While many families in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania spent Thanksgiving discussing football and politics over turkey dinner, Bishop Joseph C. Bambera was in Rome for a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Pope Francis.
The meeting, which involved all of the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, was an important part of the bishops’ “ad limina” visit.
“He was welcoming, he was disarming in terms of his ordinary, simple demeanor, he was funny, he was extremely well-versed on our situation locally and was very encouraging,” Bishop Bambera said reflecting on the meeting with the Holy Father.
Pope Francis greeted the bishops by saying “Happy Thanksgiving” at the beginning of their discussion. He then encouraged them to ask questions, offer observations or seek input on any situation they wanted to.
The wide-ranging conversation focused on topics including the clerical sexual abuse scandal, ways to be responsive to survivors of sexual abuse and the decreasing number of Catholics in many parts of the East Coast.
“He was very, very in tune to where we are,” Bishop Bambera said.
At the time of the meeting on Nov. 28, Pope Francis had just returned from a weeklong trip to Thailand and Japan. Bishop Bambera said the Holy Father’s comments were very much “like a father.”
“He challenged us, in the best way, to be sensitive to our priests because of what they’re dealing with on the front lines,” Bishop Bambera said. “He encouraged us to be supportive of them and all our people.”
Bishop Bambera says one of the main themes, woven into many of Pope Francis’ comments, was the notion of synodality.
“He was encouraging us to face decision-making and our future in a collaborative way with our people, in a thoughtful and discerning matter and really to encourage us to engage the entire people of God,” Bishop Bambera said.
The bishop was glad to see that synodality is a topic that is important to Pope Francis.
“I found that very, very encouraging. It reflects a lot of the agenda that we’ve set forth for our own Diocese and the vision that we put forward in my pastoral letter when I first started ten years ago as bishop,” he added.
AD LIMINA VISIT PURPOSE
The bishops’ meeting with Pope Francis came during their visits “ad limina apostolorum” – to the threshold of the apostles.
As the “Directory for the ‘Ad Limina’ Visit” makes clear, the bishops’ visits are a pilgrimage with a “very definite purpose: that is, the strengthening of their own responsibility as successors of the Apostles and of their hierarchical communion with the Successor of Peter.”
Throughout November, December, January and February, a total of 15 groups of U.S. bishops will travel to Rome; the visits should conclude Feb. 22 with the bishops of the Eastern Catholic churches in the United States.
At the heart of the bishops’ pilgrimage are Masses at the Rome basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Saint John Lateran and Saint Mary Major.
Bishop Bambera’s visit to Rome Nov. 25 – Nov. 30 was his second ad limina pilgrimage. He was joined by Monsignor Thomas M. Muldowney, V.G., Vicar General of the Diocese of Scranton and Moderator of the Curia.
The U.S. bishops’ last “ad limina” visits were eight years ago, in 2011-2012.
“It really does challenge you. It gives you the opportunity to step aside for a time to reflect upon what you’re called to do and be as a bishop,” Bishop Bambera said.
For Bishop Bambera, the Masses at the basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Outside the Walls held special meaning.
“Those Masses were powerful moments to reflect upon the gift of faith and the call of Jesus to follow after Him. They afforded all of us the opportunity to think about Saint Paul and the message that he preached and proclaimed beyond Jerusalem to the whole Mediterranean world and Saint Peter, the one to whom Jesus entrusted the leadership of the Church!” Bishop Bambera said.
The bishop added that being in those locations was both inspiring and humbling.
“In reflecting upon the great gift of our Catholic faith and the beginnings of our Church, you realize that for all of our brokenness and imperfections, you are a tiny part of something that has touched our world for 2,000 years and continues to provide hope and meaning to people everywhere!” the bishop added.
MEETINGS WITH HOLY SEE OFFICES
In addition to the meeting with Pope Francis and celebrating Masses at the four basilicas, Bishop Bambera also participated in numerous meetings at various offices of the Roman Curia.
The offices that the bishops met with included: Laity, Family and Life; Christian Unity; Congregation for Clergy and the Protection of Minors, among many others.
“The meetings were markedly different,” Bishop Bambera said, comparing them to his first ad limina experience. “They were engaging meetings that acknowledged the challenges and opportunities that we face as leaders of Dioceses and suggested how we can best respond to the needs of the people God has entrusted to our care.”
Prior to arriving in Rome, the bishops of every diocese prepare detailed reports on the life of the Catholic Church in their region.
With 13 total dioceses represented between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Bishop Bambera said many of the dioceses are facing similar challenges.
“They clearly understood what is going on in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” the bishop said.
REALIZING THE UNIVERSALITY OF THE CHURCH
With Bishop Bambera now back home in the Diocese, he has been able to reflect on the meaning of his pilgrimage.
“It helps me realize the universality of the Church,” Bishop Bambera said.
While many people experience faith in their individual parishes, the bishop said there is so much to celebrate globally.
“We are a part of this incredible reality of faith that has grown and flourished from the tiniest of roots in the Middle East 2,000 years ago and touches this whole world and we realize how much we are all alike and how much we are all struggling and looking for the same meaning and purpose and hope in our lives,” he said.
Bishop Bambera said a new sculpture in Saint Peter’s Square helped showcase that for him.
On Sept. 29, Timothy P. Schmalz’s sculpture on the theme of refugees and migration, “Angels Unawares,” was unveiled on the occasion of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The artwork was the first to be added to Saint Peter’s Square in 400 years.
The 20-foot-long and 12-foot-high bronze and clay statue depicts 140 immigrants of different cultures, faiths and ethnicities.
“I think it is extremely meaningful,” the bishop said. “Forever, people have been searching for something more. That search began with Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt, immigrants, refugees in a foreign land.”
As he traveled around Saint Peter’s Square, Bishop Bambera reflected upon the presence of God in the people he encountered.
“Wherever you walk, especially around the Vatican, you see beggars looking for help. It struck me that, there is something sacred about their presence. You realize that God is present not just in the places that you’d think most obvious, the big magnificent church buildings, as beautiful and as meaningful as they are to our faith tradition,” Bishop Bambera explained. “Pope Francis, in a very unique way, has reminded us time and again that God is very much present in these simple souls who are wandering about and in the people who put a coin in their cup. Being a part of that exchange touched me deeply, more than ever before.”