By Cindy Wooden and Jamie O’Brien
Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB has this week joined fellow Australian Bishops in meeting Pope Francis as part of the 2019 Ad Limina visit to the Vatican.
Speaking to Perth Catholics in a video released Thursday 27 June, Archbishop Costelloe said the journey has been a wonderful visit so far.
“And a reminder to all of us in our Catholic tradition, that the Bishops are the successors of the apostles and we’ve come in that capacity, to be with the successor of St Peter, who was the leader of the first group of apostles, to share our thoughts and our concerns and our hopes for the Church in Australia with him, and to invite him to share his wisdom with us,” Archbishop Costelloe said.
“We had a wonderful meeting with Pope Francis, probably about two and a half hours, in which Pope Francis didn’t give us a formal address, but simply invited us to have a brotherly dialogue with him, in which he put a few questions to us and invited us to ask questions or make comments.
“It was a very free flowing and encouraging conversation and realistic about the challenges we face, but encouraging at the same time,” Archbishop Costelloe concluded.
Archbishop Costelloe was joined for the Ad Limina visit, which commenced with a retreat near Rome, by almost 40 Australian Bishops, and Mass at the tomb of St Peter.
Archbishop Coleridge was the principal celebrant and homilist for the Mass in the grotto of St Peter’s Basilica to mark the formal beginning of the visit.
The Ad Limina visit is a combination pilgrimage – with Masses at the Basilicas of St Peter, St Mary Major and St Paul Outside the Walls – and series of meetings with Pope Francis and leaders of many Vatican offices to share experiences, concerns and ideas.
The visits are traditionally required of bishops every five years, but with the increased number of dioceses and bishops around the world, that is no longer possible.
The last Ad Limina visit of the Australian bishops took place eight years ago with Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis no longer meets with each bishop individually and no longer delivers a speech to the entire group.
Instead, he spends 90 minutes or more with each group, answering their questions and offering advice when asked.
In a statement released this week, ACBC President Archbishop Mark Coleridge said to celebrate the Eucharist at the tomb of St Peter and then to engage in pastoral dialogue with his successor was a unique and grace-filled way to start our week in Rome.
In his homily before meeting Pope Francis, Archbishop Coleridge told his fellow bishops that “it is a time for humiliation to give birth to humility.”
He prayed that St Peter – “the Galilean fisherman,” who betrayed Jesus, was forgiven and given the mandate to feed his sheep – would “be our companion and guide on the journey.”
As church leaders continue to face the reality of the clerical sexual abuse crisis and attempts to cover it up, “we as bishops have to discover anew how small we are and yet how grand is the design into which we have been drawn by the call of God and his commissioning beyond our betrayals,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge.
The bishops raised with Pope Francis a number of topics that are of deep concern to the Catholic Church in Australia.
Among them were the Church’s work to eliminate child sexual abuse and to accompany survivors of abuse, the bishops’ desire to support and minister to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the hopes for the Plenary Council and the need to find new ways of witnessing to Jesus Christ in Australian society in a time of change.
“There was an ease and a fraternal warmth in the way Pope Francis spoke and an attentiveness in his listening to the questions the bishops asked,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“For a man of his years, the Holy Father’s energy through a long and complex conversation was amazing.”
Conference Vice-President Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said the meeting with Pope Francis was “moving and deeply encouraging”. He said it showed the benefit of the Petrine ministry, “of being our solid ‘rock’ and ‘confirming the brethren’”.
“The Holy Father clearly understood our situation in Australia. It was a real moment of grace,” Archbishop Fisher said.
Bishop Charles Gauci, the most recently ordained of the Australian bishops, having become Bishop of Darwin last September, said he was “deeply impressed” by Pope Francis.
“I was impressed by his humanity, his compassion, his sense of collegiality, his passion for working with all the people of God in a synodal Church and his true commitment to the Gospel,” Bishop Gauci said.
“I felt a deep sense of connection with the Holy Father as a fellow member of the College of Bishops, as bishops in service of the People of God and in partnership with the People of God.”
Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli posted on social media that the meeting with the Holy Father was “an extraordinary conversation, brother to brothers”. He said it was “spiritually intense, deeply honest, pastorally astute, free and frank”.
The Ad Limina visit continues until Friday, June 28. The Australian bishops will meet in the coming days with the various departments of the Holy See with responsibilities for different aspects of Church life.