The Irish Bishops made their five-yearly visit to Rome in the last two weeks of January. The visit is a clear expression of the link between the local Church – the diocese – and the universal Church, between the Bishops of Ireland and Pope Francis, the successor of St Peter.
At the Threshold of the Apostles
The very first morning of our visit began with a concelebrated Mass at the tomb of St Peter in the Vatican led by Archbishop Eamon Martin. This emphasised the link between the Church in Ireland of today and the Church of the Apostles. It is the same Church of Jesus Christ, professing the same faith as the Apostles did, and preaching the same Gospel. In the course of our visit we also celebrated Mass in the other three main basilicas, St John Lateran, St Paul Outside the Walls and St Mary Major. The entire visit is a witness to the unity and continuity of the Church founded by Christ and the mission entrusted by Jesus to his apostles, “Go make disciples of all nations”.
The pattern of each day was an early Mass, two morning meetings, and one afternoon meeting, with the different Congregations of the Roman Curia (the Church’s central administration) and finally, a meeting among ourselves at the end of each day to reflect on the meetings of the day and prepare for the following day. A pretty full schedule!
At these meetings, the Congregation was usually represented by the Cardinal Prefect in charge of the Congregation and a number of officials. It was clear that they had read carefully the reports submitted by each bishop on the work of his diocese last August and that they were anxious to listen to our views and concerns. There was an atmosphere of respect and dialogue and a sense that the members of the different Congregations were listening carefully to what was said and concerned to be of assistance in whatever way possible.
Some of the issues that were discussed included Catholic schools and the Church’s involvement in education, the renewal of the liturgy and, in particular, the difficulties being experienced with the new translation of the Roman Missal, the World Meeting of Families due to take place in Dublin in 2018, the role of women in the Church, young people in the Church, vocations to the priesthood and religious life and a host of others. The members of the Congregations acknowledged that they don’t have the answers to all the problems that arise and that we must find the way forward in many areas of Church life through our own prayerful discernment.
A very important emphasis that emerged from our discussions in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was that the Church should not feel the need to be in charge or in control of everything. We live in an increasingly secular society where the Church is no longer a dominant voice. Our role is to be a witness to the truth and values of the Gospel, a sign of the kingdom, not the kingdom itself. Our task is to propose not to impose. We have to remember that the Church itself is a sacrament, the fundamental sacrament, a sign pointing to the presence of Christ in the world.
Meeting with Pope Francis
The highlight of the visit was of course the meeting with Pope Francis which took place on Friday 20th January. Unlike previous visits where each bishop had a brief private meeting with the Holy Father, this time, after greeting everyone individually, Pope Francis invited us all to be seated in a circle with him for an extended conversation. He asked all the officials, except an interpreter, to leave and assured us we could raise any topic we wished to discuss. He said, ‘I’ll throw in the ball and you can take it from there’.
The conversation lasted two hours covering a wide range of topics including many of the subjects that had already been raised in the Congregations. The World Meeting of Families was an important focus of attention with Pope Francis emphasising that the choice of Dublin and Ireland for the meeting was his own. He really wants to do what he can to support and give hope to families at this very difficult time in the Church and society. He was quite animated in his remarks on families, on the role of parents and grandparents and the importance of making time to be together as families. He said that when he was Archbishop he often asked parents, when do you play with your children? He reminded us that he lived in Ireland for a short time and is eager to deliver a strong message of hope and encouragement for families in Ireland.
In response to concerns expressed by some of the bishops about the increasing age profile and workload of priests he expressed his profound appreciation for the work of priests and is very conscious of the challenges they face in the modern world. He is deeply concerned about the shortage and the age profile of priests and stressed the importance of caring for priests. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life is also a subject close to his heart as is the role of women in the Church. He was emphatic that women should be involved in decision making processes and in roles of responsibility in the Church as far as possible, but he did not believe that this included ordination to the priesthood.
In general, the meeting was very relaxed and candid and was characterised by great openness and informality. At one point Pope Francis noticed that his interpreter that getting a bit hoarse and without thinking about it, he got up and went to the far end of the room and fetched him a glass of water. This simple gesture of service and care spoke volumes, as did his concern expressed later about whether we were getting tired. He seemed to have plenty of energy, even after two hours responding to the many comments and questions addressed to him. He concluded the meeting by reciting a section of the prayer, ‘The Breastplate of St Patrick’, and again greeting each of us personally as we were leaving.
All in all an unforgettable and deeply moving encounter.