Pope Benedict XVI greets Bishop Hubbard (L'Osservatore Romano photo).
Pope Benedict XVI greets Bishop Hubbard (L'Osservatore Romano photo).
TUES., NOV. 22

Today, I began my journey from Albany to Rome for my "ad limina" visit. The Latin phrase "ad limina" means "to the thresholds" - more specifically, to the tombs of the Apostle Peter, whom Jesus chose to be the "rock upon whom He would build His Church;" and the Apostle Paul, the Apostle "out of season," who, after many years of persecuting Christians, underwent a miraculous conversion in Damascus and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul suffered a martyr's death in Rome during the first century A.D.

For many centuries, bishops from throughout the world have traveled to Rome to be reminded of our roots as successors to the Apostles. This will be my seventh ad limina experience (1978, '83, '88, '93, '98 and 2004).

Ordinarily, the ad limina visit takes place every five years. However, due to the fact that no ad limina visits took place during the Holy Year 2000, and given the death of Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the transition to his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, it has been seven years since the American bishops have had such visits.

Report to Rome
Prior to the visit itself, a voluminous report must be made to the various offices (congregations and councils) of the Holy See about the state of the Diocese since the last visit. The report includes information about liturgical and sacramental participation; faith formation; evangelization; Catholic school education at the elementary, secondary and higher levels; Catholic health care and social services; the status of the presbyterate, the diaconate, religious life and lay ministry formation; and pastoral planning, as well as the vocation picture and the social and economic conditions within the Diocese. I also invited our Presbyteral Council and Diocesan Pastoral Council to offer their perspective on the Diocese.

Preparing this report is a huge, painstaking process. I am grateful to all who assisted me in developing it, especially Sister Nola Brunner, CSJ, our vicar for religious and diocesan archivist, who facilitated the entire undertaking, the results of which were forwarded to the Vatican in June.

The bishops attend these ad limina visits by region. There are 15 ecclesial regions in the United States: 14 geographically based and one representing the Eastern Catholic Churches throughout the United States. Due to its large Catholic population and geographical size, New York is the only single state that is a region unto itself.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York served as the head of our delegation and was accompanied by his predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop Emeritus of New York, as well as the seven New York diocesan bishops and the auxiliary and retired bishops who chose to attend.

Group departs
In total, there are 20 who were participating in this ad limina experience, along with a few priests who accompanied their bishop. Most of us flew from JFK airport in New York City on Tuesday evening, arriving in the Eternal City on Wednesday morning after an eight-and-a-half-hour flight.

We were greeted at Rome's Fiumicino airport by Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo of the Pontifical North American College, who had arranged bus transportation to our lodging at the Casa O'Toole.

The College and the Casa O'Toole are located on the Geniculum, one of the seven hills of Rome, which offers a magnificent view of St. Peter's Basilica. There are 254 seminarians presently studying at the college who attend classes at one of the pontifical universities in the city.

Arriving at the North American College was like a homecoming, since I lived there from 1960-64 during my theological studies. I also resided at the college during all six previous ad limina visits, as well as for the 1975 Holy Year, the 1980 beatification of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Episcopal ordinations of Bishops Matthew Clark and John Nolan - priests of our Diocese of Albany who were ordained bishops for the diocese of Rochester and the Military Ordinariate, respectively.

The chapel, with its beautiful mosaic of Our Lady of the Angels; the splendid fountains in the cortile surrounded by orange trees; the coat of arms of the Dioceses of the United States which line the walls of the main corridor; and the Via dei Pini (The Way of the Pines, which circles the college) are all familiar sites which evoke wonderful memories.

Remembering youth
During my student days in Rome, the Casa O'Toole was known as the Casa San Giovani, and served as the convent for the Swiss women religious who staffed the domestic needs of the faculty and seminarians.

The convent superior was Madre Pasqualina, who had served as the housekeeper for Pope Pius XII during his days as apostolic nuncio to Germany and throughout his 21-year pontificate. She was well attuned to Pius' needs and wishes and watched over him attentively, especially during the years of his declining health. So influential was she in providing access to the papal chambers that she became the subject of a biography titled, "La Popessa."

Most recently, the Casa, which is situated on a knoll behind the college, has been converted to serve as a residence for priests attending the Institute for Continuing Theological Education, a three-month sabbatical program offered under the auspices of the college.

