Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger talks with Pope Francis during ad limina meetings in Rome last week. (Servizio Fotografico Vaticano photo)
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger talks with Pope Francis during ad limina meetings in Rome last week. (Servizio Fotografico Vaticano photo)

The so-called “quinquennial visit ad limina apostolorum” — or, briefly, ad limina — is not a familiar household term, though it describes what is very much an extended family gathering, not different from Thanksgiving. It is one thing to exchange communications, whether postal or electronic. It is another to sit in a circle, with feet under the same table, and talk face to face.

When bishops from the eight dioceses of New York State — in Canon Law, known as the “province” of New York (co-extensive with Region II of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or USCCB) — gathered in Rome last week, it was to present a five-year (quinquennial) report to the Holy Father and his many administrative offices, or dicasteries, at the Vatican, known popularly as the Roman curia. Our own diocesan quinquennial report had been prepared months ago by our able and dedicated staff and sent ahead. But our pilgrimage to Rome was so much more than a review of statistical and pastoral data. 

I say “pilgrimage” because our time was truly prayerful, reflective and spiritually affirming. Each day we celebrated Mass together in one of the important sites where thousands of pilgrims to Rome come to celebrate their faith, namely, at major basilicas, such as St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls and, of course, the tomb of St. Peter himself. We were hosted one evening for Mass and dinner by the faculty and students of the North American College (NAC), where we currently have two seminarians, Matthew Duclos and Stephen Yusko.

Our meeting with Pope Francis on Friday, Nov. 15, was, of course, the highpoint for all of us, but before that we had meetings with many dicasteries, each of which are charged with important matters in the governance and pastoral care of the universal Church. So, for example, there are so-called Congregations for Bishops, Clergy, the Causes of the Saints, and for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Other agencies focus on education, persons in consecrated life, ecumenical and Interreligious matters and the protection of minors. The evening before our meeting with Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, hosted a lively discussion at the papal palaces.

The main purpose of the visit was to strengthen our bond with the Holy See, our communion or fraternity and our collegial or collaborative activities. Whatever we may have individually anticipated from past experiences or hearsay — this was my first — the encounters went far deeper and, I think, were more mutually affirming than any of us could have hoped for.

Sometimes the presence of interpreters came in handy but conversation flowed naturally and freely. Pope Francis said right at the start, as we sat in a circle around him in a beautiful, stately room of the palazzo — there were no business-like tables, mikes or notepads to impede here — that we should speak freely and from the heart. He himself had no prepared address nor did any of us deliver one. 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan had asked Bishop John Barres (Rockville Centre) shortly before the meeting to moderate the expression of various areas of concern from the individual bishops, those matters on which different bishops have been particularly active, such as education, immigration, the protection of minors and relations with non-Catholics, for example. We all spoke from our experience and passions. And it was clear the Holy Father was listening.

One of the two newly appointed bishop-candidates from the Archdiocese of New York asked Pope Francis if he had any advice for us in our roles as bishops. His answer was clear and spontaneous: be fathers and brothers to your priests and your people. He stressed four specific relationships, the first being with God in prayer: How often throughout each day are you praying? Then with our priests: if they call, answer right away or, if not, then at least the next day. Our closeness to our people comes next and in three ways. We walk ahead, with and behind them, depending on their needs and directions. Leadership means showing the way sometimes, but most often this is by walking side by side, where he humorously tweaked his nose to reference his signature “smell of the sheep” image. At times, however, the shepherd can step behind, if the flock seems to be following a safe path on their own, but always attentive to those who stray or if the flock itself loses the way. Finally, the Pope returned to the priests — as a fraternal communion — and urged the bishops to stay close to them as a body.

Throughout the conversation, Pope Francis displayed a tremendous sense of gratitude and empathy for the bishops and their people in all of the challenges and suffering they are facing in these tough times. He singled out the courageous witness of the American bishops in their defense of human life at all its stages, taking note of their strong stance on abortion. He shared two questions that he says he often asks of those who take issue with the consistency and radical equality of our defense of human life in all of its stages — two questions that no one ever answers. The first: is it ever okay to take the life of another human being who is an inconvenience to you? The second: is it ever okay to hire a “hit man” (his words) to rid you of another who is an inconvenience to you? No one ever answers, he gestured as he zipped his finger over his lips.

Pope Francis’s personal presence to the poor and marginalized is, as one bishop noted to him, the witness of a life that is a “living Gospel.” When the bishop recalled one of his first trips was to Lampedusa, the site of the tragic shipwreck of a boat loaded with refugees, Pope Francis simply said he felt this was only his duty. He admitted that he does not always understand fully our uniquely American social and organizational priorities, cautioning against a “congregationalism” in our ecclesial practice that might underestimate and undervalue both the role of the bishops and the charisms and expertise of laypersons, which must be discerned and distinguished. As a few bishops noticed, Pope Francis very much reflects his Jesuit learning and experience.

One of the Cardinals in our dialogue at the headquarters of his Congregation remarked how much the Holy Father is committed to encouraging people to ask questions, even if they do not agree with all that we teach or even believe in God. Such conversations have left him personally vulnerable to inaccurate accounts or misguided readings of what actually transpired. It is apparently a risk he is willing to take in his commitment to accompaniment and an example that he wishes to set for all pastors of souls. This does not preclude their corrective or disciplinary tasks, which must be exercised with charity and moderation but with clarity and discernment. Not an easy task these days, if it ever was.

For our part, we as a body of bishops, acknowledged where we have failed to communicate adequately to the Holy See, our own people and to the general public. Such shortcomings include not only a convincing demonstration of transparency and accountability, but also the dissemination of positive news and progress in organizational development and pastoral works. Overall, despite the gravity and difficulty of the matters we discussed, we felt a strong sense that Pope Francis really “gets it” — that is to say, grasps and appreciates what is closest to our hearts and the people we serve. This left us all with a feeling of encouragement and downright joy.

One final question — I don’t remember who asked it or what exactly was asked, but it was something like, “what keeps you up at night” — drew out a compelling reflection from Pope Francis on his prime concern for the family and family life. So much of his prayer and action, and the messages he conveys in his writings, preaching and example, focus on his fundamental dedication to the support of families, particularly the mutually supportive roles of parents to one another and their children. It is no accident that he created a new dicastery for the Roman curia for the Laity, Family and Life (Aug. 15, 2016) and the broad reach of its mission to explore and develop the charisms and talents of laity, especially through the gift of marital sacramentality and personal complementarity. As Cardinal Dolan reflected, having in mind the American penchant for focusing on the individual (“it’s all about ME”), the human person, made in the image of a Trinitarian God, exists for the other. This is particularly needed right now in an age when clashing polarities and the manipulation of masses challenge our need for human civility.

Our week, however, was much more than a “civil” dialogue or even a meeting of minds. Pope Francis and his team — if I may call it that — extended themselves with great energy and congeniality, taking the time also to meet with the seminarians from our dioceses and those members of our staff and associates who traveled to Rome with us.

I wish we did not have to wait another five years for this to happen. I hope in the meantime to bring back to Albany the passion and spirit with which our Holy Father serves us all as the spiritual father of our human and church families. I thank God for the gift of this time and pray that my pastoral mission and service may demonstrate its fruits.