Thirteen bishops recently traveled to Rome to meet with the pope and deepen their bonds of communion with the universal church. As I followed them to churches from one end of the Eternal City to the other for stories and photos, I found my own bonds of communion with the church strengthened and my own faith getting a lift.
The bishops — from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota — were making their periodic “ad limina” visits, which always feature stops at the city’s major basilicas, including the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul.
It was at St. Peter’s Basilica one morning, down in the crypt area by the Altar of the Tomb, that the specialness of where I was standing struck me. All the bishops were gathered around the altar with their backs to a glass partition, behind which — not very far away — was the tomb of St. Peter himself.
What could it have been? Maybe 20 yards separating us from the earthly remains of the “rock” on which Jesus built his church some 2,000 years ago?
I felt a very tangible connection to history inside that crypt. So did Bishop Lee Piché of St. Paul and Minneapolis who was making his first “ad limina” visit to Rome. He told me later that he got “goose bumps” praying at the “confessio,” an area above the apostle’s tomb where the bishops sang the Nicene Creed before coming down for Mass.
Foundations of faith
Our stop at St. Peter’s reminded me of visiting the Holy Land, where people talk about the “living stones” — the Christians who live in the place where Jesus walked and where the apostles laid the foundations of the church. Those “living stones” connect us to our spiritual heritage in a unique way.
Rome has stones, too — stones that make up the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, the great evangelizer of the gentiles. Stones used to construct magnificent churches, some of which date back to the first centuries of Christianity. Stones that have seen two millennia of joy and heroic witness to the faith as well as the church’s struggles, challenges and persecutions.
The sweep of church history within those walls is an awesome one. But so is the sense of the universal, worldwide church you experience — whether you have an opportunity to visit with Pope Benedict XVI (as our bishops did) or stroll around the basilicas and their squares, where in the week I was in Rome I heard people praying in Italian, English, Polish, Spanish and a few other languages I didn’t recognize. It was an important reminder that we are part of a faith much bigger than what we experience in our home parishes and dioceses.
“Our faith is such an amazing thing. It makes us — who are so very different — really strongly one. That has been a great source of renewal for me,” Bishop Piché told me on our last day in Rome.
It was a great experience of renewal for me, too. I hope some of the stories and photos about the trip that we printed in The Catholic Spirit and online at TheCatholicSpirit.com and on the newspaper’s Facebook page have helped in a small way to convey the deeper connection to the universal church that we in Minnesota share with fellow Catholics around the world.
If you’ve never been to Rome, put it on your spiritual bucket list of things to do. The “stones” and pilgrims there will no doubt reaffirm and recharge your faith — and you may experience a few goose bumps of your own.