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Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley is no stranger to making an “ad limina” visit with the Bishops of the New England province. This past week the archbishop had his third “ad limina” visit with the Holy Father as part of the New England delegation, although this was his first as the Archbishop of Boston. While other visits may have been more symbolic occasions to express his communion with the Successor of St. Peter, this time the visit was marked by issues that have made headlines over the last two years: the sexual abuse scandal, to the reconfiguration process and, even the rubrics of a Holy Week liturgy.
Speaking to The Pilot upon his return from Rome, the archbishop said that the “ad limina” visit offers a bishop the chance to be “renewed” in his ministry “by this direct contact with the Holy Father and his close collaborators.”
A central moment of each bishop’s visit is his private audience with the Holy Father. According to the archbishop, the Holy Father was “in very good form” during his personal meeting Aug. 30 though he acknowledged that the pope “was much more tired” when all the bishops met with him as a group on Sept. 2.
The archbishop said that during his one-on-one meeting with the pope, “the Holy Father was very concerned about Boston and expressed his concern about the vocations in the Church and the situations of our people.” The archbishop also said that the Holy Father “fondly” recalled his visit to Boston.
The archbishop said that he, in turn, assured the pope “of prayers and good wishes of the people of the archdiocese.”
The last “ad limina” visit took place six years ago, instead of the usual five, since the pope suspended those visits as the Church celebrated the Jubilee year. During the weeklong event, bishops have the opportunity to raise issues at the Vatican congregations or to receive information about their work.
The archbishop met with officials of the Congregation for Divine Worship to whom he explained the situation earlier this year when he washed the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday and “the upset that occasioned in the archdiocese and the misinterpretation in the media.” After the controversy erupted, Archbishop O’Malley announced in his Pilot column that he would seek clarification on the practice from the Holy See.
The archbishop explained that the prefect of the congregation was not in Rome at the time but he was able to speak with the secretary of the congregation.
The archbishop said that he “explained to [the secretary] what happened here in Boston and he told me that instructions in the Missal are very clear: that for Holy Thursday the liturgy calls for the priest to wash the feet of 12 men.”
The archbishop said he was also told that “the ceremony in itself is optional, but if you do it, the rubric and the custom in the Church has been to wash the feet of 12 men who represent the Apostles.”
"I left a letter for the prefect asking for clarification and I expect to hear from him," the archbishop added.
An issue raised with another Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, was the dicastery’s slow pace in resolving the cases of priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Following new U.S. Church norms approved in Dallas, dioceses are bound to notify the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith of allegations of sexual abuse of minors. According to a Catholic News Service report, since the norms went into effect in 2003, hundreds of cases have arrived at the Vatican. The congregation has added some staff, but the workload has been described by some as overwhelming.
Archbishop O’Malley has already announced that a Boston priest and canon lawyer, Msgr. Robert P. Deeley, has been assigned to work at the congregation to help clear the backlog. According to Archbishop O’Malley, another New England bishop, William E. Lori of Bridgeport, is also sending a canon lawyer to work at the congregation.
"We had a very good meeting with personnel of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and I tried to impress upon them the urgency of our situation here in the United States," he said.
"I think there was openness to what I and the other bishops had to say to them of the need for us to live up to the expectations of our people and the commitments we made in Dallas and at the same time to expedite the cases of priests who have been accused," the archbishop continued.
During his visit to the Congregation for the Clergy, Archbishop O’Malley explained the details of the archdiocese’s reconfiguration process and the circumstances that led up to it.
"There was understanding of what our situation is and what we are trying to accomplish," he said.
Archbishop O’Malley also spoke of his visit to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue — his first — where he was updated on the status of the relations between the Catholic Church and other faith groups.
"As our world is getting smaller we are called upon to interact more with these other groups. It was very interesting to hear the kind of outreach the Church has for those groups," he said.
According to the archbishop, the New England bishops followed their tradition of visiting not only the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, but also celebrating Mass at the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, in doing so, visiting the four major basilicas of Rome.
Speaking of the Mass at St. Peter’s tomb, the archbishop explained that “gathered around the tomb ... the bishops all prayed the Apostles Creed together as a sign of our solidarity in the faith and as our responsibilities as teachers in the faith that has come to us through the apostles.”
In his 1998 “ad limina” address to the bishops of the New England province, the Holy Father spoke about “the great springtime of Christianity which God is preparing as we enter the third Christian millennium, and of which we can already see the first signs.”
Six years later, and in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, the Holy Father’s reiterated that theme in his address to the bishops last week.
"I once more express my conviction, born of faith, that God is even now preparing a great springtime for the Gospel," the pope said.
Asked to comment about the Holy Father’s vision of a “new springtime,” Archbishop O’Malley said that “after the cross comes resurrection, and certainly the sufferings that the Church has gone through has purified us, has called us to a greater sense of commitment and to be more faithful to our ideals, to be more faithful to our life of prayer. As I mentioned in my remarks to the Holy Father, our God can bring good out of evil.”