To the threshold of the apostles Print
Notes from the Vicar General
Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:18).

From February 9 through 17, 2012, Bishop Robert C. Morlino and the bishops of Region VII (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) will visit Rome for their quinquennial “ad limina apostolorum” visit (literally, “to the threshold [of the tombs] of the apostles” [SS. Peter and Paul]).

In conjunction with Bishop Morlino’s ad limina visit, a pilgrimage to Rome, Assisi, and Orvieto is available for the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. It is being arranged by Mater Dei Tours for the period of February 12 through 23, 2012.

Readers are welcome to go to www.madisondiocese.org for further information on the pilgrimage. Mr. Juan Landa will serve as pilgrimage director and Rev. Greg Ihm will serve as spiritual director and chaplain for the pilgrimage group.

An ad limina visit typically occurs every five years for bishops around the world. The particular interval of this visit is a bit longer since the last visit of U.S. bishops in 2004.

The purpose of the ad limina visit is twofold: to visit the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul and to show reverence to the pope as the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of St. Peter, Bishop of Rome.

To the tombs of the apostles

The bishops on an ad limina visit make a formal pilgrimage to the tombs of the Holy Apostles, SS. Peter and Paul, in order to venerate the sacred relics of these apostles of Rome.

The bishops visit the Basilica of St. Peter on Vatican Hill which houses the tomb of St. Peter. This site, well-known throughout the world, was the location of the famous archeological excavations of the last century that confirmed the longstanding tradition that the tomb of St. Peter is located beneath the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Between 1939 and 1949, the Vatican-led archaeological team uncovered a complex of pagan mausoleums under the foundations of St. Peter’s Basilica (the so called Vatican Necropolis), dating to the second and third centuries. No mausoleum had ever been built directly beneath the present high altar of St Peter’s as burials clustered around but did not encroach upon the central space.

There was a small niched monument built into a wall circa 160 A.D. in that space. In 1942, remains were found in a second tomb in that monument. Bone testing revealed that the remains belonged to a man in his 60s, of robust build, but no feet bones were found (St. Peter is believed to have been crucified upside down at the Vatican site and may have been cut down from the cross at the ankles). On June 26, 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been discovered.

The bishops also visit the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (named for its location beyond the ancient wall surrounding Rome’s center) to venerate the tomb of St. Paul.

In 2006, St. Paul’s stone coffin was found beneath the basilica. The sarcophagus dates back to about 390 A.D. St. Paul was long believed to have been originally buried after his martyrdom in the spot beneath the church’s altar. The sarcophagus was found buried beneath the main altar, under a marble tombstone bearing the Latin words “Paulo Apostolo Mart., meaning “Apostle Paul, Martyr.”

In 2009 scientific tests substantiated that the bones housed in the basilica are those of the apostle St. Paul himself, according to Pope Benedict XVI. Experts drilled a tiny hole in the sarcophagus, which remained closed for nearly two millennia, to allow inspection of its interior. Inside they found “traces of a precious linen cloth, purple in color, laminated with pure gold, and a blue colored textile with filaments of linen. There were also tiny fragments of bone which were subjected to radiocarbon tests by experts who did not know their place of origin. The bones turned out to belong to someone who lived in the first or second century.

To the successor of Peter

The second purpose of the ad limina visit is to show reverence to the pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth and the successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome. This includes acknowledging his universal jurisdiction of the Church by bishops giving an account of the condition of their particular churches (e.g., dioceses). ). The report that is given is a quinquennial (every five year) report of a bishop’s assessment, outlook, and plans for his diocese. The bishops receive the Holy Father’s admonitions, counsel, and advice.

Even more importantly, the bishops’ contact with the Holy Father consolidates unity in faith, hope, and charity, and allows the immense heritage of spiritual and moral values that the whole Church, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, has spread throughout the world, to be better known and appreciated. The visit binds more closely the members of the Church to Her divinely-appointed head.

The history of ad limina visits

Veneration of the tombs of SS. Peter and Paul occurred from the earliest times and the deep spiritual meaning of the veneration of their tombs has been institutionalized as a duty for bishops in the ad limina apostolorum visit to Rome.

Although it was the custom of bishops from the most remote times to refer causes to the pope, and even to visit him personally when circumstances required it, the first traces of this duty are found in the ancient practice of celebrating twice a year provincial councils of the bishops of Italy.

A Roman council under Pope Zacharias in the eighth century decreed that bishops consecrated by the pope, who reside near Rome, should make the visit ad limina yearly in person, and those who are far away should fulfill the same obligation by letter.

A custom gradually arose which, at least from the 11th century, obliged metropolitans when asking for the pallium, and, soon after, all bishops, to visit the thresholds of the apostles at stated times, either personally or by a substitute.

The modern discipline concerning ad limina visits is found in the Decree of the Consistorial Congregation of 1909, issued by order of Pope St. Pius X, which states that every bishop must render to the pope an account of the state of his diocese once every five years. The quinquennial periods began in 1911.

Next week’s column will look at the current ad limina visits and Bishop Morlino’s quinquennial report.