Rev. Jim Belogi, pastor of St. Madeleine Sophie parish in Guilderland, finished his sabbatical program the day before we bishops arrived and will be doing some travel in Europe before arriving home in December.

Although I lived adjacent to the Casa for four years when it served as a convent, I had never darkened its doors. Immediately after World War II, prior to its existence as a convent, the Casa served as the residence for priest graduate students from the United States. Msgr. Edward Glavin, who later served as a professor at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, as vicar for religious in our Diocese and as pastor of St. Mary's parish in Amsterdam, was the first vice-rector of the post-World-War-II graduate house.

I can't testify to what this facility looked like in its previous incarnations, but presently it is a very gracious, four-story building with 34 suites, including a terrace view of St. Peter's Basilica and a chapel, refectory, lounge and classrooms - all wi-fi equipped.

Begin with prayer
After unpacking, we enjoyed a fine meal in the seminary dining room. Later in the afternoon, the members of our delegation gathered for an organizational meeting.

The opening prayer set both the tone and the hope for our mission: "Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: You are the source of all life, salvation and holiness. We pray to You as we begin our pilgrimage 'to the threshold' of the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. May this be a time of blessing for us, for our dioceses and for our country.

"May our visit with the Holy Father, the chief shepherd of Your flock, and with the offices of the Holy See under his care, be a time of grace and blessing. Together with the Holy Father, may we grow in love of the truth of Your Gospel and reaffirm our dedication to serve Your Church in love.

"May we return to our dioceses refreshed to continue to guide your people with the strength and vitality of your Holy Spirit and so lead them to eternal life with You and all the saints."

With this prayerful reflection and time then spent in a holy hour, we all looked forward to a productive visit and a good night's sleep after a long day of travel.


On this Thanksgiving Day, I awoke fresh after a sound sleep to a gorgeous, sun-splashed morning. The Thanksgiving Mass at the college will be followed by Thanksgiving dinner; however, since all except the bishops from the Archdiocese of New York are to meet with the Holy Father at 11 a.m., we concelebrated Mass at 9 a.m., led by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn.

We remembered the tradition of our pilgrim forebearers in expressing their gratitude to God for the blessings of their harvest and who invited Native Americans to share in their Thanksgiving feast. I offered this Mass for the people of our Diocese, that God will bless all with health and well-being during these difficult economic times for our nation.

As we rode the bus to the Vatican Palace for our meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, there was in my mind's eye a view of my previous ad limina interactions with the successor of Peter.

Pope Paul VI
The first visit was in the spring of 1978 with Pope Paul VI, who had appointed me as Bishop of our Albany Diocese. He was in frail health at the time and only met with us as a group. He offered an uplifting elocution, but the fragility of the aging process and the burdens of the papacy were evident in his slow demeanor and lined brow.

He had the herculean task of bringing to completion the Second Vatican Council inaugurated by his predecessor, Blessed Pope John XXIII, and implementing the norms and reforms the council generated.

It is one thing to convene a council, quite another to guide the universal Church through the theological, liturgical and structural changes that the council called for:

• to shift from the Mass and sacramental celebrations all in Latin to the vernacular, with the altar now facing the congregation and greater lay roles and involvement;

• the shift from a hierarchical model of the Church - where the role of the clergy and religious was to teach, govern and sanctify and the role of the laity was to be taught, ruled and sanctified - to the "people of God" understanding of the Church, where the primary sacrament is not ordination or the vowed life but baptism, with its emphasis that all the members of the Church are called to holiness and ministry within their respective states of life;

• the change involving our understanding of religious liberty and the call for dialogue and prayer with our Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and other brothers and sisters of various religious traditions; and

• the emphasis of the Church not to be aloof from the political and economic life of society, but to seed it with the Gospel message and the Church's social teaching.

With such a major and dramatic shift, there were extremes, from those who vehemently resisted the changes to those who sought to extend beyond what was intended by the Council Fathers. Pope Paul had to serve as the arbiter of these various interpretations and to foster unity in diversity.

His was not an easy task and the burden wore heavily on his shoulders. However, he handled the challenge with great wisdom, grace, insight, courage, patience and perseverance. He died four months after our ad limina visit; and history, I believe, will judge his stewardship in those tumultuous days to be among the greatest in the history of the papacy.

