Reflections from Rome

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

By now you know that I, along with the other bishops of New England, recently traveled to Rome to participate in the official Ad Limina Visit to the Vatican, and from previous articles you’re probably familiar with the structure and purpose of our visit. Here I’d like to mention a few personal experiences and reflections from our time there.

First, kudos to our own Auxiliary Bishop Robert Evans who was selected to be the coordinator of our visit and was truly outstanding in fulfilling his duties. No one knows Rome – including people and places, piazzas and pastas, basilicas and boutiques – better than Bishop Evans. And no one has more energy in navigating the traffic, climbing the hills and plying the cobblestoned streets than the indefatigable Bishop Evans. Organizing a group of bishops is itself a challenge, but Bishop Evans won the admiration and appreciation of all for his ability to keep this herd of hierarchs well-informed, together and on time.

We visited about 12 of the Vatican’s dicasteries (offices) during our visit and met with officials there. Our discussions included diverse topics such as religious liberty, the new evangelization, ecclesial movements, parish reorganizations, clergy discipline, the translation of the Roman Missal, vocations, religious life and marriage tribunals. While in general the discussions were very interesting and informative, the quality of the presentations and the hospitality varied widely. Most of the Vatican officials were well-prepared, relevant and friendly. They seemed genuinely happy to see us, listen to our concerns and talk to us. Others weren’t quite as “enthusiastic,” shall we say.

Our meeting with Pope Benedict, however, was certainly one of the highlights. While I was at first disappointed to learn that we wouldn’t have a one-on-one meeting with the Pope, as we had previously with John Paul II, the format chosen for this visit was, in some ways, even better. The Holy Father met with six of us, in a small group discussion format, for almost a half-hour. He invited us to share any thoughts or suggestions we might have and encouraged us to be candid. He listened attentively to our comments and responded individually to each bishop.

Apparently there have been some public concerns about the Holy Father’s health. I would say that while the Pope has clearly aged a bit, and seems somewhat tired and frail (and who wouldn’t be with his burdens and schedule?) there was absolutely nothing missing in his alertness or ability to communicate. Truly our Pope is a holy, humble and gentle man.

I enjoyed visiting the American Seminary in Rome, the North American College, and spending some time with the Providence seminarians studying there. The seminary is at full capacity, and the students seem to be thriving. I continue to be impressed by all the seminarians of our diocese, including those at the NAC. Our diocesan seminarians are intelligent, well-informed, devout, respectful and personable young men. They’re in love with the Lord and determined to become excellent priests. As I’ve written previously, the Church of the future is in very good hands.

The emotional highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to be the principal celebrant and homilist for the Mass at the tomb of Blessed John Paul II. As Pope John Paul changed the course of the Church and the world, he also had a profound effect on my life. He chose me to be a bishop, sent me to the Diocese of Youngstown in 1996, and then, in 2005 to the Diocese of Providence, a blessing for which I thank God every day. I was the last American Bishop appointed to a diocese by John Paul. I could hardly believe that the altar at which I stood and prayed contained the earthly remains of this good, holy and heroic man.

I also had a brief but prayerful visit to the Church of San Onofrio on the Janiculum Hill. It’s not the most spectacular church in Rome, and it’s in need of some repair. But it holds precious memories for me. It was in that little church, in April of 1972, that we had a special Mass for my mom and dad who, while visiting Rome for my diaconate ordination, also celebrated their thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. Whenever I’m in Rome I try to visit San Onofrio to say a little pray of gratitude and remembrance for my parents.

On a much lighter note, the restaurants in Rome continue to be inviting places and the food is exceptional. Of course I had pasta everyday, sometimes twice a day. Among my favorites: “spaghetti alle vongole,” “spaghetti alla carbonara,” and “penne arrabiata.” You can often find these pastas listed on American menus, but, trust me — for some reason, it’s just not quite the same. And then, there’s the gelato . . .

One of our seminarians asked me if Rome had changed much over the years. He probably thought I studied there in the days of Caesar. But Rome is called “the Eternal City” for a reason; not much changes from year to year. From a secular perspective, it continues to be a maddening place, a city characterized by chaos at the airport, polluted air, tons of traffic, incessant noise, tourist traps, aggressive Gypsies and graffiti. In other words, it retains its charm.

Viewed with the eyes of faith, however, there’s no place like Rome. It’s our spiritual home, a place that, in many ways, and from different perspectives, reminds us of what it means to be a Roman Catholic.