September 23, 2004
A trip to Rome always brings with it a certain sense of awe and history. Centuries old ruins proudly defy the onslaught of tourists dodging cars and buses attempting to savor something of Rome’s eternal attraction. I’ve been to Rome many times before. But my most recent trip was much different. I am no stranger to the city where I lived and studied for eight years. But what I did this time was new for me and yet a part of an ancient custom that somehow brings life and vitality to the Church.
It was to Rome that Peter came and preached. It was here he was crucified head downward on the Vatican hill in 64 A.D. And in our time, far beneath Michelangelo’s majestic cupola his tomb is found. Paul, too, came to Rome. This was the capital of the world and Paul wanted to use it as his base to bring the gospel to the ends of the world. This is why Paul wrote to the Christians of this city. He wished to show them the gospel he preached was the gospel they received from the lips of others. Paul came as a prisoner in chains, but always an apostle unfettered in his preaching. And it was in Rome that he was martyred at Tre Fontane on the Via Ostia. His bones now rest in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall. From the first century until today, pilgrims have come to pray at the tombs of Peter and Paul. This month I joined that long procession of pilgrims along with all the bishops of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The pilgrimage we made is called the
ad limina visit—to the tombs of the apostles. Peter and Paul gave their lives to build up the Church Jesus purchased with his blood. We celebrated the Eucharist at their tombs. We prayed that God give us the strength and wisdom to build up the Church in our day as we continue the work of those first apostles. We prayed for the particular churches that have been entrusted to our pastoral care that our people be strong, courageous, and zealous for the faith as were these first believers in persecution, even to the point of death.
Every five years, the diocesan bishop goes to Rome on this pilgrimage. During the visit, he makes a report to Rome on the state of the local church. And so besides our prayers and Masses together, the bishops had meetings every day with the different dicasteries of the Holy See. Each of these congregations helps our Holy Father in his mission as pastor of the universal Church. In these meetings, we discussed issues such as the proper Christian formation of the laity, Catholic education, the sacraments, especially marriage and priesthood, vocations, and the different movements in the Church today. Not far from any of our discussions was the present situation the Church is facing in our country. The conversations were open, frank and very helpful.
Throughout the week, what was taking place went beyond the words and information shared. Each diocese—the laity, religious, and clergy gathered around their bishop—is a particular church. And in the communion of each local church with each other and most especially with the Church of Rome, the See of Peter, the unity Christ prayed for at the Last Supper is made real. The
ad limina visit was a lively experience of this
communio that is at the heart of the mystery of the Church. The most dramatic expression of this
communio came when, as bishop of this particular Church of Paterson, I met one-on-one with our Holy Father. This was no mere formality. Our Holy Father is Peter. He is the one the Lord has appointed to shepherd the whole Church.
Twice in his life the apostle Paul met with Peter. The Lord appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. The Lord himself had appointed him apostle and sent him to preach the gospel. Yet after his call, Paul met with Peter. For two weeks he stayed with Peter (Galatians 1-18-21). No doubt they talked about more than the weather. Fourteen years later, Paul met again with Peter (Galatians 2: 1-10). Paul explicitly tells us that in this second meeting he laid before the leaders of the church the gospel he preached. And he singles out Peter by name. From the very beginning, the Church has recognized the primacy Jesus gave Peter when he said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Peter alone was given the mission of guarding the unity of faith and the common discipline of the whole Church; and, this mission is entrusted today to our Holy Father (
Lumen Gentium 20). United with Peter in faith and love, we become what we are called to be—one church, holy, catholic and apostolic.
At the very beginning of our meeting, I offered the Holy Father the fidelity and prayers, the respect and love of all the clergy, religious and laity of our diocese. We spoke of the size and growth of the diocese. The Holy Father specifically asked about the number of priests and vocations. I was proud to tell him how hard our priests, deacons and religious work and how hard we are working to help our young hear and answer the call to serve the Lord as priests and religious. Of very special interest to the Holy Father was the presence and faith, the devotion and situation of our growing Hispanic community. As I spoke with our Holy Father, I sensed how much a part we are of something bigger than ourselves. The Pope’s words were labored and his white-clad figure slightly slumped in his chair. But the faith of Peter is strong. And our Holy Father’s eyes sparkled with joy as he welcomed the good news of how alive our local Church of Paterson is.
When I return from Rome, I always come back laden with
ricordi, souvenirs and gifts, for my family. This time I return renewed by the
limina visit and with a most special
ricordo—the memory of having met with a very holy man—and with the gift of the apostolic blessing of John Paul II to all of you, my family in faith.