As the final preparations for Mass were being made at the Altar of the Tomb below the main level of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the singing of the Nicene Creed echoed down a nearby marble staircase.
Upstairs, 13 bishops from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota gathered March 9 around the main altar’s “confessio,” an area above St. Peter’s tomb honoring his confession of faith.
They recited the ancient prayer and then processed downstairs for Mass at the altar near the tomb of the apostle — the “rock” on which Jesus built his church. It’s a place where 2,000 years of faith and history meet, and it’s one of the stops bishops from around the world make during their periodic “ad limina” visits to Rome.
Even for bishops who have made the trip before, it is a powerful moment.
“The confessio for me is a very, very special place, a very sacred place,” Archbishop John Nienstedt told The Catholic Spirit in Rome. “I worked in the Vatican [Secretariat of State] for five years, and every morning I would kneel at the confessio and I would pray for the strength to do the work I was called to do.”
Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché, making his first ever “ad limina” visit, said Mass at the tomb with his brother bishops was an experience he won’t forget.
“For me, this whole visit has been about the mystery of oneness, of communion,” he said. “Going down underground for some of these crypts, you’re going back in history and you’re touching the very roots of the beginning of our worldwide faith.” Praying at the confessio “gave me goose bumps.”
The bishops’ March 4-11 visit also included stops at Rome’s other major basilicas: St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls — home to the tomb of the Apostle to the Gentiles.
The name of the visit comes from the Latin phrase “ad limina apostolorum” (to the thresholds of the apostles), a reference to the pilgrimage to the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul the bishops are required to make approximately every five years.
But opportunities for prayer were only one aspect of a whirlwind week that included meetings with 11 Vatican congregations and pontifical councils and two separate meetings with Pope Benedict XVI.
“Ad limina” visits for U.S. bishops began last November. Their overall theme has been the “new evangelization” and the challenge of delivering the Gospel message anew in a secularized society.
Of the 15 regional groups from the U.S. making the trip, the pope was planning to give a formal speech to only five — including the group from Minnesota and the Dakotas that comprise the Region VIII province.
In his message March 9, the pope said permissive attitudes toward sex, society’s devaluing of Christian marriage and the acceptance of same-sex marriage can damage individuals and are harmful for communities.
“It is in fact increasingly evident that a weakened appreciation of the indissolubility of the marriage covenant, and the widespread rejection of a responsible, mature sexual ethic grounded in the practice of chastity, have led to grave societal problems bearing an immense human and economic cost,” the pope said.
He spoke about religious freedom, the clerical sexual abuse scandal and the need to “recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity.” (Read the full text of the pope’s address and Archbishop Nienstedt’s remarks to the Holy Father on next page.)
“What I think is so important in the pope’s message is that he said — and I hadn’t heard him say this before — it’s really a question of justice that we maintain the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “If we take that away, it’s going to be an injustice for all of society. I believe that — particularly for the young, for our children and our children’s children.”
The Minnesota bishops also met separately as a group with Pope Benedict March 8 in a 30-minute meeting during which the Holy Father asked each bishop to talk about his diocese. The bishops met earlier as a group to decide what each would say.
Archbishop Nienstedt told Pope Benedict that “all the bishops are resolved to take this opportunity that we have in the political area to catechize in the religious area, to catechize about the meaning and the sanctity of marriage.”
Bishop Piché, a former chair of the Archdiocesan Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, spoke “about the work we’re trying to do to build Christian unity among the other churches and ecclesial communions in Minnesota and our region.”
When the bishops greeted Pope Benedict, “there was a light in his eyes and a smile on his face as though he was glad to see us,” Bishop Piché recalled, even though the pope likely had several previous audiences before he met with the Minnesota group.
“Walking in and seeing him at the other end of this large salon and then walking toward him, I thought: He is a man who has been given a heavy burden of responsibility by the Lord and how gracefully he accepts it and lives it,” Bishop Piché
said. “And in spite of his own humanness, his own limitations, his own weakness, God has used him to touch the hearts of millions and millions of people. Why can’t we all do that,” letting the Lord work through us as well?
Life in the archdiocese
The bishops’ meetings with Vatican officials included stops at the congregations in charge of bishops, clergy, Catholic education, worship, consecrated life and doctrine and pontifical councils that deal with family, laity, Christian unity and promoting the new evangelization.
The visits followed the bishops’ earlier submission of reports detailing diocesan life since the regional bishops made their last “ad limina” visit in 2004. The report from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis totaled 24 chapters and more than 400 pages.
Archbishop Nienstedt said, on the whole, congregation and council officials had a good understanding of the situation of the church in Minnesota and wanted to learn more.
The meeting with the Congregation for Bishops, headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, was a particularly dynamic meeting.
“He was very warm and gracious and truly interested in what we had to say,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “At one point we got on the topic of immigration, and he really wasn’t aware of, and found it particularly informative, that when our Hispanic brothers and sisters come from Mexico or wherever, and they illegally enter the country, that they’re not able to get married in the church because you have to have a civil license [in the U.S.] first.”
“He began to see what the pastoral problem was in that area,” the archbishop added. “I said because of that we want to work toward some type of reformation, so these people who have been in the country for 20, 30 years can have that relationship stabilized.”
Archbishop Nienstedt, who was on his third “ad limina” visit since being ordained a bishop, said he talked in a number of the meetings about the success of the archdiocese’s strategic plan and its goal “to ensure the long-lasting vitality and strength for our church.” Having visited 174 of the archdiocese’s 206 parishes, he said he was able to attest to “the vitality of our parishes and to the fact that worship is done very well and with due diligence to the norms.”
The successful implementation of the new Roman Missal was another point the Minnesota bishops made with Vatican officials, he said. And, Archbishop Nienstedt added, another proud moment was “to be able to say that [the archdiocese]
had 68 seminarians — the Congregation for Catholic Education was just flabbergasted by that.”
Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché said making the trip with their brother bishops was an important way to nurture the spirit of collegiality among them.
“While we gather together with some frequency, nevertheless this is in closer quarters and with more hands-on time, and we have opportunities to talk and spend time with each other,” the archbishop said.
In addition to spending time together, the bishops also visited and prayed with seminarians from their respective dioceses attending the Pontifical North American College in Rome. The archdiocese has two seminarians there: Spencer Howe from St. Paul parish in Ham Lake and Joseph Kuharski from St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony.
While in Rome, Archbishop Nienstedt installed 55 new acolytes at the college from around the United States, including Kuharski. (Watch for a story about the North American College in an upcoming issue of The Catholic Spirit.)
Reflecting on the last day of the visit, the archbishop said one of the favorite memories he would take home was “the very warm and fraternal embrace I felt with the Holy Father. He is such a very good man and a very responsible man . . . . St. Peter was told by the Lord when all is said and done you have to confirm your brothers in the faith. I think he did that very well.”
Bishop Piché said the trip hopefully will strengthen the bishops as witnesses to the faith.
“The last Mass we had here [at the North American College] was in the chapel of the martyrs — which means ‘witness,’” he said. “I was praying that the spirit that filled the apostles themselves would be with me — that I would be more courageous, more outgoing in bringing the message of Christ.”
Archbishop Nienstedt said the faithful of the archdiocese were in his heart and prayers during the pilgrimage. For him, it also was a time of renewal and reaffirmation.
“Hopefully, if I am renewed and strengthened in what I do, that’s going to have an impact on my preaching, teaching, governing and responding to things,” he said. “We’re all in this together — we’re the one body, the body of Christ.”