Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Threshold" Approaching? Not So Fast.

Lest anyone on these shores has been planning ahead and getting a start on those Quinquennial Reports... be advised that they can be put on ice.

For a good while.

Given the usual rhythm of the calendar, recent weeks have seen an uptick of buzz anticipating an ad limina visit by the US bishops to the Holy See sometime next year. And not without reason -- required of every diocesan bishop, the five-yearly Roman pilgrimage both to the tombs of Peter and Paul and "to present himself to the Roman pontiff" was last undertaken by the Stateside bench in 2004.

Still to get its turn since Pope Benedict's election as a result, the months-long series of drop-ins by the USCCB's 15 conference regions has garnered heightened interest, both on how the current pontiff conducts his part of the meetings, not to mention the content of the public speeches he gives to each visiting group at the close of its weeklong program.

At the earliest, however, the US won't be seeing its next round start for another two years, and maybe even longer.

While the ad liminae were suspended for 2000's Jubilee Year (before 2004, the prior US visit came in 1998), the combination of John Paul II's declining health and B16's lighter-paced, more detail-oriented style in matters administrative has combined to make for a "quiet revolution" which now sees each bench's turn taking place on a seven-year timetable. This month's visit by the Central Asian bishops, for example, was their first since February 2001; earlier in the year, the same's roughly been the case for, among others, the bishops of Cuba, Haiti, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Ecuador. The rate isn't falling behind any further, but hasn't been sped up, either: when the Irish and Canadian bishops made their pilgrimages in 2006, they were likewise presenting Septennial Reports -- the two conferences last made their visits in 1999.

On the master calendar set by the Congregation for Bishops, the US shares its stage of the cycle with other hot-button groups of visitors, the bishops of Australia, France and the perennially-challenging turf of the Netherlands among them. Just before these usually comes the conference of England and Wales, whose last pilgrimage took place in October 2003.

Regardless of homeland, the ad limina places each local church under the Vatican's microscope. With the Holy See briefed in advance by each diocese's extensive Quinquennial Report (multiple copies of which are sent over and disseminated among the various dicasteries), the bishops' Masses at the apostles' tombs and 15-minute individual sit-downs with the pontiff might be the week's highlights, but the guts of the trip are invariably spent on tour to the offices of the Roman Curia -- an experience that, in the current pontificate, has intentionally been made more user-friendly.

While prefects in earlier times saw fit to lecture -- or, in at least one case, doze before -- their visitors, groups who've already made the trip under Papa Ratzi have noted a distinct, uniform change toward the service-oriented approach employed by Cardinal Ratzinger when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Overwhelmingly rated the best of the Curial field-trips under John Paul II, the now-Pope sought to engage the groups in conversation, both offering input on whatever local situations his callers would seek his advice on, feeling them out in return on the state of things at home and the challenges they faced.

Comments, names and faces all absorbed into his mind, 23 years of the sessions -- in other words, close to five comprehensive reports on the global church, all without leaving his office -- provided Benedict with an unparalleled arsenal of pinpointed intelligence on his ascent to Peter's chair, both on the situations the dioceses faced on the ground, and on the personalities best-suited to tackle them in more-prominent postings.

As no shortage of Ratzinger's post-election writings and nominations betray, it's all come quite in handy. And with his well-known devotion to paperwork, a key benefit of the slowed-up schedule of the visits is that the Quinquennials -- which, on a good day, Papa Wojtyla might've skimmed before receiving their authors -- can get a thorough pre-audience reading by B16... which they do, at least to the degree that bishops have been left floored by, or stammering at, some of the Pope's questions or observations on what's happening at home.

And when he wants to send a message back -- either on his own or through others -- Benedict's been known to do that, too.

On the Ontario leg of the Canadian visit in September 2006, after the passage of a law permitting same-sex marriage nationwide, the Pope told the prelates from the North's largest province that "in the name of ‘tolerance’ your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of ‘freedom of choice’ it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children.

"When the Creator’s divine plan is ignored," Benedict added, "the truth of human nature is lost."

Thanks to the recording equipment specially brought in for the talk, the papal "scolding" was beamed across the Pond before the visitors even left the Apostolic Palace.

Along the same lines, the pontiff's first aired comments on clergy sex-abuse didn't come during his US trip, but in his 2006 ad limina speech to the Irish bishops and his confession of "horror" over the crimes during the week's one-on-one with Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns, the newly-ordained head of the Isle's hardest-hit diocese.

While the pontiff's Teutonic precision almost invariably means that his one-on-ones with the bishops run not a second longer than 15 minutes, the encounters have been known to run longer when he's concerned, impressed -- or, to put it bluntly, "auditioning."

When their day finally comes, though, the Americans' next visit won't just be different in form.

For starters, with the whole of the 2004 pilgrimage overwhelmingly focused on the imperative of renewal -- both "of the episcopal office" and the US church at large -- in the wake of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, the topic won't fade completely from the agenda in the coming round, but developments since will likely see it situated more as one spoke of the larger wheel than another turn as the event's mental launching-pad.

Of course, the landscape can change overnight along the way, but the five common priorities set by the USCCB over the coming decade -- namely, the strengthening of marriage and family life, increasing priestly and religious vocations, re-energizing worship and sacramental practice, working to protect human life and dignity and encouraging cultural diversity in the church -- would be next time's even-money springboard.

From there, among the host of issues that keeps the Vatican's mind occupied over things American, it'd be reasonable to likewise expect yet another call to renewal, both of souls and structures; Catholic identity and fidelity to church teaching in education and catechesis; an accounting of the morale of priests and efforts to foster healing with survivors; a plug for the by-then imminent implementation of the new Missal translations; reflections on culture, governance, sanctification, the "collection of prohibitions" and the church's credibility in the public square... and, indeed -- with another presidential cycle just around the corner by that time -- a meeting of the minds on Catholic politicians who fail to line up with the Magisterium.

In sum, there's no better measuring-stick than the "marching orders" given on these shores over a week in April... and how well they've been carried out.

* * *
Its first message given precisely a year before his death, John Paul II's talks from the 2004 ad limina can well be read as his "farewell" to the American church.

As a supplementary resource, listed below -- in chronological order, listed by province(s) -- are links to the discourses:
  • Region XIV -- Atlanta, Miami; 2 April
  • Region IV -- Baltimore, Washington, Military Services; 29 April
  • Region VI -- Cincinnati, Detroit; 6 May
  • Region XI -- Los Angeles, San Francisco; 14 May
  • Region X -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio; 22 May
  • Region VII -- Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee; 28 May
  • Region XIII -- Denver, Santa Fe; 4 June
  • Region XII -- Portland in Oregon, Seattle, Anchorage; 24 June
  • Region I -- Boston, Hartford; 2 September
  • Region III -- Newark, Philadelphia; 11 September
  • Region II -- New York; 8 October
  • Region IX -- Dubuque, Kansas City in Kansas, Omaha, St Louis; 26 November
  • Region V -- Louisville, Mobile, New Orleans; 4 December
  • Region VIII -- Saint Paul and Minneapolis; 10 December
PHOTOS: Bishops of Central Asia(1,2,4); Archdiocese of Nassau in the Bahamas(3)