TORONTO (CCN) — Atlantic Canada bishops will lead off two months of visits to Rome which will see all of Canada’s active bishops participate in ad limina meetings with a pope for the first time since 2006.
The visits will help Canada’s bishops develop national pastoral responses to two thorny issues, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and Catholics who choose legal assisted suicide, said Bishop Douglas Crosby, president of the Canadian bishops conference.
Halifax-Yarmouth Archbishop Anthony Mancini will lead the Atlantic Episcopal Assembly beginning March 7. Ad limina apostolorum (“to the threshold of the Apostles”) visits are usually scheduled once every five years, but were held back in the later years of Pope Benedict XVI and the early years of Pope Francis.
“We will come back with a message of encouragement and support,” Mancini told The Catholic Register. “That’s really the spiritual reason for this exercise — to experience our interior connectedness, our relationships with each other as brother bishops along with the Holy Father. He has an opportunity to do his job, which is to be the source of unity for the whole thing.”
Crosby will be making his third ad limina visit, having met St. John Paul II as a young bishop from Labrador-Schefferville, Pope Benedict XVI as bishop of St. George’s, Nfld., and now Pope Francis as bishop of Hamilton.
“First of all it’s a spiritual experience,” said Crosby. “We will celebrate mass there and pray for our dioceses and renew our spiritual connection and our spiritual commitment to the work of the Apostles.
“We’ll be discussing the big questions that face us as a church in Canada, the questions of assisted suicide and how we respond to that,” said Crosby. “I don’t think the conference is divided on this. I think the conference is trying to find its way in a new pastoral reality.”
One thing Mancini doesn’t expect from the meetings is instructions on how to solve problems in Canada.
“You know, we’re not branch managers,” Mancini said.
Pope Francis has emphasized the teaching and effectiveness of national bishops’ conferences and groupings of conferences in all his important documents. The message has been that co-operation among bishops who share a common cultural and civil context should be the first tool bishops reach for when faced with a problem, said Mancini.
“It’s not a matter of seeking permissions (from Rome),” Crosby said. “There is a sharing of the life of the diocese. There is questioning about particular issues, if you want. But the work of the dicasteries (Vatican departments) is like supporting the brothers.”
Bishops in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Western Canada have issued guidelines to priests should they be faced with Catholics asking for the sacrament of the sick, a last confession or a mass of Christian burial after choosing assisted suicide. As of yet, there are no national guidelines.
Similarly, following the publication of Amoris Laetitia, there is no national position on how and when to use a process of shared discernment and the internal forum before re-admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. The Archdiocese of Ottawa and the Military Ordinariate of Canada last month adopted guidelines for discernment and the use of the internal forum that were first published by the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
These guidelines stress there is no new teaching about the permanence of the sacrament of marriage, nor any new teaching about whether an objective state of sin bars Catholics from receiving the eucharist. Priests are asked to encourage divorced Catholics to apply to a marriage tribunal for an annulment before going to communion. But the guidelines also encourage pastors to share in their parishioners’ struggles, including their failures.
“It means welcoming and loving people where they are at, no matter how sinful and disordered their lives might be,” Bishop Scott McCaig of the Military Ordinariate wrote in a message to his priests. “We do this without judgment or condescension, knowing that we ourselves are sinners who have received mercy.”
Amoris Laetitia was issued last April and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops didn’t have time to come up with a consensus interpretation of the document for its fall plenary meetings, Crosby said. More time will be devoted to study of the document this fall, he said.
The experience of Chile’s bishops at their February ad limina visits may indicate Pope Francis is doing things differently. Instead of a single formal meeting between the pope and the bishops at which bishops would present a summary of their challenges and hopes to which the pope would formally respond, Pope Francis has added a second, less formal meeting. The pope gathered the Chilean bishops in a circle around him for one session.
“As we were seated around him,” Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez of San Bernardo told the Catholic News Service, “the pope — in his Argentine manner of speaking — told us: ‘Well, the soccer ball is in the centre. Whoever wants to and is brave enough, give it a kick.’ ”
The ad limina essentials are “fresh enthusiasm and a spiritual renewal,” said Crosby. “They are things you need, we all need, at all times.”
With files from Deborah Gyapong and the Catholic News Service.