Pope John Paul II
My next five ad limina visits were with Blessed Pope John Paul II. I can recall vividly the contrast between the vibrant, energetic pilgrim pope and the frail shell of a man suffering from Parkinson's disease whom I encountered in 2004, obviously in the final stages of his 27-year pontificate.

What a storied papacy he exercised: forging all kinds of ecumenical and interfaith relationships; preaching the moral, social and spiritual vision that fueled those movements which led to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism; promoting the teaching of the Church on economics, labor, immigration and the relationship between faith, reason and science; proclaiming the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of life at every moment from conception to natural death; and, especially, witnessing by his own life to the power of forgiveness (as he reached out to his would-be assassin, Ali Agca) and to the value of redemptive suffering.

It is no wonder that he was so quickly beatified and already is heralded as "Pope John Paul the Great."

In retrospect, what a thrill it is to recall my encounters with him during the five ad limina visits: meeting with him alone for 15 to 20 minutes, talking about our Diocese and the Church in the United States; dining with him at the papal household as he engaged in lively conversation with five or six bishop guests; concelebrating Mass in his private chapel and listening to his ad limina address to our delegation - which, when coupled with those given to other regions, constituted his quinquennial message to the people of the United States.

My meetings with Blessed Pope John Paul II were truly unforgettable encounters. He was a man of great strength, courage, unswerving conviction and a deep spirituality which were both powerful and truly contagious.

Benedict's differences
The format devised for meeting with Pope Benedict is somewhat different, but equally engaging. We arrived at the Papal Palace through the Cortile of St. Damasus and were greeted by the Swiss Guards with their distinctive blue, yellow and red uniforms, fluffy white collars and black berets.

At the elevator, several Gentlemen of His Holiness in their gray tuxedos welcomed us and led us through the beautiful Renaissance marble hallways, flanked by magnificent art and tapestries, to the waiting room for our audience with Pope Benedict.

In this room, there hung a painting of Christ by the world-renowned artist El Greco, and also frescoes of the Apostles Peter and Paul and a bronze statue of Pope John XXIII, kneeling in prayer.

Pope John XXIII
This, too, evoked strong memories, because Pope John XXIII was the supreme pontiff during most of my seminary days in Rome, and I frequently had the privilege of attending his liturgies.

Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli, was a man of peasant stock from Bergamo in northern Italy. Prior to becoming pope, he served as the priest-secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo, a military chaplain during World War I, a member of the diplomatic corps with postings as an ambassador to the Balkans, Turkey and France.

During World War II, he worked behind the scenes, creating false baptismal certificates which secured the rescue of many Jews. In the mid-1950s, he was appointed the patriarch of Venice and, in 1959, elected by the College of Cardinals to succeed Pope Pius XII.

Given his age - in his late 70s - he was expected to be a "caretaker pope" following the tumultuous, two-decade reign of his predecessor. Much to the surprise of all, he convoked the Second Vatican Council to usher in an age of "aggiornamento," opening the doors of the Church to fresh air and a new spring.

While he died in 1963 before the completion of the council, John XXIII unleashed a renewal within the Church, the fruit of which continues to be the guiding vision for the Church today.

I have fond recollections of his being carried down the main aisle of St. Peter's Basilica, clinging to the sedia gestatoria (a portable papal throne borne on the shoulders of 12 attendants) with a death grip. Stout, homely, with the hugest set of ears I've ever seen, nonetheless he radiated an incandescent warmth, love, joy and humility that touched deeply the hearts and spirits of all in his presence.

Pope John XXIII's spiritual diary, "The Journal of a Soul," has had a profound impact on my own priestly life and I look forward to his canonization.

The format of the visit with Pope Benedict is different than with Pope John Paul II. Instead of meeting with each diocesan bishop separately, he chooses to meet in a small-group setting. Our delegation was divided into three groups: the upstate bishops, the bishops of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre (Long Island), and the bishops from the Archdiocese of New York.

Upstate bishops meet
Our upstate group - Bishops Edward Kmiec and Edward Grosz of Buffalo, Matthew Clark of Rochester, Robert Cunningham of Syracuse, Terry LaValley of Ogdensburg and myself - was the first to meet with His Holiness in the papal library. He greeted each of us warmly and immediately put us at ease.

