Bishop Johnston to Rome for 2020 Ad Limina visit

Pope Francis and Bishop Johnston, Oct. 2019.

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — For centuries, the Catholic bishops of the world have periodically traveled to Rome to visit and pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, celebrate Masses in the great basilicas, report on the state of their dioceses to the Pope, and receive his counsel and admonitions. This is known as the Visit Ad Limina, meaning To the Thresholds of the Apostles.

Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church claim apostolic succession, direct historical lineage, dating back to the Apostles, especially St. Peter and St. Paul. Thus, the Ad Limina is not only a pilgrimage to the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, both of whom were martyred in Rome, but also a display of reverence for the successor of St. Peter, the Pope, and an acknowledgement of his jurisdiction over the universal Church by giving an accounting of the churches within their dioceses.

Right now, in mid-January 2020, the 15 Bishops of U.S. Region 9 — Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska — are preparing to make the Ad Limina pilgrimage. While Bishop James Johnston, Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has traveled to Rome several times — the Ad Limina in March 2012 as Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, and he met with Pope Francis this past October — this will be his first Visit Ad Limina as Bishop of this diocese. He expects to be in Rome Jan. 11 – 18, with Region 9 bishops meeting with Pope Francis Jan. 16.

The Ad Limina has a long history; some date its beginnings back to the first centuries of the Church. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Ad Limina apparently started with a bi-annual council of the bishops of Italy associated with the province of the Pope. In the fifth century, Pope Leo I summoned Sicily to send three bishops each year to assist at a council. The yearly council gradually changed over the next century to once every three years.

During the ensuing 13 centuries, several popes made additional changes to the periodic visit to Rome.

In 1909, Pope St. Pius X decreed that all Catholic bishops worldwide, beginning in 1911, must, in addition to the Visit Ad Limina, submit an account of the state of their diocese to the pope quinquennially — every five years. 

The three most recent pontiffs, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005-2013) and Pope Francis (2013-current), have incorporated their own styles into the Ad Limina Visit format. 

When Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978, taking the name John Paul II, Vatican records showed 2,423 dioceses around the world.

During Ad Limina visits, Pope John Paul II met privately with each bishop; he also invited groups of bishops to attend his morning Masses and give a speech to each group.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005, after the death of John Paul II, taking the name Benedict XVI. Around 2009-2010, he modified the format of the Ad Limina visit, meeting with small groups of bishops — usually 7-10 — and reducing the number of speeches he gave to the bishops.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the last time the U.S. bishops made the Ad Limina visit was in 2011-12. 

Today, the Catholic Encyclopedia said Vatican records indicate 3,017 dioceses.

Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, was elected pope following Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013. He too has tweaked the structure of his meetings with the bishops; now he meets with regional groups together for an hour and a half to two hours sitting in a circle in the papal library.

The 15 bishops of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska are scheduled to meet with Pope Francis Jan. 16, Bishop Johnston said. He described the Ad Limina in part as a visit to the successor to St. Peter to renew the commitment to and relationship with him. As such, he expects little difference from the 2012 Visit Ad Limina, except in small procedural ways, such as the meeting in the papal library. He rather expects Pope Francis to conduct that meeting in Spanish but said Bishop John B. Brungardt of the Dodge City diocese in Kansas is fluent in Spanish and may serve as interpreter.

Before and after the meeting with Pope Francis, the bishop’s days in Rome will be filled with appointments with the Vatican Secretary of State, and introducing himself to the various Congregations, Commissions and Dicasteries (departments of the Holy See) including the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Commission on Youth and Young People, the Congregation for Institutes of Saints, the Congregation for Catholic Education, and others. The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan account has already been sent to the Holy See, but Bishop Johnston said he would likely take a hard copy with him for reference.                                                                                                      

Bishop Johnston gave an overview of the account, which consists of statistics including the number of parishes, schools, diocesan clergy and religious orders, Catholic hospitals, permanent deacons and lay ministers and the number of Catholics in the diocesan area; the Mutually Shared Vision pastoral plan “One Family, Restored in Christ, Equipped for Mission,” its challenges and opportunities; as well as updates to the 2012 quinquennial report; for example, the 2019 Kenedy Directory records the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese as comprised of 123,441 Catholics in the 27-county diocese with a population of 1,568,149.

Some of those updates, the bishop said, include the reinforcement and elevation of the diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection; the process of compiling the list of credible abuse accusations against clergy, Journey to Bethany, a program designed to address the variety of wounds and broaden awareness of the healing resources within the diocese. It will initially focus on those harmed by clergy sexual abuse. The report also includes the use of diocesan resources and how they serve the mission of the Church, their impact on the life of the church over the next five years or more.

He will also celebrate a “Prayer Mass” at the Tomb of St. Peter in the crypt below the Basilica of St. Peter and at the Tomb of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul “Outside the Walls,” in accordance with the original purpose of the Visit Ad Limina — to the thresholds of the Apostles.

“The Ad Limina is part pilgrimage to the foundational Apostles’ tombs, the two whom Christ himself chose to carry on the work of the church he founded,” he said.

The Caravaggio painting of The Madonna di Loreto (completed in 1606), Our Lady of Pilgrims, which hangs in the Basilica of St. Augustine in Rome.

Bishop Johnston looks forward to visiting and praying at the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major) and the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome (i.e., Pope Francis), consecrated in the 4th century to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist and completed in the 17th century. He also plans to visit his personal favorite, the Basilica of St. Augustine, containing the tomb of St. Monica and the Caravaggio painting of the Madonna di Loreto, Our Lady of Pilgrims. There he will pray for families, for couples hoping to have children and other prayer requests. He will similarly pray at the Church of San Clemente, the 11th century Minor Basilica dedicated to St. Clement.

He applauded the “beautiful variety of charity in the diocese, the creative ways of serving those in need displayed by Catholic Charities, Morning Glory Ministries, Bishop Sullivan Center, A Simple House, St. Vincent de Paul, and many other ministries,” saying they would be mentioned in his meeting with Pope Francis. 

Bishop Johnston is proud of the “good, hard work the diocese has done, growing God’s family, healing God’s family and sharing missionary discipleship.” He said the diocese continues to be blessed with vocations, to the priesthood especially, a sign of vibrancy in the faith of the diocese. “We have a number of good candidates for the priesthood and for the permanent diaconate,” he said.

While in Rome, he also plans a visit with Paul Sappington, a Theology II seminarian at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

The Visit Ad Limina is much more than a business trip for the bishops. Bishop Johnston reflected that, “The Ad Limina offers a deep realization of the continuity of the Church. It is part of something created by God. In making the Ad Limina visit, I feel solidarity with the past, with the saints and with the first Apostles.” 


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October 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph