It is 10 years since the Irish bishops made their last ad limina visit to Rome. It will take place from January 15-25.
Literally, an ad limina apostolorum means ‘to the threshold of the Apostles’. It is a pilgrimage to the tombs of Ss Peter and Paul but it is also an opportunity to meet with the Pope and senior officials at the Vatican to discuss the issues facing the Church in Ireland.
When the last visit took place in 2006, St John Paul II had died the year before and Benedict XVI was Pope. Back in Ireland, Bertie Ahern was still Taoiseach and the economic crash had not yet happened. The make-up of the hierarchy was significantly different to what it is today. Leading the Irish bishops on that occasion was Archbishop Seán Brady (yet to be made a cardinal). This time it will be Archbishop Eamon Martin, his successor.
In 2006, the scandals were already very well known and the reputation of the Church was extremely badly damaged. But the Dublin report (2009) had not yet been published and nor had the Cloyne report (2011) which led to Enda Kenny’s famously denunciatory speech in the Dáil in which he thundered against the Vatican. A few days later we closed our embassy to the Holy See, since reopened.
A few months after that, Ireland had a new nuncio in the shape of Archbishop Charles Brown, sent here to improve relations with the Irish State and to help oversee the renewal of the Irish hierarchy.
The three big changes since the 2006 visit are that we have a new Pope in the shape of the popular Pope Francis. All of the big investigations into clerical sex abuse have taken place, and several of the bishops who will take part in the ad limina visit have been appointed under Archbishop Brown, including Eamon Martin.
Despite the fact that the big investigations into the abuse issue have taken place, the scandals will still feature in meetings at the Vatican. The bishops will be keen to report on continued efforts to ensure these scandals never happen again and the Vatican will be keen to hear about this, and learn from it.
When Pope Benedict addressed the Irish bishops in 2006, he brought up two very important topics; Catholic education and vocations. These issues could hardly be more crucial for the future of the Church in Ireland. How strong can Catholicism be in Ireland when many people, despite spending years in Catholic schools, know almost nothing about Catholicism? Indeed, in many cases what they have in the heads instead is a crude anti-Catholic caricature.
If we have few priests and religious the future is also bleak, despite all the talk of lay vocations, which are thinner on the ground than we like to admit in any case.
It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that even by Western standards, Ireland is a vocations blackspot. In Britain, vocations are by no means where they should be, but they are about twice as plentiful as here despite the fact that the Church in England and Wales and Scotland is roughly the same size as on this island.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Catholic seminary in Boston has bounced back after several years in the doldrums. Around the time Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as Archbishop of Boston because of the scandals there, about 30 men were in in the seminary (which serves all of New England), and roughly a third of these were training for life in religious orders.
Today, there are about 100 men in formation at the seminary, with two-thirds bound for the diocesan priesthood and the other third for the religious life. If Boston and New England can bounce back like this why can’t vocations in Dublin, and the Church in Ireland generally? What are we doing wrong? Hopefully the setting up by the Irish bishops of a National Vocations Office is a step in the right direction.
Everyone will be wondering what Pope Francis will have to say. He is hard to predict but it would be surprising if he doesn’t mention vocations, Catholic education, and his favourite theme, mercy, at the very least.
He will surely have something to say about the family as well, given that the World Meeting of Families will be taking place here next year. What will he say? Again, it is hard to call. He might say something ‘liberal’ and crowd-pleasing, but equally he might condemn gender ideology and he might condemn the ‘global war on families’ as he has done before.
When the German bishops met him in 2015 he was very on point about the German Church. The German Church receives a Church tax annually which is worth billions of euro and it is very bureaucratised.
He spoke to them about “sort of new Pelagianism, which puts its trust in administrative structures, in perfect organisations.
He said, “excessive centralisation, rather than helping, complicates the life of the Church and her missionary dynamics.” Maybe he will have something to say that is very specific to Ireland as well.
The Pope also called on the German bishops to defend the right to life. He told them: “The Church must never get tired of being the advocate of life, and should never step back from proclaiming that human life must be protected unconditionally from conception to natural death.”
It would be surprising if Pope Francis does not refer to the right to life in his address given that we appear to be facing into an abortion referendum here.
Ad limina visits are less necessary than they once were. Travel and communication are much easier now than in centuries past. The Church is much more interconnected than it was because of this. However, an ad limina visit is still an opportunity for a Pope to suggest priorities for the Church in a given region. We wait to see what priorities Pope Francis will set for the Church here in Ireland.