I had met him several other times when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he served as a prefect for the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this responsibility, he had primary oversight of fidelity to the teaching of the Church's magisterium and to upholding its traditions.

Previous meetings with him were always cordial, interactive and informative. I was always impressed by his intelligence, his openness to listening and his fraternal concern. Today's meeting was not to disappoint on this score.

After introducing ourselves, Pope Benedict stated that the meetings with bishops like us expressed the universality of the Church, the bond that we bishops have with the successor of Peter, and allowed him to hear firsthand the challenges and opportunities we experience in our local dioceses.

Describing challenges
He asked each of us to describe what was happening in our own dioceses. We upstate New York bishops stated that we have a lot of common concerns: the impact of the economic recession, declining vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and shifting demographics leading to the closing, merging or consolidation of parishes.

We discussed the challenges of secularism and moral relativism which have contributed to a decline in Mass attendance and sacramental participation, as well as the growing phenomenon of cohabitation and the redefinition of marriage.

We also underscored the serious negative impact clergy sex abuse has had upon the Church, both in terms of the long-term trauma it has created for the abused and their families, and the way in which it has eroded the moral authority of bishops.

Plus side
On a more positive note, we mentioned the deep faith of those who remain active in the Church, our efforts to promote outreach to youth and strengthen family life, the contributions of our Catholic schools and colleges and our commitment to respond to Pope Benedict's own call for a new evangelization.

Specifically, I mentioned my interaction last week with more than 23,000 teens throughout the country, including nearly 200 from our own Diocese, at the National Catholic Youth Conference held in Indianapolis; and I mentioned our three-year "Amazing God" evangelization initiative, with its focus on the love of God, the heart of Christ and the movement of the Spirit in our lives.

Before concluding our meeting, we thanked His Holiness for his pastoral leadership of the Church universal, especially his encyclicals - "Deus Caritas Est" ("God is Love"), "Spe Salvi" ("On Christian Hope") and "Caritas In Veritate" ("Charity in Truth") - and his two-part series on Jesus of Nazareth.

We assured him of the prayers and admiration of the people of our Diocese. What a wonderful Thanksgiving gift!

After returning to the college, we joined with the seminarians and faculty for a delightful Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and all the trimmings (including, of course, a dish of pasta, which is a sine qua non for any Italian meal).

At the meal, I was seated with a woman religious from the Verbum Dei community in San Francisco who was completing her degree in Scripture at the Biblicum University, and a lay woman from New York City who had been sent by Archbishop Dolan to obtain her degree in canon law at the Sancta Cruce University.

Ambassador Miguel Diaz, the U.S. envoy to the Vatican, joined us with his family and read the 2011 Thanksgiving proclamation from President Barack Obama. A further reminder of Thanksgiving at home was the fact that several of the seminarians had organized and completed a Turkey Trot race.

After dinner, along with three other bishops, I took a two-and-a-half-hour walk to the Piazza Navona (my favorite), which was being decorated festively for the Christmas holidays (just like Black Friday) and to the Piazza Minerva, the Pantheon, with its incredible history as a pagan temple converted to a Catholic church, then back to the Via della Conciliazione, the Grand Boulevard leading to St. Peter's Basilica where we will celebrate Mass tomorrow at 7 a.m.

We topped off the day with a delicious cup of cappuccino gelato.

FRI., NOV. 25

We began the first of our visits to the major Roman basilicas with Mass at the Tomb of Peter beneath the main basilica. Bishop Edward Kmiec of Buffalo was the principal celebrant and homilist.

He mentioned how privileged he was to offer Mass at St. Peter's, because he was ordained in the basilica 50 years ago at the altar of Peter's Chair. Rev. Jim Mackey of our Albany Diocese was also ordained at that same ritual, for which I served as master of ceremonies.

I noted that the antependium of the altar featured a sculpture of St. Peter being crucified upside down - a reminder that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith. Peter shared in Christ's crucifixion and remains the rock upon which our one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church is built. We concluded the Mass by chanting the Nicene Creed in Latin.

On entering the basilica, I passed by the tomb of Pope John XXIII and recalled that today is his birthday.

Office visits
Following Mass, we began a round of visits to the various Vatican offices. Our first encounter was with the Congregation for Bishops, located on the Via della Conciliazione immediately facing St. Peter's Basilica. This Congregation is under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, formerly the Archbishop of Quebec, Canada.

