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Bishop Burbidge shares takeaways from ad limina visit to the Vatican

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VATICAN CITY — Asked about what he might bring back to the people of the Arlington Diocese from his ad limina visit during this difficult time for the church, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said, Pope Francis’ “words of encouragement and confidence in the Lord’s promise.”

Bishop Burbidge said that during the bishops’ conversation with Pope Francis they talked about the clergy sex abuse crisis and “the scandal caused by other bishops.”

 “We talked about that because if you’re going to heal as a church, you have to acknowledge that there was hurt. So, we talked to the Holy Father, we talked to his advisers, about, first of all, the remorse, the sadness we have for the victims who’ve been abused,” Bishop Burbidge said.

 “The lack of trust that many people have in their bishops because of the failures of some being held in suspicion, sometimes that impacts our ministry. So, we honestly talked about that.”

He said the church still needs healing and unity. “It’s always the Lord’s church. It always has been. Back in Rome, you realize he founded the church on Peter, the rock. The church has been through many difficult times right from the beginning and his promise that nothing would prevail against it is something you’re reminded of here in a powerful way.”

Bishop Burbidge said he will bring back the confidence that “this is always the Lord’s church and he will be in charge. The Holy Father said what's going to heal the church is going to be holiness and integrity of life, being the person you say you are, living the faith you profess, doing it with integrity.

“I bring back that renewed commitment to grow in holiness and to be faithful to all that I promise and to encourage our priests, our deacons, our lay faithful to do the same,” he said. “The unity that we're seeking and healing we’re seeking doesn't depend just on one person. We all can play a part in that. So hopefully I bring back those words of encouragement and confidence in the Lord's promise.”


The bishops of Region 4 making their required ad limina visit to the Vatican Dec. 2-6 included: the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Dioceses of Arlington, Richmond, Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., and Wilmington, Del., as well as the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Washington, the Diocese of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.

This was Bishop Burbidge’s first ad limina visit as head of the Arlington Diocese, and he was accompanied by Bishop Emeritus Paul S. Loverde, making his sixth ad limina visit as bishop.

The visit to the Vatican follows the more than 1,000-page quinquennial report, a comprehensive document on the life of the diocese, submitted months earlier. The report is broken up when it gets to the Vatican and each section is given to the specific dicastery or congregation to which it pertains. The bishops attend meetings at the various dicasteries.

“We had a meeting with the Congregation for Bishops that was directly speaking to our lives and our ministry,” Bishop Burbidge said. “We had a meeting with the Congregation for Clergy, which also talked about how bishops can foster priestly life and ministry, and our work with seminarians and forming future priests. So that was very encouraging and of course, you know, I love the work of communications, so we met with the Pontifical Council for Communications talking about some of the obstacles we face in our own country in getting our message out rather than letting people control the message, and some of those challenges. But it’s really great to hear from their perspective how they do that throughout the whole world, and it’s different in each country.”

Bishop Burbidge said the meetings were fascinating. “You learn a lot while you’re here,” he said.


Bishop Burbidge summarized the week: “It’s a visit to meet with the Holy Father and his advisers, to speak to them about the situation in our own dioceses, in our own country, the challenges within the church, the blessings within the church and to hear from them because this is a time bishops reaffirm their bond, their unity with the Holy Father, the successor of St. Peter. So part of our ministry is to bring his ministry to the faithful that we serve,” he said.

Although the bishops’ meeting with Pope Francis is confidential, Bishop Burbidge shared a bit about the encounter. 

“First of all, he greeted all of us individually. We were also able to bring in our seminarians. They didn't stay for the meeting but (the pope) shook hands with each one of them. So that was a great honor. One of our seminarians (Deacon Joe Moschetto) has been here for four years and it's the first time he met the pope. So, I was so happy for that.”

Bishop Burbidge said two things struck him about the Dec. 3 audience with Pope Francis.

“The first was the amount of time he spent with us — over two and a half hours. So that's a pretty lengthy conversation. There were times during the conversation, where I was just sitting there almost pinching myself, we're here with the Holy Father like in a living room, like a parlor. It was beautiful,” he said.

“And the second — of just how fraternal it was. And that's what he said in the beginning. He wanted it to be brothers talking to brothers. And so, if it's to be a fruitful conversation and dialogue, he said we have to be honest with each other, we have to trust each other and we have to also speak confidentially. This is a family discussion in a sense. He wanted it to be heart-to-heart, and we could ask him any question we wanted.”

Bishop Burbidge said the bishops didn’t prepare for the discussion ahead of time. “I did not know what the person next to me might say or not say and there was no preplanning on his part or on our part.

“So, it was a very natural conversation, and he responded to every question openly, humbly,” he said. “(The pope) injected some humor into the conversation but it was just so real, so down to earth, and to every bishop who was in that room we all left so encouraged. We knew he was listening to us, our struggles and our blessings. He offered us good words of wisdom of how to exercise our ministry. Every one of us said we left there just kind of renewed and inspired. I'll forever treasure that moment.”


Part of the ad limina visit requires bishops to celebrate Mass at Rome’s four major basilicas — at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul at St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul Outside the Walls, respectively, and at St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.

“We do everything as a group, including the Masses in the four major basilicas. That’s a highlight of being in the major basilicas here in Rome to celebrate Mass,” he said.

Bishop Burbidge said he approached the week like a retreat. “I’m just trying to open my heart to receive the graces that God wants to give me and the messages he wants to speak to me so that we come home stronger in our commitment to be faithful as the successor of the Apostles and faithful as a servant and as a bishop,” he said. “I really have been feeling many graces and blessings, and I've been praying for all the faithful in our diocese — our priests, our deacons, religious, lay faithful and seminarians — and praying at every Mass for them and their intentions.”


Since the bishops were staying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Bishop Burbidge was able to meet with the six diocesan seminarians studying there. 

“It’s really great to see such really good, young, holy men prepare for the priesthood and to see the bond and the fraternity that they share. There's a great spirit in this house,” he said. “We have reason for great hope as we look at the seminarians here and as we look at our seminarians back home. God is raising up some really fine men to serve us as priests, and again, I think that will be part of the way he heals and unifies our church.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019