Canadian Pastors Experience Pastoral Pope on 'Ad Limina' Pilgrimage

By Cindy Wooden

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Sitting in a circle with nine other bishops, discussing with Pope Francis the joys and challenges of ministry, Bishop Claude Champagne of Edmundston, New Brunswick, said, "I recognized the one who wrote 'The Joy of the Gospel.' It was the same guy."

The 10 bishops of Canada's Atlantic region made their "ad limina" visits and pilgrimage to Rome and the Vatican March 13-18. They spent 90 minutes as a group with Pope Francis March 16.

Bishop Champagne said Pope Francis' 2013 exhortation on joy in proclaiming the Gospel was a "very pastoral" document and spending time with him "we recognized again the man with that pastoral experience."

"He was quite interested in what we had to say and he was quite willing to share with us his experiences as a bishop. It was very much like being with an older brother," Bishop Peter J. Hundt of Corner Brook and Labrador, Newfoundland, told Catholic News Service March 17.

"At about the hour point," the bishop said, "some of us were looking at our watches and he said, 'Do you need to go?' And we said, 'No, but we thought you did.' And he said, 'Oh, there's no hurry. I have time.'"

"You got the sense that this was a man who has had the same experiences we have," said Bishop Brian J. Dunn of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. "It was very much pastors sharing back and forth."

Bishop Champagne said the same attitude of listening and sharing was found in the meetings the Atlantic group had with the leaders of various offices of the Roman Curia, too. In 2006, when the Canadian bishops made their last "ad limina" visits, he said, the attitude was different, "maybe more challenged. This time they were trying to understand 'Where do you live? What is your context?' Quite respectful."

Canada's adoption last June of a law allowing assisted suicide and the pastoral responses of the nation's bishops to the law was a subject that came up in many of the Atlantic bishops' meetings with Curia officials, they said.

Bishop Hundt said Vatican officials encouraged the Canadian bishops' focus on providing palliative care to the dying; "that is us being pro-life," he said. "It is us saying life is valuable and we will assist people finding value in it."

"The challenge for us as church is to be an organization that helps people see the value of all life and of God's power in the young and the vulnerable and the elderly," he said.

Bishop Dunn said the bishops have been trying to give their priests and people guidance for "how do we accompany people who are in very difficult situations" and feel "they need to give up their life." The response, he said, must be compassionate while explaining and upholding the truth about the sacredness and dignity of all human life.

"Somebody who is looking at killing themselves is saying that they don't feel their life is worthwhile," Bishop Hundt said. The task of the church is to help them "realize how precious they are to God and that he's there with them."

Two of the prominent issues in the discussion with the pope, the bishops said, were evangelization and reaching out to young people.

"He really encouraged us to be patient," Bishop Hundt said, "and to walk with people we encounter, to seek to be with them where they are and realizing it takes time for people to come around in terms of understanding the faith and coming to know God and his presence and love in their lives."

Pope Francis was encouraging, Bishop Champagne said. "He's saying, 'Don't be pessimistic. There is the power of the Resurrection. Sure there are difficult times, but we are reassured in faith that God is there at work.' The pope said that so many times."

The "ad limina" visits are packed with meetings, but it is not a business trip, Bishop Dunn said. "We all consider this a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to the tombs" of the apostles Peter and Paul and to the pope. But it also is "a pilgrimage not just of the 10 of us, but of all the people we represent: the priests and deacons, religious and all the laity of our dioceses. So there is a sense that we are bringing all the concerns of our dioceses together. It is a spiritual pilgrimage we are doing for our dioceses."