We were greeted for our meeting by Msgr. Thomas Powers, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, now on the staff of the Congregation.

Cardinal Ouellet introduced our meeting by expressing his delight at the recent study conducted by Rev. Stephen Rossetti of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., which revealed that 92 percent of priests in the United States are happy with their ministry and would choose their vocation again if they had their life to live over.

Interestingly, Time magazine lists priests as the group among a wide variety of occupations whose members rate the highest in job satisfaction.

The cardinal emphasized the importance of the bishop giving priority attention to his priests through personal interaction, retreats, days of recollection and priesthood convocations.

It was noted by the bishops of our delegation that most priests individually report they are happy and fulfilled in their ministry. However, most believe that the morale of others within their presbyterate is considerably lower.

This is something we bishops must be most attentive to, because if priests are unhappy, the entire Church suffers. Furthermore, priests are the primary role models for priestly vocations, and if their morale does not appear upbeat, it has a negative impact on promoting vocations to the ordained priesthood.

NYC seminaries
Archbishop Dolan of New York, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre reported how their three dioceses just completed a study which will combine their three seminaries into a unified system, with all college seminarians studying at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Brooklyn and all theology students at my alma mater for philosophy, St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. The seminary for Rockville Centre will become a center for ongoing clergy education.

There will now be a common admission process for candidates from these dioceses. The Rockville Centre seminary will also provide formation for deacons and lay ministers, with an emphasis on the new evangelization being called for by Pope Benedict.

There was also discussion about how best to help international priests become more integrated into the life of their respective presbyterates and inculturated to our societal milieu.

Anti-bishop issue
In citing the challenges we face, some bishops mention an anti-bishop mentality which is quite prevalent in the United States. Those on the far right believe bishops are too tentative in the exercise of authority and those on the left believe them to be bullies. There is also a growing congregationalism, wherein parishioners fail to appreciate the relationship of their parish to the diocese and to the Church universal.

Listening to these observations, Cardinal Ouellet opined that we bishops must suffer the extremes. He stated the challenge is not so much personal as structural.

He noted, as well, that the response of bishops to the clergy abuse issue has undermined episcopal authority. Unfortunately, while the story of cover-up or lack of transparency is well documented, the measures we bishops have taken to address the problem since our 2002 meeting in Dallas - background checks of all clergy, religious and laity working with youth; safe environment training, signed codes of conduct; and reporting of all allegations to civil authorities - are far less known and appreciated. It will take much more time for healing, outreach to victims and accountability to our people before this trust is restored.

On parish closings
Our next visit was to the Congregation for the Clergy, where Cardinal Mauro Piacenza serves as the prefect. Strange as it may seem, the Congregation for the Clergy is the first Court of Appeal when a parish is closed, merged or reconfigured.

The cardinal stated that his Congregation, along with the Congregation for Bishops, will soon be publishing a study on the restructuring of parishes. He underscored how there must be extensive consultation with parishioners to be affected, and with the Presbyteral Council, before any decisions can be made.

Cardinal Piacenza also emphasized that the assets of the closed parish must remain within the local community, and, if a parish or school are converted to other uses, insofar as is possible, they should be made available for social or charitable purposes.

This discussion was of great interest to the bishops present, because six of our seven dioceses in New York State are or will be involved extensively in making difficult decisions through the process of pastoral planning.

Cardinal Piacenza indicated that his Congregation is preparing another instruction on the merger of parishes, highlighting the role that the ordained priest must play in whatever reconfiguration takes place.

Women religious
Our next visit was at the Congregation for Religious and Institutes of Consecrated Life. Most of our discussion at this meeting dealt with the Vatican visitation of women religious in the United States. This has been an immense undertaking, trying to assess the reality of nearly 60,000 women religious living the apostolic life.

Archbishop Joseph Tobin, a member of the Redemptorist community, explained that the visitation has taken place in four phases:

• The initial meetings were held between Mother Mary Clare Millea, who was appointed by the Holy Father to conduct the visitation, and the leaders of the Major Superiors of Women in the United States.

• Based on these preliminary discussions, a questionnaire was prepared and submitted to all religious communities and diocesan bishops.

• On-site visitation of selected religious communities was conducted primarily by women religious.

• A written report was developed, to be issued by the Congregation to both major bodies representing the women religious in the United States (the Leadership Conference for Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious).

