According to ancient custom and church law, a bishop must make a pilgrimage to Rome every five years to pray at the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. In current practice, the bishops of a region come to Rome to fulfill their pilgrimage obligation together and to meet over a week with the Holy Father and with officials of the Roman Curia. These visits ad limina apostolorum (“to the threshold of the apostles”) embody both the collegiality of the world episcopate with the Bishop of Rome and the Pope’s sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, his “care for all the churches.”
John Paul II has characteristically expanded the opportunities for interaction between the Pope and the visiting bishops on these occasions. Previously, a bishop’s only encounter with the Pope during an ad limina visit would be a ten- minute audience. Each ad limina visit in this pontificate has four papal events: a one-on-one meeting with the Pope; a group meeting between the bishops of a region and the Pope, including a papal discourse; a Mass with the visiting bishops in the Pope’s private chapel; and a meal with the visiting bishops, usually lunch, in the papal apartment.
Since 1995, the papal discourse to the visiting bishops has not been delivered personally, but is given to each bishop in an individually-addressed envelope after the group Mass. These discourses are an interesting window into the mind of the Holy Father as he thinks about the Church’s situation in a given country. This year, during a dozen meetings with groups of American bishops making their ad limina visits, the Holy Father has chosen to reflect on the reception of Vatican II in the Church in the United States, taking a different conciliar text as the basis for each discourse.
Meeting with the bishops of New York State on February 27, the Pope described the Council as the “extraordinary ecclesial event of recent times” and its documents as “the fundamental point of reference for the Church’s understanding of herself and her mission in this period of history.” Like Jesus Christ, whose mission she continues in history, the Church’s task is the same yesterday, today, and forever: to satisfy the “yearning for salvation” in every human heart. “The great truth to be proclaimed in this and every age,” the Pope said, “is that God has entered human history so that men and women can truly become children of God.”
According to the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine revelation, God did not reveal propositions about God: God revealed himself. To meet the living God is to enter into a personal relationship with the creator and redeemer of the world. Thus Holy Scripture, a privileged place of encounter with God, “is not merely a ‘text’ to be analyzed; it is above all an invitation to communion with the Lord.” Biblical scholarship helps the Church break open the truths contained in Holy Scripture. But the Bible remains the people’s book, and it can best be understood when read in the context of “a vigorous spiritual life within the believing community.”
The Holy Father then described the “deep spiritual hunger” inside modern culture, a hunger that cannot be assuaged by philosophies which deny “that we can never know the truth of things.” The bishops of the United States, he noted, live in a culture in which the “very idea of authoritative teaching” is viewed with suspicion. Surrounded by skepticism, Christians — even bishops — can begin to think of the Church as marginal to contemporary life: one option among other life-style options in a supermarket of religions. But that assumption drains the Church of its evangelical energy; it leads to a defensive bunker, not to mission.
The Holy Father reminded the bishops that “the Church is sent to the world with a proposal: and the evangelical proposal we make is that the world can understand its history and its aspirations most adequately, most truthfully, through the Gospel.” The Council was not against modernity; the Council “positioned the Church to engage modernity with the truth about the human condition, given to us in Jesus Christ…the answer to the question that is every human life.” If this is the truth we proclaim, the Pope concluded, “then the Church is never marginal…”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.