Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Duluth's Bishop Paul Sirba Visits the Pope!

The Northern Cross - Fiat Voluntas Tua

First ad limina visit to Rome a memorable experience

I continue to ponder the meaning of my first “ad limina” visit. I am sure I will do so for years to come. “To the threshold of the Apostles” — part pilgrimage, part meeting, all done in communion with the bishops of the United States and the Duluth's Bishop Paul Sirba Visits the Pope and the Vicar of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI.

Bishop Paul D. Sirba
Fiat Voluntas Tua
On the day of the audience, Archbishop John Nienstedt led the delegation of bishops from Minnesota. He greeted the Holy Father, followed by Bishop Lee Piché, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. We then proceeded in alphabetical order by diocese, Bishop Michael Hoeppner from the Diocese of Crookston; yours truly; Bishop John LeVoir from the Diocese of New Ulm; Bishop John Kinney from the Diocese of St. Cloud; and Bishop John Quinn from the Diocese of Winona, with retired Bishop Bernard Harrington.

I was able to bring along one of our seminarians from the North American College, Elias Gieske, to accompany me.

I took off my zucchetto, bent down on one knee, and reverenced the Holy Father’s ring. I then looked into the kind and deep eyes of Pope Benedict XVI and introduced myself as the bishop of Duluth from northeastern Minnesota. I assured the Holy Father of the love and prayers of the faithful of our diocese. I said: “Thank you, Holy Father, for leading us to Jesus!”

The Vatican photographer quickly snapped a number of photographs. He captured the moment for a visual memory. I introduced Elias Gieske as one of our seminarians to be ordained a deacon on June 21. “A deacon in June,” the Holy Father said. I took it as a papal pronouncement. Eli got his photo op, and then the two of us looked on as the Holy Father blessed the holy cards I will distribute to the confirmation candidates around the diocese this year.

After all the bishops, priests and seminarians had greeted the pope, the bishops took their seats on either side of the Holy Father’s chair, the priests and seminarians left, and we had our audience with the Successor of St. Peter.

He greeted us warmly. He spoke of the importance of our meeting, our communion with the office of St. Peter, and his desire to hear from us about matters of importance that the church is experiencing in our part of the Lord’s vineyard.

Beginning with Archbishop Nienstedt, each of the bishops presented briefly on topics of importance for our local church. We had sent ahead of us our Quinquennial Reports detailing matters we were now presenting.

The bishops spoke about marriage, the blessings and challenges, our efforts in Minnesota to pass an amendment to our state constitution defining marriage between one man and one woman. We spoke to the sometimes negative responses we have encountered and the conviction and unity of the bishops to defend marriage.

We thanked His Holiness for the third edition of the Roman Missal. We reflected on our ecumenical efforts, and Bishop Piché greeted our Holy Father on behalf of the Lutheran bishops of Minnesota.

We addressed the need for priests and the hope of more vocations. We spoke about the signs of hope in the quality of the men and women considering vocations to the priesthood, religious life and permanent diaconate. Our seminaries, the St. Paul Seminary and St. John Vianney Seminary, are full.

I had the honor of mentioning our work with the youth. The night before the audience, I accompanied Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché to visit the Catholic Studies students from the University of St. Thomas’ Bernardi campus. Two of our seminarians, Deacon Daniel Weiske and Nicholas Nelson, serve as chaplains at the campus. One of the students, Ann Thompson, is from St. Joseph’s in Crosby. What a great example of what a Catholic Studies program can be!

I told the 30-plus students I would have the opportunity to speak to the Holy Father tomorrow about the youth in our region and asked them what they might say if they had the chance. One student said, with such beautiful conviction: “Tell the Holy Father how much we love him!” He is to them a spiritual father leading them in word and witness to Jesus. I expressed the sentiments to His Holiness. He was grateful. I thanked him for World Youth Day and Youcat and for introducing our young people to silence as a place to encounter God.

The bishops spoke about the importance of Catholic identity and the need to form a new generation of leaders who embrace the church’s teaching in love, are willing to be counter-cultural, and lead our institutions.

Echoing the comments of bishops across the United States, we spoke about the attacks against our religious liberty and the challenges ahead. And we thanked the Holy Father for his leadership and strong response in the face of clergy sexual abuse, especially his meeting with victims of abuse on his journeys. His example gives direction and brings healing.

The next day we had the privilege of meeting a second time in audience with Pope Benedict XVI. He delivered a discourse, the third of five to be given to the bishops of the United States. The full text is printed in this issue of The Northern Cross.

In this talk, our Holy Father spoke to the serious issue the bishops have been raising in our “ad limina” visits, namely, the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family, and, more generally, of the Christian vision of human sexuality.

As you can see, the Holy Father is close to us. As a good Shepherd, he is concerned for the Lord’s flock. He is with us in the challenges we face and continually encourages us and points us to Jesus as our loving Redeemer and our source of hope.

“To all of you I willingly impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of wisdom, strength and peace in the Lord,” he said.

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