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Conversing with Pope Francis

Opinion

In June I spent two weeks in Rome for the Ad Limina Apostolorum which means Threshold of the Apostles, referring to Saints Peter and Paul, both martyred and interred in Rome.

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Each diocese prepares a detailed account of the pastoral and practical activities of the previous five or seven years, which form part of the basis for conversations with Vatican departments.

The group of 35 Australian bishops started with a five day silent retreat conducted by Brother Ian Cribb SJ, formerly director of the retreat house at Sevenhill, who received the praise of all.

The Ad Limina commenced with Mass at the tomb of St Peter, followed by a two and a half hour audience with the Holy Father. He simply invited us to speak whatever was on our minds, even if it was criticism of the Curia or of himself. We ranged backwards and forwards in conversation, addressing a variety of pastoral issues confronting the Australian Church.

The Pope was very open in his replies and comments. The meeting was at times quite serious and at other times quite light hearted. We spoke about the impact of the abuse crisis in the Church, and the hopes we have for the Plenary Council.

I was struck by the way Pope Francis would constantly reach for a nearby jug of water and pour it into not his own glass but that of the Vatican official sitting alongside him. This typifies his kind and humble approach to the papacy.

During the following week we met with the various Vatican departments which deal with issues such as child protection, liturgy, appointment of bishops, and issues of Church discipline and pastoral care.

There was a lengthy meeting with the Congregation for Doctrine of Faith, the senior committee in the Vatican bureaucracy. There was discussion on the seal of confession where the inviolable nature of the seal, as it extends to the identity of the penitent and the sin being confessed, was stressed.

We celebrated Eucharist in the four major basilicas – St Peter’s, St John Lateran, St Mary Major and St Paul’s Outside the Wall, as a symbol of our solidarity with the universal Church.

The Ad Limina provided the opportunity for accountability both of the bishops to the Holy See, and of the Vatican departments for their administration. It also turned out to be a very helpful discussion concerning the forthcoming Plenary Council. The bishops’ request to increase significantly the number of lay people at the proposed council was argued for, but has not yet been granted, with a decision not expected until towards the end of the year.

The cumbersome approach of the appointment of bishops, and the lateness of such appointments was also addressed, and we were made aware of the complexity involved. For example, in Brazil alone there are 44 archdioceses and more than 250 dioceses so the rate of turnover just from one country places great pressure on the process.

Overall, it was a very positive experience for the Australian bishops to visit formally the See of Peter, to express our loyalty to the Holy Father and our commitment to the good of the universal Church.

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