Our first day of “work” started off with Mass at the Tomb of St. Peter at eight o’clock in the morning. You can view photos graciously taken and shared by SueAnn Howell with The Catholic News Herald, the Diocese of Charlotte’s newspaper, here. The altar of St. Peter stands right above what is believed to be the burial place for the first pope. At that time, the Vatican Hill was outside of the city of Rome, on the outskirts as it were, and was the traditional burial place for non-Romans and especially for those convicted and executed for breaking Roman law. After his crucifixion upside-down, Peter’s body was likely dumped into a common gravesite. It was not long before Christian converts in Rome began to come to this site to recall and pray for Peter.
The Emperor Constantine in the third century after his conversion began an excavation to see if it might be possible to locate Peter’s remains. He also began construction on the first Basilica dedicated to the prince of the apostles. Through the years scholars have come to agreement on the site of the burial, the likely place of the body, and parts of the Constantinian basilica remain under the foundations of the present mega-basilica. Interested pilgrims can make arrangements to view the excavations under the present St. Peter’s Basilica and the tour is called the “scavi”. Reservations well in advance are required and there is a fee for the approximately ninety minute tour, many of which are conducted in the afternoons by trained seminarians from the North American College.
The altar where Mass was offered this morning is directly above the excavation site. It is, however, the place to which every bishop in the world returns once every five years to offer one of two required Masses during their ad liminavisits. So our working time in Rome began with Mass at the threshold of the place of Peter’s burial. Archbishop Wilton Gregory is the senior archbishop of the two provinces on this visit and it fell to him to offer the Mass and to preach the homily.
Immediately after Mass, we departed for our first and only curia meeting which was with the Apostolic Signatura. Think Supreme Court! The Signatura is the final court of appeal in Church Law. It hears appeals from decisions of other congregations of the Roman Curia such as the Congregation for Clergy which adjudicates right now the requests of bishops throughout the United States who wish to close a parish or sell a church building for some profane use. It also hears appeals of decisions arrived at in local diocesan marriage tribunals regarding nullity of marriages. One can safely posit that the Signatura is the responsible Vatican body for directing diocesan marriage tribunals throughout the world. A third task of the Signatura is to receive and adjudicate appeals concerning the removal of pastors if the procedure utilized to accomplish this did not conform to the law of the Church. An American cardinal is the head of the Signatura at this time, Cardinal Raymond Burke, originally a priest of the diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and then its bishop, archbishop of St. Louis, and now the “chief justice” of our Church’s highest appeals court. The Cardinal and his principal assistant, the Belgium Bishop Daneels were most hospitable in welcoming us and spoke to and with us for about seventy-five minutes. Unlike the dioceses of the east and Midwest of the United States, our region is more interested in opening parishes to serve a growing population than in closing them so our discussion did not center on Church closures but mostly matrimonial jurisprudence. At the conclusion of this meeting, the province of Miami was free for the rest of the day. The province of Atlanta, however, had their audience with the Holy Father at eleven a.m. and returned to the North American College with a wonderful sense of having trust taken part in something quite wonderful and stimulating.
In the evening, we bishops were invited to a reception at the residence and embassy of the Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See. The current occupant is a long time friend of most of the Florida bishops, Ambassador Miguel Diaz. A Miami native, the ambassador is a graduate of University of Notre Dame with a degree in theology and he taught and was academic dean at our St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary before he left to join the faculty of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Appointed by President Obama as his representative to the Holy See, he is completing three full years in a position which is often described as one of the best listening posts in the world. With our far-flung diocesan and parish networks, the Holy See is often well aware of developments in nations before even the local embassies. Ambassador Diaz was most gracious is welcoming us and it was good to see him again.
Tomorrow portends to be a busier day for us and the pesky rain seems to be dissipating making it possible to more easily get out and enjoy this remarkable city. We will see.