The seventh and final day of our week-long ad limina is now over and this will be the final posting as I will be travelling back to Tampa tomorrow all day. My flight leaves Rome at 655am EDT (1255pm Rome time) and I arrive back home at 1035pm EDT (435am Rome time) if all goes well. The layover in New York’s JFK airport is scheduled for two hours and ten minutes so I should be “at altitude” for thirteen hours approximately.
Our final day in the eternal city seemed to go on eternally. We began with a visit to the Congregation for Catholic Education, which is responsible for Catholic schools and colleges and universities, religious education and the catechism, and all seminaries throughout the world. The presentation by the Prefect, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, in this congregation was quite lengthy filling the whole hour and I had my cassock on throughout the meeting, was dying from the heat, and wishing for air conditioning somewhere, anywhere and soon. It came when we arrived at the Apostolic Palace for our visit with Pope Benedict XVI. More about that later. The bishops from the Atlanta province (Charlotte, Raleigh, Charleston, SC, and Savannah) had the rest of the morning off and were driven back to the North American College while the six bishops and one bishop-elect of the Miami province were driven to the Apostolic Palace.
The Holy Father lives on the top or third floor of a massive building to the right of St. Peter’s Square. His bedroom is a small room on the far right side which is accessed through a small parlor which is itself accessed through his private office where he sees no one officially but writes and works. When one has a private audience with the Pope, you go no higher than the second floor, which is full of formal reception rooms. His private quarters are small so the term “palace” is barely applicable. Also living on the third floor are his two priest secretaries, and the sisters who perform the housekeeping and prepare his meals. His very private chapel is there as well.
For an audience appointment of eleven o’clock which was our appointed time, one usually arrives at least thirty minutes early, passing a number of Swiss Guard who stand impressively tall and still. For the minutes leading up to being led into his presence, you can usually count on remaining for a time in about three reception rooms. As one person or group exits the waiting area and into the presence of the pope, you are moved forward one more reception rooms until you make the turn and are on the side facing St. Peter’s square. When I first started doing this routine in 1979, my knees would knock, my hands would sweat, I would begin to perspire all in anticipation of that final door. Today we were led directly to the final waiting room. Then we were ushered into his presence. The successor of St. Peter was standing this morning with a welcoming smile on his face and each of us was allowed to bring one priest or seminarian in with us to have a quick picture taken and then whomever we chose (Monsignor Bob Morris this morning) were ushered out and we were asked to take seats close to the Pope.
He was interested in hearing from each of us whatever we wished to share with him from our diocesan experiences and he would offer a brief reaction to whatever we said. All told with seven bishops present, we took about twenty minutes of his time. To me he seemed more tired than when I was with him in November, breathing a little more deeply and heavily but still so gracious and humble. This man, like Paul VI, is a very humble priest, despite his reputation sometimes to the contrary. I think I could capture the feelings of our group of seven bishops that we were genuinely grateful that he could still take the time to welcome each of us. Traditionally at the end of the Ad Limina visits with the popes, we receive some gift and it has been for the last four visits of US bishops a pectoral cross which we wear close to our heart as a constant reminder that sometimes shepherding the churches can be an invitation to carry a cross.
In the afternoon I had pranzo (aka “Lunch”) with Monsignor Gerald Cadieres, a student of mine at St. John Vianney College Seminary and the first South American to complete his theology work in Rome as a student at the North American College. He gave me the privilege of vesting him for his diaconate ordination here at St. Peters and it is always wonderful to see him during my visits. He works in the Spanish language section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Later in the afternoon a highlight for me was meeting after a long absence Cardinal Agostino Cacchiavillan, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America and a man with whom I worked during my six years as General Secretary of the Episcopal Conference of the United States. He was a wonderful friend and mentor then and remains such even today. It was a terrific penultimate way to say farewell to Rome.
The “proof sheets” of the several hundred pictures taken of us this morning by the one photographer were back at the North American College by two o’clock and the bishops behave like parents at confirmation trying to get the pictures taken of their child with the bishop. It was like Disney animal time at the Magic Kingdom with people ordering photographs by the score. I am supposed to get a digital disc tonight later and if it arrives, one of the seventy pictures taken in less than two minutes of Monsignor Morris and I and it should be on this blog.
Sunday I celebrate my thirty-fourth anniversary of priestly ordination and Monsignor Bob Morris celebrates his twenty-first a few days later, so with our colleagues from the Pastoral Center we had our final dinner in Rome and attempted to make it memorable.
I leave with some very strong, mostly emotional feelings. First, I took Pope Benedict’s leave with the very strong feeling that I likely shall not be seeing him again. It was that same feeling in the gut I had when as a child we would take our leave of our 80 and 90-year-old grandparents. Secondly, I am clearing out my closest in the Bishops Larkin and Lynch Suite and bringing almost everything home tomorrow, as I do not anticipate coming back again, at least for business. Thirdly, all of us had a hard time tonight saying goodbye to Ryan Boyle our seminarian here who has shared much of his time with the eight of us. If generosity, hospitality, and helpfulness are predictors of a successful priesthood, Ryan will do very well. The seminarians at the North American College could not have been more hospitable this week, unfailingly kind and solicitous. Likewise the staff, priests and domestics which have in the last six months watched two of their former rectors made Cardinals, fifteen regions of the US bishops pass through for at least a week and the normal flow of guests and visitors coming to Rome, they have all been just terrific. All of the bishops of Region XIV are grateful to them.
So it is arrivaderci Roma, good-by, farewell to Rome, city of a million moon lit places, city of a million smiling faces, far from home. I believe this is my forty-fifth trip to the Eternal City and the Italian language had a great single word for how I feel tonight, basta, “enough.” Thanks for reading these entries and now it is back to confirmations, ordinations, graduations, birthday and anniversary. Ciao for now.
P.S. The much anticipated disc with the pictures seems not to have arrived as of this writing and posting of this blog entry, so I will post some of them tomorrow or whenever. If you can’t stand the wait, the mother of all ecclesial blogs, http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/ has them available for viewing. You can view more photos from the trip, graciously taken and shared by SueAnn Howell with the Catholic News Herald, the diocesan newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte, here.