Early in the 4th century, the historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, wrote that St. Peter "was known throughout the world ... and is honored with a splendid tomb overlooking the city [of Rome]. To this tomb, countless crowds come from all parts of the Roman Empire..." Pilgrims still go to the tomb of Peter in Rome. They stand in awe at St. Peter's Basilica designed by Bramante and crowned with Michelangelo's magnificent dome. They come for the same reason as their predecessors. They want to be near to St. Peter whose tomb lies far beneath the main altar.
Pilgrims also make their way across Rome to St. Paul Outside the Walls. Ever since the death of St. Paul, Christians have come to this spot, first marked by a tropaeum (a simple commemorative monument), then by a basilica built by Constantine and now by a 19th century church that preserves the architectural beauty of the Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque periods. Pilgrims come to be near the remains of the great Apostle to the Gentiles whose tomb is found beneath the main altar.
Every five years, a bishop who shepherds a particular church (i.e. a diocese) joins the centuries-old procession of faithful to the tombs of the apostles. In 1585, Pope Sixtus V made it obligatory for bishops to make this visit ad limina (to the threshold or tombs of the apostles). In the weeks just prior to Christmas, I had the great privilege as bishop of Paterson to make this ad limina visit. I was most happy to be have been accompanied by Bishop Rodimer, our bishop emeritus. He remains an example of commitment, untiring service and love of the Church. We were able to visit with James Platania, Stephen Prisk and Lem Camacho, our three seminarians at the Pontifical North Ameri_can College. Their joy in their vocation is a sign of God's blessing for all of us.
Together with the bishops of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we prayed for each of you and your families in Rome's four major basilicas and most especially at the tombs of Peter and Paul. Our Mass at the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II moved all of us very deeply. We knew him in life. We loved him in life. His strong example and gentle compassion still inspire us. We are grateful for his intercession for us now before the throne of God in heaven.
However, the ad limina visit is more than a personal pilgrimage. As the directory for the pastoral ministry of bishops reminds us, the bishop makes the ad limina visit on behalf of his whole diocese. It is an occasion for him to express the unity of his particular church with the successor of Peter who presides over the whole Church in faith and in charity.
The Church is flesh and blood. She is more than her teaching. She is wider than her present day membership. United with the pope, we are part of a vast communio of life that not only stretches back in time to Jesus who placed Peter as shepherd of the whole Church, but reaches beyond time to all those who have been called from this world to be with God.
Meeting over two weeks with the various dicasteries that help the Holy Father in shepherding the Church, we bishops had a chance to share with the Holy See the state of our own dioceses. We voiced our concerns about the dissolution of marriage and the loss of Catholic identity in some of our universities around the country and among some of our faithful, especially Catholic politicians. We reported the rise in vocations to the priesthood and the attraction of many to new religious communities. We also had the opportunity to learn of the life of the Church in countries around the world.
Each of us was looking forward to our meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and we were not disappointed. For more than 30 minutes, we engaged in open and honest conversation with the pope. I found most impressive his obvious desire to hear about the life of the Church in New Jersey.
Our Holy Father listened most attentively as we spoke of the changing moral and social landscape in which we now live. We told him of the very real threats of our secular culture to religious expression and to the very freedom of religion. We spoke of the breakdown in the moral fiber of our society and its devastating effects in a growing disrespect for life and the poor. We placed before him the fact that so many Catholics no longer receive the sacraments or adhere to Church teaching.
We spoke frankly about the sexual abuse crisis of recent decades and the great harm that it has done to the Church. Some use this evil to undermine the good that the Church does and to silence her from speaking on moral issues. Yet, they ignore the fact that this evil touches every level of society. The Church herself is rightly held to strict standards in protecting children and in dealing with abuse. Unfortunately, our society keeps repeating the story of failure within the Church, while not holding other institutions to the same just standards.
The Holy Father listened to each of us and encouraged us. His words deeply inspired us to renew and deepen our ministry among all of you. He told us to look upon the present moment in positive terms, "as a summons to exercise the prophetic dimension of [our] episcopal ministry by speaking out, humbly yet insistently, in defense of moral truth, and offering a word of hope, capable of opening hearts and minds to the truth that sets us free." With great kindness and with much wisdom, the Holy Father called us back to the basics: fidelity to the truth, fidelity to Christ and love of his Church. Peter still speaks. There is great hope for the Church! There is great hope for each of us.