Bishop J. Mark Spalding returned to Nashville Dec. 10 from his “ad limina” visit to Rome and brings back a personal message from Pope Francis to the people of the Diocese of Nashville.
“He gave us a very simple message,” Bishop Spalding said. “He said, ‘Go back and tell your people that God loves them, Jesus loves them, the Spirit is working with them and in them. Through the intersession of the Blessed Mother, all things can work out in God’s will.’”
Bishop Spalding and other bishops from five Southeastern states made their “ad limina” visit to Rome Dec. 1-7 to report on the status of their dioceses to Pope Francis and officials from the various Vatican offices.
According to canon law, the bishop of every diocese is required every five years to make a trip – “ad limina apostolorum” – “to the threshold of the apostles” Peter and Paul. During the visit, they are required to pray at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul and typically celebrate Mass at all the major basilicas in Rome.
The other purpose of the “ad limina” visit for the bishops is to report to the pope and Vatican officials on the status of the diocese entrusted to them.
One of Bishop Spalding’s takeaways from his first “ad limina” visit was a feeling of connectedness between himself, his fellow bishops, and Pope Francis. “There was an ecclesial and pastoral side to the visit that connected the Holy Father to me and me to the Holy Father. It connected me to his ministry for the universal Church.”
Bishop Spalding said that while the U.S. media sometimes presents U.S. bishops and the pope as divided, “my experience in that room was a very fraternal discussion. …There was a feeling of communion between the pope and us.”
Not only was Pope Francis speaking to the bishops as the leader of the Church, Bishop Spalding said, but also “from the heart” as “a brother bishop and a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Spalding’s experience in Rome, spending time with his fellow bishops from Region V, which includes bishops from 18 dioceses in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, was a good one, said Bishop Spalding.
“I’m still quite a young bishop. I’m still learning, and being with them for this experience was a key part of that learning,” he said. “They looked out for me as a big brother would.”
Bishop Spalding, along with fellow bishops from Region V as well as Region IV, all met with Pope Francis on Dec. 3 for nearly three hours of relaxed dialogue on a wide variety of issues. As a newer bishop, Bishop Spalding said he was “much more in listening mode” than some of the longer-serving bishops who directly addressed the pope with questions.
While talking with Pope Francis about everything from the clergy sex abuse crisis to ministering to immigrants, Pope Francis “emphasized the themes of missionary discipleship, new evangelization, and compassionate outreach, to the poor, the migrants, those hurt or wounded in any way,” Bishop Spalding said.
He encouraged bishops to tap the gifts of lay leaders as they move their dioceses forward. “He encouraged us to have women and a diversity of people in the room when we make decisions and plan for the future,” Bishop Spalding said.
When Bishop Spalding and his fellow bishops visited various Vatican offices, or “dicasteries,” to talk about the “ad limina” reports they had submitted ahead of their visits, “it was clear they had read the reports and knew our blessings and our challenges as a Church in the South,” he said.
Most discussions were in general terms, but Bishop Spalding was surprised when, at the Dicastery of Bishops meeting, they spoke specifically about Nashville as a diocese that was experiencing growth overall, and growth in diverse populations. He explained that “a strong economy and strong demographic upswing” contributed to that, and the diocese was responding. “We’re blessed by the efforts of our priests and other ministers in our parishes and in our vocations,” he added.
All the Region V bishops from the Southeast talked about experiencing growing numbers of Hispanic Catholics and how they were working to minister to them. “We’re very clear that at a minimum our seminarians are expected to be able to say Mass in Spanish,” Bishop Spalding said, and some will learn to celebrate other sacraments and be conversant in Spanish as well.
One of the positive aspects that bishops from the Southeastern region spoke about on their “ad limina” visits is that, “In the South there seems to be an appreciation of faith and religion in the culture itself still, which differs from other areas in the United States,” Bishop Spalding said. And that can help foster the faith of global Catholic immigrants in their new home.
Overall, Bishop Spalding’s first “ad limina” visit was “a good experience, a learning experience, and a supportive experience for me as a bishop.”