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A personal conversation with the Holy Father

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

Dec. 4, 2019

As we begin the new Church year this First Week of Advent, I will conclude my reflections on my recent ad limina Apostolarum visit to Rome. Previously, I indicated that the basic purpose for this visit is to venerate the tombs of the Holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, to inform the Holy See (the Congregations, Councils and Commissions) about the state of our diocese, and to meet with the Successor of Peter, His Holiness Pope Francis. Permit me to share with you these thoughts of the third feature of the ad limina, the meeting with the Holy Father.

We were informed at our first gathering at the beginning of the visit that our appointment with Pope Francis was changed. Due to scheduling conflicts, our meeting would be the last meeting of our ad limina visit, Friday morning, November 15. It was a great way to wrap up the weeklong visit – a personal conversation with the Pope and then preside at Mass at the Holy Father’s cathedral, St. John Lateran.

As he warmly welcomed us, Pope Francis encouraged us to relax and enjoy an informal conversation with him. He was eager to listen to what was on our hearts and respond with his own personal thoughts. He expressed heartfelt gratitude for our prayerful support, particularly in the area of Christian marriage and Church teaching on life matters such as abortion and physician-assisted suicide. Pope Francis was thankful, as well as, for the U.S. Bishops’ strong support for migrant families and advocacy for immigration reform.

As bishops, he reminded us that, first and foremost, we must be close to God. He asked: “How many hours do you pray each day?” (He doesn’t hesitate to get to the chase!) Secondly, the Pope said that we must be close to our individual priests and, thirdly, he urged us to work closely with the entire body of priests in the diocese (the presbyterate). Fourthly, he reminded us of the importance of staying close to our people, i.e., smell of our sheep.

I asked the Holy Father: “In light of all the urgent needs of the world, what do you find most personally challenging in your Petrine Ministry?” With great sadness, he said that the first challenge he found to be most difficult was the state of the family and Christian marriage today. The Holy Father was remarkably candid as he began to speak specifically of his own family. He expressed great concern for the lack of children in our families. He observed that pets in our families today seem to be of more importance than children. He spoke of the fractured family due to divorce and cohabitation and he addressed the ominous threat of gender identity. Pope Francis sees the breakdown of the family and Christian marriage as realities the bishops must continue to address with great energy and courage. He urged us to patiently accompany those who struggle with the Lord’s teachings to follow Jesus.

Another personal challenge that the Pope cited was the religious void of so many of our youth today. He encouraged us to find new ways to reach out to our youth and young adults. He lamented the increasing number who have no affiliation with the Catholic faith, or indeed, any religion (the so-called NONES).

I concluded this ad limina visit with even greater respect for the Successor of Peter and for his ministry in our troubled world. While he is often misunderstood and mischaracterized in the media, his rock-solid faith is a tremendous sign of hope. Within our Church we sometimes experience polarization, misunderstanding and conflict. Pope Francis told us that even the best of families has arguments and disagreements. He is not afraid of dialogue with those who disagree with him. Neither should you and me. Perhaps because our own faith is weak in the face of so many challenges in our secular world, our fear paralyzes any movement to dialogue.

Advent is a Season of hope and great anticipation. God was born in the messiness, even sinfulness of humanity. I pray that our own personal intimacy with Jesus will bring us the confidence and hope that draws us closer to Him and, through Him, to one another. Blessed Advent everyone!

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