Meeting Pope Francis

The bishops of Australia made their Ad Limina visit to Rome in the last two weeks of June. Thirty-eight bishops were in our group. This included bishops from all the Australian dioceses, the Eastern Churches (Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar), the military bishop and the head of the Anglican Ordinate in Australia. These visits with the Holy Father take place every five years.

While there are many critical matters that are discussed, the visit is seen primarily as a spiritual pilgrimage by bishops where they can spend time in prayer at the tombs of the apostles, Peter and Paul. The Masses we celebrated at the tombs of St Peter and St Paul were truly spiritual moments in which we united ourselves with the ancient faith. At the nconclusion of these Masses we gathered around the tombs and recited the Apostles Creed. This simple action reminded us that we bishops are charged with the responsibility to proclaim and hand on the Catholic Faith preached by the Apostles. Our solemn duty is to ensure that the faith in its fullness and integrity is preserved and lived out in our dioceses.

Our communion with the universal Church was expressed in a special way when we met with Pope Francis on Monday, June 24. We met with the Pope in the Apostolic Palace from 10.30am until 1.00pm. The Pope met each of us as we entered the hall. We introduced ourselves to him. We then sat on chairs in a kind of horseshoe shape, with the Pope at the centre. The Pope had an interpreter. He spoke in Italian, though sometimes moved to English. He joked with us on a couple of occasions. He was, in the main, able to understand our English, but preferred to speak in a language which he was more accustomed to.

The practice of Pope Francis is to have an open dialogue with the bishops on their Ad Limina visit. He said a few opening words of welcome and then invited us to address any question we liked to him. The Pope looked fresh, relaxed, friendly, and engaged. He listened to every intervention and then gave a personal response. It was an extraordinary experience of open listening and dialogue. The Pope was clearly at ease and happy to engage with any topic presented to him.

One issue that we addressed at the very beginning of our conversation was the forthcoming Plenary Council.  The Pope reminded us that the synodal process is not just responding to a questionnaire but is a more profound discernment. The Pope spoke of being part of the universal Church and our discernment needs to be in union with the Church. He urged us to proceed wisely and remain very attentive to the Holy Spirit.

We spoke about the effects of the abuse crisis on the Church in Australia and the Pope was very aware of the challenges we are now facing on issues like the seal of Confession. He urged us to be united in defending the sacredness of the sacramental seal. The Pope also spoke of the role of bishops as fathers among the people, and he encouraged the bishops to be especially sensitive to the needs of priests.

There was also discussion about the needs of Aboriginal people and the pastoral issues in ministering among them. Our eastern brothers spoke of their hopes the Pope would be more active in supporting the Christian communities in the Middle East who are under great stress at the present time.

We discussed the changing situation of the Church in our society and issues around respect for the Church by governments and media and also addressed the question of how we can be more effective in evangelising in our increasingly secular society. The Pope was very conscious of the situation of Cardinal Pell and spoke in very personal terms of his confidence in him.

The meeting was at all times relaxed and fraternal. The Pope was willing to engage with us on any matters of concern for us. We all left with a deepened love and respect for the Holy Father. We sensed his spiritual depth and had a renewed confidence in his wise leadership of the Church.

During the week that followed the bishops attended meetings with the various dicasteries (or departments) of the Curia. There were many fruitful exchanges on issues that bishops are facing in their dioceses. The week concluded with a Mass with the Holy Father in St Peter’s Basilica on the occasion of the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. At the Mass the new Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, received the Pallium.

For me personally the Ad Limina visit was a time of renewing my communion with the Holy Father and the universal Catholic Church, and an encouragement in my ministry as bishop here in Tasmania.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

July 14, 2019

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