ROME — After a week in Rome filled with conferences with Vatican officials and his fellow bishops from the Los Angeles and San Francisco Provinces, Masses at the four patriarchal basilicas, and an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, the Most Rev. John C. Wester, Bishop of Salt Lake City, feels spiritually refreshed, invigorated by the exchange of ideas and more aware than ever of the Catholic Church’s universality.
Bishops are required to make an ad limina apostolorum (Latin for ‘to the threshold of the apostles’) visit every five years. This was the first for Bishop Wester as an ordinary; he had been three times before, once as a priest and twice as an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
The visit was "a pilgrimage of faith, and a wonderful way for the Church to open herself to the workings of the Holy Spirit," Bishop Wester said.
During the week the bishops met with various Vatican officials, starting Monday morning with the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and ending Saturday with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life. They covered topics as diverse as priest morale, the ministry of deacons, the marriage annulment process, the status of the translation of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Roman Missal for Spanish-speaking in the United States and how the Year of Faith will unfold.
"Sometimes the discussion is really free-spirited and open-ended; other times the prefect has more input," Bishop Wester said of the meetings. "It just depends on the circumstances. It’s good for the Roman prefects to learn what the Church is experiencing in the United States ... and it’s good for us to hear what Rome is saying so we know what the Holy Father and his curia are envisioning for the universal Church."
As part of their ad limina visit, the bishops celebrated Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the Altar of the Tomb in the Basilica of St. Peter, Santa Maria Maggiore and the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
Celebrating the Eucharist in Rome is no different from elsewhere, Bishop Wester said. "The Mass is the Mass. It’s always beautiful and rich and inspirational, so it’s not a different feel per se but ... you do have a sense of the continuity of the Church – of 2,000 years of Church history and of Church life. And you do have an overwhelming sense of union with our Holy Father, who exercises the Petrine office."
The bishops who celebrated the Masses at the basilicas each touched on the need for themselves and their brother bishops to heed Christ’s guidance in their lives.
"As we come here to Rome for these days of ad limina, we have presented our reports, we will talk about many matters, and in the midst of it all we are going to no doubt talk about, think about and pray about things that are very difficult, things that we probably would rather not think about," said the Most Rev. Tod D. Brown, Bishop of Orange, Calif., in his April 16 homily at the Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. "And yet it’s in just these things, these difficult things, that the Lord is working and calling us to new life and to genuine peace to follow his example and work our way through the Cross to the Resurrection."
At the ad limina Mass celebrated at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran April 20, Cardinal José H. Gómez of Los Angeles said, "To be of service to God’s Church we need to listen to our Lord Jesus Christ…. Let us ask for the grace to trust in God and to continue our ministry to bring Jesus to the people and the people to Jesus Christ."
The audience with the Holy Father was among the final meetings for Bishop Wester, who told the pope "there is a dynamic and enthusiastic Catholic faith in Utah and that we have had a presence there from the very beginning, when Fathers Dominguez and Escalante celebrated Mass in the territory 120 years before it was a state."
Bishop Wester spoke to Pope Benedict about how the Utah Church uses liturgy as an evangelization tool. He also described the tremendous work accomplished in the missions, and about Catholic Community Services’ efforts to resettle refugees, among other topics.
"I said, ‘So, Holy Father, when you hear about Utah – and you’re going to hear about it with Mitt Romney in the news – hold your head up high because the Catholics here are very, very enthusiastic."
Father Omar Ontiveros, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Parish in West Valley City, was in Rome for a communications conference that coincided with Bishop Wester’s ad limina visit. Fr. Ontiveros joined Bishop Wester at several of the social events and concelebrated some of the Masses.
"Seeing the bishops as a continuation of the Apostles in the Church gave me the sense that we are a universal Church in communion with the pope, who is the vicar of Christ," said Fr. Ontiveros, who also met the Holy Father.
Before meeting the pope, Fr. Ontiveros rehearsed what he was going to say, "but when I was right in front of him, my mind went blank because I was very nervous but also very emotional," he said. "I could see that he had God in his eyes … and a lot of humbleness in his face."
Bishop Wester agreed. "The pope is very holy, very humble, very gracious," he said. "You feel like you’re in the presence of a very good person, a very holy person."