ROME — Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans are in Rome this week, joining about two dozen fellow shepherds and their delegations from across the New England region for consultations with officials from the Roman Curia as well as a sit-down meeting with Pope Francis to discuss the state of their dioceses.
Administrative Secretary Father Jeremy Rodrigues is also in Rome as part of the local delegation.
Known as ad limina visits, adapted from the Latin phrase Ad limina Apostolorum, which translates as “to the threshold of the Apostles,” these meetings with the Holy Father — as well as with representatives of the congregations and pontifical councils that assist him in his mission — take place every five to eight years. They are obligatory for bishops from around the world.
The New England group, representing Region 1, was the first of 15 U.S. groups to make their visits to Rome and the Vatican in 2019-2020. The U.S. bishops’ last ad limina visits were eight years ago — in 2011-2012.
Bishop Tobin, who traveled to Rome on Saturday, told Rhode Island Catholic on Monday that the New England delegation had already begun their meetings with Roman Curia officials in advance of their meeting with Pope Francis later this week.
In preparation for that meeting, the Diocese of Providence sent to the Vatican several months ago the required Quinquennial Report, which provides a comprehensive overview of the state of the diocese, as reflected in its Mass attendance, sacramental practice and active ministries, among other areas.
Bishop Tobin said that he also expects to visit the Pontifical North American College this week, where American seminarians live while they study theology in preparation for the priesthood.
“I am looking forward to seeing Patrick Ryan,” Bishop Tobin said of the Diocese of Providence seminarian studying there in priestly formation.
While they are in Rome, the bishops and delegations are staying at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the modest Vatican hotel-style accommodations, tucked away between the south side of St. Peter’s Basilica and the wall that forms the boundary between the Vatican City State and Italy, which Pope Francis has chosen to reside in since being elected to the papacy.
The pair of five-story connecting buildings that make up the Domus Sanctae Marthae were completed in 1996, during the pontificate of Pope Saint John Paul II, as guest accommodations to make it easier for clergy visiting the Holy See on business to stay within Vatican City.
It is expected that the bishops will meet with the Holy Father in his official offices at the Apostolic Palace, which is also the traditional papal residence, that overlooks St. Peter’s Square.
Bishop Tobin noted that he and his fellow bishops are also offering Masses daily at the major basilicas in Rome, a requirement of ad limina visits to the Vatican.
On Monday, the U.S. bishops began their visit by celebrating Mass at the Rome Basilica of St. Mary Major, which houses the Marian icon “Salus Populi Romani” (health of the Roman people).
Archbishop Leonard P. Blair, shepherd of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, served as principal celebrant and homilist of the first Mass.
In his homily he spoke of God’s intervention in times of great crisis to renew the Catholic Church through the example and witness of the saints.
“We feel very keenly today, all of us, the weight of human sinfulness, of infidelity, of scandal, of the sin that weighs down the church,” Archbishop Blair said in his homily.
Nevertheless, he said, the life and example of St. Charles Borromeo, who was among the saints who spearheaded the Counter-Reformation, is “a model of faith” that bishops can look to be inspired to find “courage, hope and joy.”
Archbishop Blair reflected on the day’s memorial of St. Charles Borromeo and read a description of the saint by Bishop Antonio Seneca of Anagni, Italy, who had lived in the same house with him.
St. Charles, the archbishop read, was “vigilant in rooting out vice, benevolent in correction, just in judgment, loving in punishment, patient of human weakness, quick to avenge disobedience, his justice was united with kindness, his severity with gentleness and peace. He was a diligent guardian of wholesome discipline both in priests and people.”
Archbishop Blair said that the Italian bishop’s description of the saint “took place in a church that had seemed to be failing, really failing.”
Recalling his years working at the Vatican Secretariat of State — from 1994 to 1997 — Archbishop Blair noted that the English section is located in an area known as the Borgia tower, where among the rooms is the apartment of Giovanni Borgia, the murdered son of Pope Alexander VI.
When the sins of those called to lead the church became more widely known, Archbishop Blair said, “it was a time of utter pain for the church and one might wonder how the church would ever get itself out of such a mess.”
Yet, decades after the death of the pope’s son, St. Charles Borromeo “inhabited that very same room,” he said. “The plea of God’s people — that the church be constantly renewed, and (that) by conforming itself to the likeness of Christ may show his face to the world — that prayer was answered.”
In the day’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the archbishop noted, the apostle tells the Christian community that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”
“By (St. Charles’) very existence, in the midst of all that was going on in those days, truly the words of St. Paul were fulfilled with God’s irrevocable call,” Archbishop Blair said.
“I will close with one saying ascribed to St. Charles Borromeo that is perhaps the most important for us,” he said: “Souls are won on one’s knees. And we need to be men of faith and of prayer.”
While the visits are filled with meetings with various offices of the Roman Curia, the “Directory for the ‘Ad Limina’ Visit” makes clear that the ad liminas are a pilgrimage first of all.
The purpose of the bishop’s pilgrimage, the directory states, is “the strengthening of their own responsibility as successors of the Apostles and of their hierarchical communion with the Successor of Peter. The point of reference is a visit to the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, pastors and pillars of the Roman church.”