Bishop O’Connell shows Rayanne Bennett, Associate Publisher of The Monitor, a medallion he received from the Holy Father during his visit to Rome. The medallion is a replica of a Carlo Crivelli painting of Madonna and Child that hangs in the Vatican Museums.  Katie Cerni photo.
Bishop O’Connell shows Rayanne Bennett, Associate Publisher of The Monitor, a medallion he received from the Holy Father during his visit to Rome. The medallion is a replica of a Carlo Crivelli painting of Madonna and Child that hangs in the Vatican Museums. Katie Cerni photo.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., recently sat down with Rayanne Bennett, executive director of communications and media, for a Q and A interview on the “Ad Limina” visit that he took to Rome Nov. 25-29.

1. Would you explain what the “Ad Limina” visit is about, and describe how important it is for the bishops and the dioceses that they lead?

The idea of the “Ad Limina” visit traces its origins back to the late 16th century and, over the centuries, has taken on a more structured form until norms for its observance were issued by the Holy See in the early 20th century.  More recently, in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the visit “Ad Limina” Apostolorum ‘to the threshold of the Apostles’ – that is, Rome is required for all residential diocesan bishops every five years.  Actually, the last U.S. “Ad Limina” visit took place eight years ago.  It is convened at the convenience of the Pope.  As Vicar of Christ and Successor of St. Peter, the Holy Father seeks to learn the “state of the Church” in the dioceses throughout the Church, which is its fundamental purpose.  The bishops, as Successors to the Apostles, prepare and present a very detailed report about their dioceses since the previous visit for the Holy Father and the Offices of the Holy See six months prior to their travels to the Vatican.  The visit itself has a symbolic and an informative value for both the Holy See and the bishops themselves and, therein, lay its importance.  In addition to sharing the “state” of their dioceses, the bishops are also required to visit and pray at the major basilicas in Rome, especially where the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul are housed.  I traveled with all the residential diocesan bishops of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Region III of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

2. During the “Ad Limina” visit, you presented the Diocese of Trenton’s Quinquennial Report to the Holy See.  Would you describe the process employed to build this report and the value that the report holds for both the Diocese and Vatican officials?

B: The Quinquennial Report – named for the ordinary five-year timing of the “Ad Limina” visit – took about seven months to prepare and, this year, was 130 pages in length. Composed of 23 chapters of narrative, required statistical data, and analysis, the report itself was developed with the assistance of the heads of the Chancery’s major departments. It gave me the opportunity to understand in detail virtually every aspect of the Diocese in the period dating back to the last report and visit.  It also provided the Holy See with an accurate view of life in the local Church as I have come to know it.

3.  What were some of the highlights and trends that stood out in the Quinquennial Report that was submitted to the Holy See about the Diocese of Trenton? 

A good part of the report was recapping some of the major developments that have had an impact on the Diocese and the communities it serves since the last “Ad Limina” visit. One standout was the recovery after Superstorm Sandy, and the extraordinary outreach that followed from our Catholic social service agencies and from Church agencies on a national level.

Like most of our counterparts across the nation, the Diocese of Trenton has experienced a decrease in our Catholic population, particularly in some areas; a decline in the number of men pursuing the priesthood, and enrollment shortfalls in some of our Catholic schools.  Some of these trends have resulted in financial challenges as well.

However, we were able to cite the measures that have been taken in light of these demographic changes to restructure the parishes and establish effective planning practices going forward to preserve the vitality of our faith communities. In regard to the growth of the Hispanic Catholic community, we have instituted special pastoral initiatives and now have 18 Hispanic Ministry Centers through which to serve this vibrant, faith-filled community.

4. How would you describe your meeting with the Holy Father?  What were some of the key messages he shared with you and the region’s bishops?

The meeting with Pope Francis on Thanksgiving Day was the highlight of the week.  The session lasted two and a half hours and took place in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace.  Different from the 2011 visit with Pope Benedict XVI, this year’s “Ad Limina” included all of Region III’s residential diocesan bishops together.  The Holy Father did not give an “address” but, rather, offered the bishops an incredible opportunity to present observations, discuss concerns and ask questions.  Pope Francis even humorously invited us to give criticisms “in here but not out there.”  It was a true fraternal conversation, a “give and take,” that was conducted in a very relaxed, easy manner. The Holy Father asked us to speak together freely and without reservation and to observe his confidence.  He set the tone and responded with gentleness and candor. 

5. In your role as “capo” at the Congregation for Catholic Education, what were the key realities about Catholic education in this region that you wanted to convey?  Did the conversation with that congregation yield any ideas or new insight that might be put to use here in the region?

At each meeting – 16 in all – with the officials of Vatican departments, various individual bishops from Region III were designated as “capo” or presenter to lead the discussions.  I served as “capo” at the Congregation for Catholic Education.  Prior to the trip, I had consulted with superintendents of Catholic schools from the region to obtain their sense of the direction and trends in Catholic education.  I focused primarily on the state of Catholic schools, especially upon the common experience of declining enrollments, financial pressures, and issues of sustainability.  Every diocese is facing similar challenges, and bishops shared both the strengths and successes as well as the problems encountered within their Catholic school systems.  Catholic identity and mission along with cultural challenges confronting administrations, faculty and staff were also addressed. 

The situation of American Catholic universities and colleges in the region was discussed as well.  It is, perhaps, surprising to note that some of these institutions, like schools of lesser grades, are contemplating mergers and closures themselves.  There may simply be too many of them.  A Congregation official present responded to each topic, offering reflections and suggestions.  On the whole, the meeting did not break any new ground regarding this critical work of the Church.

6.  You had the opportunity to spend time in prayer at several sacred sites during your visit.  What were these experiences like for you, and what were the most memorable?

There was ample opportunity to pray and the visits to the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul were particularly moving.  I always find it a very emotional experience to stand before the burial places of these two Apostles and to consider the roles they played in the establishment of the Church.  It is hard to put into words the sentiments of my heart at those moments.  Humbling and deeply inspiring don’t do justice to the experience of being in the presence of the bones of the men whom I have been chosen to succeed.  Unworthy is perhaps a more accurate feeling.  I prayed to be a faithful shepherd to the people of the Diocese. 

7. What was it like to spend time and share such poignant experiences with your brother bishops from the region?  Do you have any stories to share?

The overwhelming sense that I had throughout the week was that what we do, as bishops in our respective dioceses, is connected to a universal Church.  We are part of something much bigger than any one of us or the local Churches we represent.  We are called to be in communion with the Successor of St. Peter and with one another in a bond of fraternal unity and charity with the Lord Jesus at the center.  He is the Good Shepherd and we are his servants in all that we represent and do for the people entrusted to our pastoral care.