By Francis X. Rocca
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Bishop Bernard A. Hebda of Gaylord, Mich., said he was not sure what to expect when he made his first “ad limina” visit to the Vatican in early February.
Together with other members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Region VI, which includes parts of Michigan and Ohio, Bishop Hebda — a bishop for a little more than two years — started his first full day in Rome at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, before the Altar of the Tomb of St. Peter.
That Mass was a “humbling experience but a real energizing moment as well,” Bishop Hebda said, “an opportunity for us to refocus what it is that we’re doing, reminding us that we’re part of an institution that’s been passing on the teaching of Christ for 2,000 years.”
The bishops’ periodic visits are formally called “ad limina apostolorum,” which means “to the thresholds of the apostles” Peter and Paul, who were martyred in Rome. Traditionally, the visits serve as an occasion for leaders of local churches to draw inspiration as well as guidance from the center of Catholicism.
A major topic of discussion this time was the message that Pope Benedict XVI sent in his speech to another group of visiting American bishops in January.
“Radical secularism” threatens the core values of American culture, the pope warned at that time, as he called on the church in the U.S., including politicians and other laypeople, to render “public moral witness” on crucial social issues.
Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit said that Vatican officials underscored the pope’s message.
“Everybody here is very attentive, they are watching what we do to defend the liberty of the church,” the archbishop said, “not just for freedom of worship, but that the church should be free to act for the common good.”
That freedom, he said, has particular salience in an election year.
“We run the country, we are a democracy,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “It’s always about the choices we make as the electorate.”
Looking ahead to this October’s Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization, the bishops discussed Pope Benedict’s call to present Catholicism in ways and terms compelling to contemporary society.
“The easiest group to reach is going to be the young people,” said Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati. “For adults, it’s going to be more challenging.
“Because of the turbulence after the Second Vatican Council, (the church) didn’t do such a good job of providing a good catechetical education for two generations of our people,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that they are not hungry for it.”
For Bishop Alexander K. Sample of Marquette, Mich., “the renewal of the sacred liturgy has to go hand-in-hand with the faith formation and the catechesis that we need for the new evangelization. … The liturgy is a vehicle, really, for the faith formation of our people.”
In meetings with Vatican officials, the bishops also raised local concerns. Bishop Sample said he urged the Congregation for Saints’ Causes to move forward with the cause of his diocese’s first bishop, Bishop Frederic Baraga, a 19th-century missionary who ministered to miners and Indians on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The visiting prelates also received counsel on practical matters, including the vexing issue of parish closings. Officials at the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature urged bishops to follow canon law with great care in carrying out such decisions.
“If, for example, a church is closed and the procedures have not been followed, then any single member of that parish community can make an appeal to the Holy See,” Archbishop Schnurr said. “The rights of the laity have to be respected.”
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