July 1, 2004

‘To the Thresholds’

My visitor was a retired businessman who for years had been active in a number of archdiocesan programs and undertakings. We had been chatting in my living room and were moving into the dining room for lunch. On one of the living room walls there hangs a rather large portrait of Pope John Paul II. My visitor stopped to inspect it and then, with a twinkle in his eye, observed, "He’s in charge of a large organization, Cardinal. How would he handle it if you bishops had to go see him regularly to give an account of what you are doing?"

"He handles it with ease," I replied. "In fact, this coming October I will be going to Rome to give just such an account along with all of the diocesan bishops of the State of New York (those who head dioceses) and most of our auxiliary bishops as well. Already the Holy Father has an extensive report in his office from each of the diocesan bishops. The one from the Archdiocese of New York is about three inches high. We worked on it for months."

"You’re kidding me," my visitor exclaimed.

"Not at all," I countered. "I went on one of these visits many years ago as an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal O’Connor. I went on two of them as a diocesan bishop, and now I will be going on a fourth as archbishop of this great and sprawling archdiocese."

We settled into our chairs at the dining room table. My visitor adjusted his napkin, leaned forward, and with a look that I knew meant business, announced, "You should tell the folks in the pews about this. I’m serious. This is the kind of thing they want to know. Promise me you will find a way to tell them."

I promised, and what follows is a promise fulfilled.

Last year, all Catholic prelates who head dioceses and archdioceses in the United States received from the Holy Father’s representative in Washington, D.C., a lengthy questionnaire to which they were to respond in preparation for their so-called "Ad limina" visit to Rome. The questionnaire touched upon just about every issue that concerns the local church from doctrine, to spiritual life, to liturgy, to clergy, to religious, to laity, to schools, to catechetics, to charities, to health care institutions, to seminaries, to finance, and much more. The report was to be sent on to Rome several months before the date assigned for the visit. The bishops of New York were assigned a week in October, and we will be there from Sunday to Sunday.

There are two essential components to the "Ad limina." The first is a private conversation between the diocesan bishop or archbishop and the Holy Father in which they discuss sections of the reports that were sent to Rome or other matters if the Vicar of Christ so desires. The second component is a visit to the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul in their respective Roman basilicas. For some reason, this second component, which always includes Masses at the tombs, has been thought of over the centuries as a passing across the thresholds of the chapels where the tombs are to be found. In Latin, "limina" means "thresholds"; "ad" means "to"; and "Ad limina," therefore, means "To the Thresholds."

Thus, apart from meetings with various offices of the Roman Curia and Masses and prayers in other basilicas and shrines of the bishops’ choice, the "Ad limina" entails an opportunity to speak with the Successor of St. Peter, respond to his questions, and receive his counsel, plus Masses and prayers to venerate the mortal remains and seek the spiritual guidance of the Apostle upon whom the Lord built his Church and the Apostle who brought the Gospel to the Gentiles. The experience is always inspiring. Everyone who participates comes away deeply moved and spiritually strengthened.

There is a solid basis for all of this in Sacred Scripture. In the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, the Apostle of the Gentiles tells of his conversion and reports that, after a time of prayer in Arabia, he went to see Peter, who was in Jerusalem, and remained there with him for 15 days. (Cf. Chapter 1, verse 18.) Moreover, 14 years later Paul repeated the visit, this time – as he puts it – "lest I should be running or had run in vain." (Cf. Chapter 2, verse 2.)

Small wonder, then, that from earliest times bishops from across the known world were coming to Rome either on their own initiative or at the request of the pontiff for consultation with the Successor of Peter. As we learn from ancient documentation, Pope Julius (341-352) ordered such visits for individual bishops or groups of bishops, as did Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) and Pope Paschal II (1099-1118). However, it was not until after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that the rules regulating the "Ad limina" for all diocesan bishops were spelled out – first by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), later by Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758), and finally by Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914), whose norms were repeated in the Code of Canon Law of 1918 and the Code of Canon Law of 1983 as well.

The fundamental reasons for all such visits to the Vicar of Christ have always been the same. They make it possible for Peter to guide the Church Universal on the basis of precise and thorough information from local churches across the globe, and they bind the local churches and their bishops ever more closely to Peter, who is the key and guarantor of unity of faith and practice. Their value can hardly be overstated.

A few weeks after my luncheon with the businessman who was so anxious that the faithful of the archdiocese learn about the "Ad limina," I was contacted by a young priest who wanted to know if others might join the bishops on their visit to the Eternal City so as to take part at least in the Masses at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. "You will certainly be celebrating another Mass at your titular church of SS. John and Paul on the Coelian Hill," he remarked, "and I bet there will be some kind of audience with the Holy Father that everyone could attend and perhaps even a Papal Mass, if we’re lucky."

He had evidently thought the matter through rather thoroughly and continued, "What would you think about inviting those who might be interested to go along with you? October is the best month of the year in Rome, and this could be a real pilgrimage, a time of prayer and a time to rejoice in our being Catholic in union with the Holy Father."

I promised to give the matter some consideration, and so it happened that I have made and fulfilled another promise in connection with the "Ad limina," as will be evident from what my reader will find on Page 7 of this issue of Catholic New York. With the greatest of pleasure, I invite all who are free and up to it to come along. We are on our way "To the Thresholds."

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York