We arrived at the Residenza Madri Pie, five minutes’ walk from St Peter’s Basilica, on Sunday, in time for supper and an orientation session for the days ahead.
Bishops, individually and in groups, have been making these visits Ad Limina Apostolorum (“to the thresholds of the Apostles”) since at least the 4th century. In the Middle Ages, bishops were expected to visit the pope annually, but this became problematic as it meant they were too often out of their dioceses. So Sixtus V (d 1590) established the current practice of visiting once every five years.
The purpose is to pray at the tombs of SS Peter and Paul and to strengthen the bonds of communion with the Successor of Peter. In the modern format it also gives an opportunity to discuss matters with the various departments of the Holy See.
Providentially, Monday was the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham and we had Mass at the tomb of St Peter led by Cardinal Vincent. I was delighted when a group of catechists from the Diocese of Portsmouth joined us. They had been attending a conference in Rome over the weekend.
I never knew that many of the Vatican departments are located not behind St Peter’s but in the buildings along the Via della Conciliazione. Today we began the action-packed schedule of visits. Each conference lasts up to 90 minutes and with some of them you have a choice to attend or not. Today we all went to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and also to the important Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Every evening back at the Residenza, Cardinal Vincent expertly chairs a meeting reflecting on the day. I’m interested in the next day’s visits to the congregations for bishops and for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Usually one of us is invited to lead the session and the prefect of the congregation responds. Arrangements vary, however, from one congregation to another. In some, they give you a lecture (in the past, I’m told, even a telling off). On Tuesday, on the other hand, the prefects and secretaries sought to give advice and encouragement.
I was looking forward to the session on Wednesday with the Council for Culture. Our critical engagement with culture and its various sectors (science, the arts, medicine, business, etc) is crucial to the new evangelisation. I also wanted to ask their advice on our big diocesan symposium, “Science – or – Religion?”, which we’re holding in Winchester on November 3.
Apart from breakfast, there’s no food in the Residenza, so an arrangement has been set up with a trattoria across the road. They provide lunch, usually around 1.30. I must say, I’m really enjoying the daily bowl of pasta and a main course washed down with a glass of Frascati.
It’s now Wednesday evening and after engaging with the Congregation for Clergy and with the wonderful Cardinal Sarah at Divine Worship, we offered Mass in St Paul Outside the Walls. We then went into Vatican City for a session with the impressive Cardinal Parolin at the Secretariat of State. Not all the department leaders speak English, but he is fluent. Naturally, we asked him about the new deal between the Holy See and China. He emphasised that it was provisional and spoke about the spread of Evangelical Christians in the country.
The departmental meetings usually begin with us reporting on our activities. I find myself impressed with the almost universal focus of my brother bishops on evangelisation, each in their own way. These meetings also build a deeper communion between us. Some of the initiatives being undertaken in the dioceses are truly innovative. For instance, on Thursday at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, one of the bishops was saying how he, together with an imam, a rabbi and a Hindu guru, were invited to a sixth-form college to speak to students on their respective beliefs about the afterlife.
For me, the highlight of the Ad Limina was the audience with the Holy Father in the Apostolic Palace on Friday. After a brief introduction, we were allowed to ask questions on whatever we wished. I was impressed with Pope Francis’s deeply pastoral approach. He urged us as bishops to pray more and to teach more. “How many hours of prayer do you do?” he asked us. He was also very humorous. Talking of the joy that should characterise the clergy, he suggested that instead of drinking a cup of vinegar for breakfast we should all have a caffè latte.
It’s now Sunday, time to leave. We said early Mass and I’m at the airport awaiting our flight. I’m exhausted. But it’s been a remarkable week, helped by the Roman late-summer sunshine. I thank Our Lady and our diocesan patrons, St Edmund and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati for their guidance and prayers. But I thank the Lord Himself for the gift of that Evangelii gaudium that saw us through this busy but spiritually uplifting week.
The Rt Rev Philip Egan is the Bishop of Portsmouth