As auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of London, I made my first ad limina visit in 1987. An ad limina visit is made every five years by diocesan bishops. It entails venerating the tombs of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, officially visiting the four major basilicas, meeting with various officials of the Secretary of State, the curia and their respective congregations, pontifical councils and tribunals.
The unquestionable highlight is, of course, meeting the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome who, in this case, was Pope John Paul II.
We met with the pope on four occasions: our personal audience (Bishop Sherlock and myself), the group audience (the assembly of the bishops of Ontario), a weekday Mass with the pope in his private chapel and finally lunch with the pope in his private dining room.
Most of our days were tightly determined and structured before we got to Rome, for example, where we would stay, time-date-place for daily Eucharist, with whom we would meet, where, what we would like to discuss with each congregation, who would lead the discussion from our end, etc.
The only wild cards were the curia's agenda and the pope's schedule. Although you know the group audience will likely be the last event, you don't know the timing of the other three until a day or two beforehand.
CNS PHOTO | ALESSIA GIULIANI
Pope John Paul II praying here demonstrated the importance of prayer to Bishop Fred Henry. The late pope will be canonized April 27.
I would like to share my story about the Mass with the pope.
About mid-visit, in our temporary mailbox, at the Christian Brothers residence where we were staying, we each got a personally addressed sealed envelope which contained an invitation in raised gold script inviting us to concelebrate Mass with His Holiness at 7 a.m. the following day.
We were instructed to be at the Bronze Doors of the Vatican – right side colonnade of St. Peter's Square at 6:30 am. Very impressive!
We then had to get organized. There were 20 of us, living about 45 minutes to an hour from the Vatican. Public transit doesn't start until about 6 a.m. We needed several taxis to make it on time – a challenge in itself.
We built in a cushion of at least 15 minutes. That means we left the residence about 5:30, which in turn, meant rising by 5 for a shower, shave, etc., and maybe 4:45 if you wanted a coffee before you left.
Being more than a bit excited, I woke up early. I managed a coffee before we left. I couldn't help but notice that even the usual non-morning people were there, alert and talkative. By the grace of God, we even got the needed taxis and were at the Bronze Doors 20 minutes early.
As we entered through the bronze door, we were greeted by the Swiss Guard dressed in full colourful regalia. The first guard stood on a raised dias, at ease, until he spotted the episcopal ring, and then he snapped to attention, saluted and pounded the bottom of the long speared pole on the dias which made a loud echoing noise.
I was fascinated by this recognition, but resisted the temptation to back up and make him do it all again. We presented our invitation to another guard and waited for the other bishops to assemble.
We were eventually ushered up a flight of stairs, across a courtyard to the papal apartments, where we were greeted by gentlemen in brown tuxedos, got into a small elevator and were taken up to the fourth floor.
Exiting the elevator, I was all eyes, trying to take in the patterned marble floors, the sculptures, all the paintings – including those on the ceilings – and the picturesque views of St. Peter's Square from the corridor windows.
We were led to the papal library. There had been a lot of conversation and joking until then, but suddenly it turned deadly silent. Red vestments were already laid out for us on a large boardroom table and we vested in silence, formed a procession, and entered the pope's private chapel.
Pope John Paul was already there at his pre-dieu with his head in his hands – I thought I could see a furrowed brow. This was definitely my lucky day; I ended up in the front row, no tall bishop and his mitre to look around. The pope was so close, I could almost reach out and touch him.
I couldn't believe it; I was there with the pope and he was praying. Eventually, it dawned on me that I should be praying too.
Finally, he finished his prayers before Mass, got up, turned and greeted us, and proceeded to vest. Mass began and I was still in seventh heaven, until he got to the Collect and said: "Let us pray."
There was a noticeable period of silence, he prayed and finally, coming back to reality, I prayed. This was all going by too fast.
After the readings, I sat down and prepared myself for the homily of my life. However, the pope didn't preach but went back to his chair, sat down, closed his eyes and prayed. I was so disappointed but finally got over it and prayed too.
This pattern went on all the way through Mass. Whenever there was an opportunity for silence and personal prayer, the pope prayed and so did I. I'm sure you know what's coming. After Communion, he returned to his chair, sat and prayed. So did I. I was getting into the rhythm by now.
When Mass concluded, he returned to his chair for his thanksgiving prayer. The proper etiquette is you don't leave the chapel until the pope does. So I sat and prayed. Finally, he finished, acknowledged our presence, we formed a procession and left the chapel.
Another bishop nudged me and whispered: "Cripes, I haven't prayed so much for so long." I said: "Yes, I know and I think that was his point. He wanted us to understand that to be a good pope, you need a strong personal relationship with Jesus and a commitment to prayer, and if you guys are to be good bishops, so do you." It was a classic teachable moment.
By extension, I would say if you want to be good disciples, you too need good role models, a commitment to prayer and a personal relationship with Jesus.