VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Religious freedom, "new evangelization" and the push for vocations emerged as key issues during the first round of U.S. bishops' ad limina visits to the Vatican.
Eighteen bishops from New England met with Pope Benedict XVI and top officials of 12 major Roman Curia agencies Nov. 3-9. It was the first of 15 U.S. groups making ad limina visits over the next several months, and the bishops said some particular questions and challenges surfaced quickly in the talks.
A popular topic was vocations, especially to the priesthood, Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford, Conn., told Catholic News Service Nov. 8. He said it was nice to be able to share good news with the pope.
"Many of us here can say we're very much thrilled by the large increase in vocations to the priesthood. In my own archdiocese, eight years ago we had six seminarians, now we have 47 and more on the waiting list," the archbishop said. "Stories like that are true and real and offer great hope now and for the future."
The archbishop said that in the meetings, "The Holy Father is very encouraging. He sees the large picture and he's very conscious of the work that goes on."
Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston said that the bishops had discussed religious freedom in meetings with several Vatican agencies, including pontifical councils that deal with family and laity issues. He said the bishops are "very, very concerned" because "the church's freedom is constantly being eroded" in the United States.
The cardinal said there was a tendency in the United States to interpret religious freedom solely as an individual right, which does not leave the church the space it needs to "live its life and implement its teachings." That is becoming especially apparent on questions regarding marriage, family and human life, he said.
"Obviously, the issues around same-sex marriage are putting the church on a collision course with the civil authority in many different ways," Cardinal O'Malley said.
He also cited the recent decision not to renew a grant by the Department of Health and Human Services to the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services for its human trafficking program. A new requirement by the HHS would oblige MRS to agree to provide the "full range" of reproductive services, including abortion and contraception, to human trafficking victims and unaccompanied refugee minors.
"That was a terrible blow," Cardinal O'Malley said. He said Catholic Relief Services is facing similar pressures in its international relief efforts, as government agencies raise objections to partnering with the church.
The bishops discussed with Vatican officials the recent decision to establish a new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty to shape public policy and coordinate the church's response on the issue. Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the new committee chairman, was part of the first ad limina group.
Cardinal O'Malley said that in their meeting with Vatican liturgy officials, the bishops had an "animated discussion" about the upcoming debut of the new translation of the Roman Missal.
"We shared with them that initially we had great reservations as to how this was going to go," the cardinal said. But as time has passed and Catholics have become better prepared through conferences and seminars, the bishops have become more optimistic, he said.
"I think we've seen a great change from apprehension and inertia to a certain enthusiasm. I'm certainly trying to stress with our priests that this is an opportunity to catechize our people, to once again stress the primacy of the Sunday liturgy in our life as a community of faith," he said.
In their small-group meetings with Pope Benedict, the pontiff focused largely on new evangelization, a topic that has been chosen as a framework for the entire series of ad limina visits.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., said, in his diocese, "We've been focusing on evangelization for several years, so the discussions have dovetailed very neatly with discussions about the Holy Father's proclamation of a Year of Faith (2012-2013) and the new evangelization."
At the same time, he said, "there hasn't been any one issue" that dominated all the discussions. "That makes it interesting and challenging. The topics are across the board, which reflects the reality of the church" and the variety of issues a bishop deals with, Bishop Tobin said.
Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield, Mass., said the ad limina visit, and particularly the group meeting with the pope, was "a great experience, because we learn from each other and we learn most of all from him."
The ad limina is a pilgrimage to the tombs of the apostles and to the pope, the successor of St. Peter, which reminds bishops of "what the sacrifices of the church through the centuries have been and all the great things accomplished," he said.