to see that the people entrusted to our care, including the clergy, are nourished in this way too.
We began by making a six day retreat together in Ariccia, about 30 km south east of Rome, in the hills around Lake Albano. It was a few degrees cooler there than in the city, which was a welcome relief. The retreat centre, operated by the Paulists, is surrounded by a large area of protected forest; and there was plenty of room in the grounds and the large complex of buildings to walk and find places for silent prayer.
The routine of the retreat was simple. After morning prayer together, the retreat director, Ian Cribb SJ, would give a brief talk and propose scripture passages for our reflection during the day, which we spent in silence. It was up to us to choose times and places for three one hour sessions meditating on one or more of the Bible readings. Then, in the early evening, before Mass and dinner, we gathered in small groups to share what the Lord had been saying to each of us in these times of prayer.
As those who participate in Word and Faith groups, or other forms of shared lectio divina would know, this can be a strong experience of hearing the Spirit speak through others and an enrichment of our communion as fellow pilgrims on the road with Jesus. It was certainly a moment in which the collegial spirit among the bishops was deepened and when we remembered what and who is at the heart of our mission.
Back in the summer heat of Rome, we stayed together at Domus Australia, where the Rector, Monsignor John Boyle and his team made us very welcome. We filled up the place, so we had it to ourselves. It was good to “come home” in the evening, change out of our formal wear and enjoy a cold beer as we talked about the day.
The week was packed with meetings and formal occasions and, in the midst of it, oases of prayer together as we travelled to each of the major basilicas to celebrate Mass. A community of priests and lay people, based in Rome, called Opera della Chiesa, looked after our transport with great efficiency and kindness.
The most important meeting, of course, was with Pope Francis. We all sat down together with him for almost two and a half hours. He seemed as fresh and sharp at the end of the discussion as at the beginning. He encouraged us to speak frankly and openly and moved the dialogue along in that way himself. My impression was that, while he was clearsighted and compassionate about the many troubles of the world and in and for the churches today, he spoke as one with hope in the coming of the Kingdom, and alert to the signs of its life here and now. The Successor of Peter gave us encouragement.
The encounter with the Pope was followed by four days of meetings with the heads and senior officials of the various dicasteries (departments) who assist him in particular areas of Church life. There are 56 offices (you can see the list at http://w2.vatican.va/content/romancuria/en.html); and, no, we didn’t visit all of them, but those with whom we wished to give and receive advice on important questions facing us today.
For example, one matter which came up at several dicasteries was our planning for the Australian Plenary Council in 2020-2021. These discussions impressed me as an example of practical communion with the Universal Church: a way of expanding our vision and understanding, beyond the limits of our local experience, to remember and draw strength from the fact that we are part of something larger.
The spiritual component of the pilgrimage, of which the retreat was such an important part, was woven through the week in Rome in personal prayer and, as I have already noted, in our liturgies, especially at the four major basilicas.
We began and ended at the tomb of St Peter. On Monday, we celebrated Mass in the grottoes of the basilica and recited together the Apostles Creed facing the tomb. Saturday was the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul and we concelebrated with the Pope around the main altar. We then watched him and Archbishop Job, representing the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, go together to pray at Arnolfo di Cambio’s famous statue of St Peter.
On the Wednesday we travelled outside the walls to St Paul’s, where the remains of the “last of the Apostles” awaits the Resurrection. It is also where the remains of Francis Xavier Conaci, an indigenous teenager from Western Australia, who had joined the Benedictine community in Rome and died there in 1853, await that glorious day. After Mass and our recitation of the Creed at Paul’s tomb, we moved to the spot where Conaci was buried and Bishop Chris Saunders led us in remembrance and prayer.
That day marked my 10th anniversary as Bishop of Bathurst and the prayers of our local church that I had carried to Rome had a special resonance.
We also offered Mass at St John Lateran, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome and so “mother of all the churches”; and at St Mary’s, the basilica erected in the fifth century to celebrate the title of Mother of God. In the baroque side chapel where we gathered is the more ancient icon of Mary, protector of Rome, where Pope Francis goes to pray each time he departs from and returns to Rome on a long trip.
I hope that this brief recollection conveys that the ad limina visit is not a formality, nor a mere bureaucratic duty. We can communicate around the world very easily these days, but there is no substitute for the personal encounter. It is, after all, in personal encounters with one another that our Church lives her daily life. I am grateful to God for an experience of formation and communion which I pray will bear fruit in my ministry with and for God’s People of the Diocese of Bathurst.
Our Lady of the Central West, St Patrick and St Mary of the Cross, pray for us.
Bishop of Bathurst