PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin and his fellow New England bishops are in Rome for a weeklong series of meetings and Masses that will include an extended audience with Pope Francis.
All Catholic bishops are required to make a check-in trip to Rome — known as an “ad limina,” Latin for “to the threshold” — every few years. The U.S. bishops are making their trips in groups over the coming weeks, with the New Englanders going first; it is the first ad limina for the American hierarchy since 2011 and 2012, when Benedict XVI was still pope.
“The ad limina is the premier moment of a diocese’s communion with the pope – obviously there’s a keen spiritual aspect to that, but in practice the visit allows a local church to take stock of its strengths, its challenges and how it’s living up to its mission,” Rocco Palmo, author of the influential Catholic news website Whispers in the Loggia, told WPRI 12.
Tobin and the other bishops are staying at the Domus Santa Marta, the Vatican guest house where Pope Francis has chosen to live rather than take up occupancy in the Apostolic Palace.
Tobin spokesperson Carolyn Cronin said the bishop is accompanied on the trip by his administrative secretary, Fr. Jeremy Rodrigues.
“They’ve already begun their meetings with the Vatican offices and the required Masses at the major basilicas – days are pretty full with these meetings and visits,” Cronin said Monday after speaking with Tobin and Rodrigues by phone. That included a Mass on Monday morning at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
Later in the week Tobin also plans to visit the Pontifical North American College, where Patrick Ryan, a seminarian from Coventry, is currently studying for the priesthood, she said.
As Palmo explained the ad limina visit in an article last year, it “has three major facets: the prelates’ prayer at the tombs of Peter and Paul (usually in the form of a Mass at each), a meeting with the pontiff, and morning or afternoon-long sessions with all of the congregations, tribunals and councils of the Roman Curia, one by one.”
Ahead of the trip, each bishop is required to compile and forward to Rome a Quinquennial Report that documents the state of their diocese. Tobin shared some of the numbers for the Diocese of Providence last month, and they revealed a stark decline in Catholic practice in Rhode Island.
The report showed the number of Catholic parishioners in the state has dropped by nearly 40% over the last 18 years, from 525,000 to 321,000, and that Mass attendance has plunged by more than half, to just 80,000 a week. Tobin wrote that the situation “presents daunting challenges.”
Palmo said those numbers, mirrored in other Northeastern dioceses, will provide the backdrop for the bishops’ conversation later in the week with Pope Francis, who is known to place a high priority on the face-to-face meetings. It will be Tobin’s first time meeting Francis in person.
“I’ve heard of bishops coming out of that experience both energized and with a different mindset,” Palmo said in an email, predicting Francis will emphasize the need to build “a church that serves people first instead of institutional ends.”
“Especially given our history of strong institutions in the Northeast, and now the need to constrict them (often painfully so), Catholics are looking for a different approach, but can it stem the tide?” he added. “The next year or two will be telling – only then can we gauge this week’s impact.”
Tobin is due back in Rhode Island next weekend.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook