From the Threshold of the Apostles Print
Notes from the Vicar General
Thursday, Mar. 22, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

Notes from the Vicar General, by Msgr. James Bartylla

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

In my previous two-part preparatory article, I outlined the historical context and current format and content of the ad limina apostolorum pilgrimage, literally, “to the threshold of the apostles,” by bishops to Rome on a quinquennial basis, i.e., five-year basis.

Bishop Robert C. Morlino and the bishops of Region VII, comprising Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, recently completed their pilgrimage and I’ll offer a brief reflection in thanksgiving as a privileged pilgrim accompanying Bishop Morlino on the ad limina pilgrimage.

I extend my deepest thanks to Bishop Morlino for the opportunity to assist him and accompany him on the ad limina pilgrimage.

Tombs of the Apostles

During the ad limina visit, the bishops recited the Apostles Creed and celebrated Mass at the tombs of SS. Peter and Paul. At the beginning of the ad limina pilgrimage, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, was the main celebrant for an early morning Mass in the grotto section of the Basilica of St. Peter where one is literally in front of the bones of St. Peter.

Before pilgrims and tourists arrive for the day to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, there’s a quiet in the basilica that lends itself to prayer and solemnity as one almost has the immense basilica to oneself. In reciting the Apostles Creed, one can’t help but be inspired that one

is next to the bones of the disciple who knew and loved Jesus, denied him in weakness, recovered in forgiveness to lead His Church, and eventually was crucified upside down at the Circus of Nero on Vatican hill.

Later in the ad limina pilgrimage, the bishops also celebrated Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Historically, St. Paul was taken outside the city walls of Rome and beheaded at the location of Tre Fontane, i.e., “three fountains,” south of ancient Rome. There is currently a Trappist abbey on that spot of St. Paul’s execution.

St. Paul’s body was eventually buried at the nearby site where the Roman Emperor Constantine I built a church over his relics, i.e., the current location of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Pope Blessed John Paul II

The bishops also celebrated Mass at the altar of Pope Blessed John Paul II in the Basilica of St. Peter on Saturday, Feb. 11, on the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes. Bishop Morlino was the main celebrant and gave a wonderful homily on the World Day of the Sick and its connection to the life of Pope Blessed John Paul II. We prayed for the sick and suffering, particularly from our own dioceses.

Pope Blessed John Paul II is buried under the altar beneath the mosaic of St. Sebastian whose martyrdom included surviving being shot with arrows by official archers and eventually being clubbed to death for the faith related to criticizing Roman Emperor Diocletian, circa 268 A.D. It’s a fitting location for a pope who survived an assassination attempt to lie beneath the mosaic of a saint who survived an initial execution attempt.

Pope Benedict XVI

Early in the ad limina pilgrimage, the audience with the Holy Father was scheduled. I’ve met the Holy Father a number of times through the years, and I never lose the sense of awe at the palpable sense of holiness and reverence when I’m in the presence of the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of St. Peter.

I spoke with Bishop Morlino and the other bishops after the audience, and they shared those same sentiments even with their unique closeness to Pope Benedict XVI in the college of bishops. Even with the Holy Father’s pastoral mission for the entire world and the universal Church, I’m always amazed at the insightful and deep knowledge the Holy Father has of the United States and the individual dioceses in the United States.

Fraternity and collegiality

Amidst all of the meetings, Masses, audiences, and visits to key sites in Rome, one of the items I enjoyed the most was the bus ride arranged for the bishops and their staff to the various events. It was a time to informally talk with the bishops and priests from the dioceses of our region of the United States on the ad limina pilgrimage.

One of the things that struck me and other priests on the pilgrimage was the wonderful collegiality and fraternity among the bishops. It was a chance for many of us to see the fruit of the unity of the Church among the bishops not only spiritually and ecclesiologically, but also on a profoundly human level.

Interestingly, this more “casual” fruit from the pilgrimage may be what I remember the most as a unique reflection on the strength, beauty, and wisdom of the Church.

Consistory of Cardinals

Towards the end of the ad limina pilgrimage, as our schedule began to wind down, the plans for the Ordinary Consistory of the College of Cardinals began to unfold.

Archbishop Edwin O’Brien and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the United States were elevated to the College of Cardinals. Both Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal O’Brien are former rectors of the Pontifical North American College, i.e., the North American seminary in Rome. In fact, Cardinal Dolan was the rector and my own “floor priest” during my seminary years at the Pontifical North American College.

On the Friday prior to the consistory, Cardinal-elect Dolan addressed the College of Cardinals on the New Evangelization. In his address, he emphasized that even those steeped in secularism have an innate longing for the divine, and that the New Evangelization must encompass joy, love, truth, catechesis, and courage as we invite people to know the person of Jesus Christ.

Seminarians, pilgrims, and prayers

Lastly, I want to convey to our readers the great joy that comes from seeing Fr. Tait Schroeder and our seminarians studying in Rome and visiting with our diocesan pilgrims who accompanied Bishop Morlino through the generous service of Mater Dei Tours and Juan Landa and the spiritual direction of Fr. Greg Ihm.

The New Evangelization will garner its energy and vitality from the ranks of our beloved seminarians, and I saw that in the faces of Rev. Mr. Mark Miller, Scott Jablonski, Scott Emerson, and Gabi Lopez-Betanzos, all of whom are studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Our pilgrims also bring their zeal and love for the Church, and I enjoyed seeing the wonder and awe in the faces of the diocesan pilgrimage group in Rome. They had the profound opportunity to visit not only the sites of Rome, but also the sites of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi, and the Cathedral of Orvieto, which is the site of a Eucharistic miracle and the inspiration for the Feast of Corpus Christi and the accompanying hymns composed by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Let us all pray for the Catholic Church in America in these difficult times of challenges to our religious liberty in the United States. May the beautiful unity of hearts and minds among our bishops, which I personally witnessed, redound into the hearts of all the faithful in the Diocese of Madison and all the dioceses of Region VII as a particular gift of the ad limina pilgrimage to strengthen us in the trials from the growing secularism and moral relativism in our society.


Msgr. James Bartylla is the vicar general of the Diocese of Madison.