Archbishop Tobin, undersecretary for the Congregation and its prefect, Archbishop Joao Braz de Aviz from Brazil, who is seen by some as the next pope, have only recently been appointed to the Congregation and were not involved in planning for or conducting the visitation. However, I believe Archbishop Tobin - as an American and a former provincial in the Redemptorist community - has a firm grasp on the enormous contributions women religious have made to the Church in the United States in the areas of education, faith formation, health care, human services and spiritual development.

I am confident he will present a report that reflects this tremendous ministry and guides communities of women religious to a manner of apostolic service that addresses well contemporary realities.

Family life
Our final visit of the day was to the Pontifical Council for Families headed by Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, the former Archbishop of Florence. The cardinal was most amiable and energetic. He acknowledged the many strains marriage and family are undergoing throughout the world, especially in the West.

Cardinal Antonelli reminded us that this was the 30th anniversary of the pastoral letter "Familaris Consortio" (on the role of the Christian family), which Pope John Paul II issued as a post-synod instruction following the 1980 Synod of the Family.

The cardinal explained the hope that a renewed effort to recapture the vision of this document - coupled with a worldwide celebration of the family to be held in Milan, Italy, from May 30-June 3, at which Pope Benedict and more than 800,000 people are expected to participate, attending workshops, conferences and liturgies - will spark a deeper appreciation of the universal heritage of the family and enrich the call family members have to holiness and to witness both to the possibility of intact marriages and to the joy of the family as a community of life and love.

When we arrived back from the college, the Swiss Guards were just finishing a soccer game on the college's well-groomed campo sportivo.

SAT., NOV. 26

This morning, we have a formal audience with His Holiness Pope Benedict. Although there will be 15 ad limina visits, the Holy Father will only give the address to five of these groups. These five addresses taken together will constitute his pastoral message to the bishops and people of the United States.

We gathered in the aula, where, traditionally, the consistory for making new cardinals is conducted, approved and announced. This aula, along with the others in the Vatican palace, have been handsomely refurbished by the prefect of the papal household, Archbishop James Harvey of Milwaukee.

Upon the pope's arrival, our metropolitan, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, extended greetings on behalf of our delegation, thanking His Holiness for the group meetings we had earlier in the week and for his leadership and fraternal support.

Roots in Diocese
The archbishop reminded the Holy Father of the roots of the faith in New York State with the mission of the Jesuits Isaac Jogues, John LaLande and Rene Goupil, who were martyred at Auriesville in our Diocese, and the conversion of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, which took place on the banks of the Mohawk River near Fonda.

Archbishop Dolan enumerated, as well, faith figures in the history of New York State like Pierre Toussaint of New York City, St. John Neumann of Buffalo, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton of New York City, Rev. Nelson Baker of Buffalo, St. Mary Ann Cope of Syracuse, Mother Frances Cabrini of Brooklyn and Dorothy Day of Staten Island, who were such great witnesses to the Christian life and whose legacy continues to be an inspiration for Catholics today.

Archbishop Dolan concluded his brief greeting by acknowledging that, while the Church in New York State has great challenges, we also have rich blessings of wonderful priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful who are fervent disciples, relying upon trust in God as a foundation for their pilgrim journey here on earth.

The Holy Father looked more refreshed than at our meeting on Thursday, probably having recovered from his three-day trip earlier in the week to Benin, Africa. He offered his initial observations based upon what he had heard from the first two ad limina visits.

In his address, Pope Benedict noted that our ad limina meetings are the first since his 2008 pastoral visit to the United States, which was intended to encourage the Catholics of America in the wake of the scandal and disorientation caused by the sexual abuse crisis of recent decades.

Benedict speaks
The Holy Father stated that he wished to acknowledge personally the suffering inflicted on the victims of sexual abuse and their families and the honest efforts being made by dioceses both to ensure the safety of our children and to deal appropriately and transparently with allegations as they arise.

He expressed his hope that the Church's conscientious efforts to confront this reality will help the broader community to recognize the causes, true extent and devastating consequences of sexual abuse, and to respond effectively to this scourge which affects every level of society.

By the same token, he stated that just as the Church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards.

The Pope underscored that a second, equally important purpose of his 2008 pastoral visit to the United States was to summon the Church in America to recognize, in light of a dramatically changing social and religious landscape, the urgency and demands of a new evangelization.

