Since last fall, U.S. bishops have made their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican, an intense series of encounters that constitute the most comprehensive assessment of church life in the United States since Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005. The visits also give Pope Benedict a platform for commentary, and Vatican sources say the leitmotif of papal talks to the bishops will be "new evangelization" in U.S. society. 

The approximately 200 heads of U.S. dioceses, some accompanied by auxiliary bishops, have arrived in Rome in 15 regional groups, each bringing a "Report on the State of the Diocese" that serves as the basis for discussions. The schedules for the weeklong visits combine prayer and liturgy with more businesslike encounters at key Vatican offices. 

Last week, bishops from Region XI dioceses of the U.S. made their ad limina visits, representing the provinces of Los Angeles (Southern California) and San Francisco (Northern California, Nevada, Utah and Hawai).

The "ad limina" visits are often described as the Catholic version of branch managers reporting to the head office. Vatican officials say that's a misconception. 

"If we only looked at the administrative aspect of these visits, we would not understand them. They are first of all moments of communion and collegiality, a faith experience," Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops, told Catholic News Service. 

He said that when the groups of bishops pray and celebrate liturgies together, hold meetings with the Vatican and then engage in informal conversations among themselves, they are able to take a break from purely local affairs and look at things from a more universal perspective. 

The visits are also a time when bishops and the Vatican can remove "prejudices" that may arise on issues that are treated in the media or public debate, but often without much direct communication between Rome and local church leaders, Cardinal Ouellet said. 

"They clarify questions with us and we clarify questions with them. It is really very positive," the cardinal said. 

The title of the visits comes from the Latin phrase "ad limina apostolorum" (to the thresholds of the apostles), a reference to the pilgrimage to the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul that the bishops are required to make. 

Each bishop is asked to prepare in advance a report on virtually every aspect of diocesan life, including family life, education, clergy and religious, lay involvement, vocations, priestly formation, religious practices and demographics. 

These reports are taken seriously at the Vatican, Cardinal Ouellet said. They are circulated to heads of Vatican agencies and to the pope ahead of time, so that meetings can be productive. 

The U.S. bishops plan group meetings with officials of several Vatican agencies. They include the congregations in charge of doctrine, clergy, bishops, worship, education and religious orders, and pontifical councils that deal with ecumenism, the family and laity. The bishops are being encouraged to meet with the council for new evangelization, and some will hold talks with the council for health care. 

These discussions involve shared concerns and interests, but some bishops also schedule private meetings with Vatican officials to deal with specific diocesan issues. 

On these pages: Photo highlights of the Region XI ad limina visit.


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