VATICAN CITY — For Pope Francis, the Year of Mercy will be
followed by the Year of the "Ad Limina" Visits.
As St. John Paul II did during the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope
Francis suspended for the Year of Mercy the formal visits bishops from around
the world make "ad limina apostolorum" — to the threshold of the
Apostles, meaning Peter and Paul, who were martyred in Rome.
And, the pope told reporters, skipping a year of meetings means
that he will travel less in 2017 and spend more time at the Vatican welcoming
his brother bishops and discussing with them the life of their local churches.
The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will travel to
Portugal May 12-13 for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of
Fatima. Plus, the pope said, he hopes to travel to Asia — specifically to India
and Bangladesh — during the year and to Africa, although the countries have not
been identified. The dates have not been set.
Before 2016 ended, though, more than 300 bishops from more than
20 countries already had dates set for their "ad limina" meetings
with Pope Francis in 2017. The Irish bishops will kick off the series in
January, followed by bishops from Serbia and other Balkan countries and then by
the first group of Canadian bishops.
The Canadian bishops have not made an "ad limina" visit
According to the Code of Canon Law, every five years "a
bishop is bound to make a report to the Supreme Pontiff on the state of the
diocese entrusted to him" and the report should be made in conjunction
with the "ad limina" visit.
But it has been at least 20 years since the visits really were
every five years. Most now occur every eight or nine years. With the growing
number of dioceses — now more than 2,850 — a pope would have to meet more than
570 bishops each year to hit the five-year target.
Brazilian Archbishop Ilson Montanari, secretary of the
Congregation for Bishops, said Dec. 15 that proposals to change canon law to
reflect that reality are considered regularly. But once the law changes, it
would set things in stone.
Someday, he said, a pope might be able to get things back on
schedule. St. John Paul II, who was elected at the age of 58, "was a
volcano at the beginning" and, even making long trips outside of Italy,
"was able to do it." He even celebrated morning Mass with the
bishops, invited them in small groups to lunch, met with each bishop
individually and then delivered a speech to each national or regional group.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI began the practice of holding more
informal meetings with groups of bishops on "ad limina" instead of
individual meetings. Pope Francis has continued that practice, although like
Pope Benedict, he also tries to grant the requests of individual bishops who
feel a need for a private meeting.
While a few bishops still send in a report every five years, as
canon law asks, Archbishop Montanari said most do so only in preparation for
their "ad limina" visit, which is arranged by the congregation along
with the Prefecture of the Papal Household.
The reports really are read, he said. "We use them to
prepare for our meeting with the bishops, but also to prepare a memorandum for
the pope on each diocese" to facilitate his meetings.
"This is work that is taken very seriously, especially
because there is an attempt to look behind the words and numbers, behind the
data, to see the living church, which is the most important thing," the
The goal of the "ad limina" visit, he said, always has
been that it would be an experience of collegiality, "an exchange of faith
and a witness," he said. The world's bishops have "never been 'branch
managers’" of the church and the meetings should reflect that.
Before air travel became very common, the "ad limina"
visits were a bishop's rare occasion to come to Rome and to have direct contact
with the pope, he said. Now, many bishops come regularly and, at the very
least, have a quick word with the pope at the end of his general audience.
But the formal visits still have a special character, Archbishop
Montanari said. They are occasions for an "exchange of gifts" with
the bishops being "confirmed in their faith" and encouraged in their
ministry by the pope and the pope being strengthened by the signs of how alive
the church is in various parts of the world.
"It's a consolation" for the pope to see how the Gospel
is being shared and lived because so often "the negative things are
accentuated" in the news and in what people choose to speak about, he
said. The bishops share problems with the pope, but they also explain "the
enormous good the church is accomplishing throughout the world."
The "ad limina" visits also are an opportunity for
groups of bishops from neighboring dioceses to make a pilgrimage together; the
visits include obligatory prayer at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, but
usually also include Masses in the major basilicas of Rome and other prayer
In addition, the bishops visit the offices of the Roman Curia,
which have read at least parts of the bishops' written reports. The segment of
a report dealing with vocations promotion and seminaries, for example, will be
forwarded in advance to the Congregation for Clergy, giving the visiting
bishops and congregation officials a chance to discuss issues of specific
concern to those bishops.
Pope Francis' packed "ad limina" schedule, therefore,
means busier schedules also for the Curia offices.
But, Archbishop Montanari said, especially for his office — which
helps the pope identify candidates to serve as bishops and which supports
bishops in their ministry — the visits are wonderful "because we see the
fruits of our work. Receiving them here, getting to know them, is very