In continuity with this aim, he indicated that in the coming months, he will be presenting a number of reflections which he hopes we bishops will find helpful for the discernment we are called to make in our task of leading the Church into the future which Christ is opening up for us.

While the pope stated that many of us have shared with him our concern about the grave challenges to a consistent Christian witness presented by an increasingly secularized society, he considers it significant that there is also an increased sense of concern on the part of many men and women, whatever their religious or political views, for the future of our democratic societies.

They see a troubling breakdown in the intellectual, cultural and moral foundations of social life, and a growing sense of dislocation and insecurity, especially among the young, in the face of wide-ranging societal changes.

Church as prophet
Despite attempts to still the Church's voice in the public square, Pope Benedict said that many people of good will continue to look to the Church for wisdom, insight and sound guidance in meeting this far-reaching crisis.

Thus, he opines, the present moment can be seen, in positive terms, as a summons to exercise the prophetic dimension of our episcopal ministry by speaking out, humbly yet insistently, in defense of moral truth, and offering a word of hope, capable of opening hearts and minds to the truth that sets us free.

At the same time, the obstacles to Christian faith and practice raised by a secularized culture cannot be underestimated, because they affect the lives of believers, leading at times to a "quiet attrition" from the Church.

Immersed in this culture, believers are daily beset by the objections, the troubling questions and the cynicism of a society which seems to have lost its roots, by a world in which the love of God has grown cold in so many hearts.

Hence, the pope insists that evangelization be not simply a task to be undertaken ad extra (to others); we ourselves are the first to need re-evangelization.

As with all spiritual crises, whether of individuals or communities, the Pope states, the ultimate answer can only be born of a searching, critical and ongoing self-assessment and conversion in the light of Christ's truth. Only through such interior renewal will we be able to discern and meet the spiritual needs of our age with the ageless truth of the Gospel.

Applauding progress
At this point in his address, Benedict expressed his appreciation for the real progress which the American bishops have made, individually and as a Conference, in responding to these issues and in working together to articulate a common pastoral vision - the fruits of which can be seen, for example, in our recent documents on "Faithful Citizenship," reminding Catholics of the need to vote in accordance with Christian values, and on the institution of marriage.

The Pope also noted that tomorrow, the first Sunday of Advent, the Church in the United States will be implementing the revised translation of the Roman Missal. He expressed his hope that this new translation will inspire an ongoing catechesis which emphasizes the true nature of the liturgy and, above all, the unique value of Christ's saving sacrifice for the redemption of the world.

He pointed out that a weakened sense of the meaning and importance of Christian worship can only lead to a weakened sense of the specific and essential vocation of the laity to imbue the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel.

In the final analysis, the Pope stated that the renewal of the Church's witness to the Gospel in the United States is essentially linked to the recovery of a shared vision and sense of mission by the entire Catholic community. He raised, in particular, the importance of Catholic universities and the signs of a renewed sense of their ecclesial mission, as attested to by the discussions marking the 10th anniversary of the Apostolic Constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" ("From the Heart of the Church," Blessed Pope John Paul II's document on Catholic higher education), and such initiatives as the symposium recently held at Catholic University of America on the intellectual tasks of the new evangelization.

Young people, the Pope offered, have a right to hear clearly the Church's teaching and, most importantly, to be inspired by the coherence and beauty of the Christian message, so that they in turn can instill in their peers a deep love of Christ and His Church.

Message to all
Finally, the Pope with great affection commended us and the clergy, religious and lay faithful of our dioceses to the intercession of Mary Immaculate, patroness of the United States. And he imparted to us and to all whom we represent his apostolic blessing as a pledge of wisdom, strength and peace in the Lord.

After imparting his apostolic blessing, Pope Benedict again greeted each of us personally and presented each with a gold pectoral cross, which is a reproduction of the 14th-century cross located in the Church of St. Anselmo in Rome. The cross portrays Jesus being crucified with His mother, Mary, and St. John the Evangelist at his left and right, respectively.

Over the cross is a pelican, opening her breast to feed her young, symbolizing Christ pouring out His love for us. On the right arm of the cross is a portrayal of Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary; on the left arm, a portrayal of Jesus, the teacher; and on the bottom of the pectoral cross is a representation of Jesus' flagellation.