Diocese of Superior Bishop James P. Powers and Judicial Vicar Fr. Jim Tobolski concelebrated Mass with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. That same day, they both greeted the Holy Father, who was receiving the bishops of the dioceses in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana for their “ad limina” visit. (Photo credit: Catholic News Service)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

“How do you put it into words?”

During an interview with the Catholic Herald, Bishop James P. Powers was hard-pressed to express the experience of his first “ad limina” visit to Rome.

Between October and February, divided into 15 regional groups, every U.S. diocese has been or will be represented and reported on to Pope Francis in Rome.

The visits are called “ad limina apostolorum,” or “ad limina” for short. The Latin phrase means “to the threshold of the apostles” and has “a very definite purpose,” as the Congregation for Bishops’ directory for the “ad limina” visit states: “That is, the strengthening of their own responsibility as successors the apostles and of their hierarchical communion with the successor of Peter.”

Not only is the visit a pilgrimage – a key element of the “ad limina” is venerating the tombs of the pillar apostles of Peter and Paul – it is also a business meeting of sorts, but much more than that.

One of Bishop Powers’ highlights was “the opportunity and privilege,” he shared, “of visiting the four major basilicas” in Rome and renewing the profession of faith. The four include the archbasilica of St. John Latern and the basilicas of St. Peter, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

He said, “Sadly, I had only a short time of personal prayer (in each) for the diocesan church.”

“Openness and freedom” were two words the bishop used to describe the “ad limina,” which took place Dec. 7-14. The Diocese of Superior is part of Region VII, which includes all 16 dioceses of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana; a group of more than 30 bishops and priests travelled together.

Fr. Jim Tobolski, who serves as pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Superior and Northwest dean, accompanied Bishop Powers in his role as judicial vicar.

Fr. Tobolski noted the week was very well organized and very busy.

Both men spoke highly of the fraternity and fellowship they experienced. In particular, Bishop Powers appreciated the brotherhood among the bishops, who rarely spend non-working time together.

Staying at the North American College in Rome, the two had opportunities to convene with seminarians from Wisconsin studying there, as well as a chance to visit the home of U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Callista Gingrich, a Wisconsin native, and her husband, Newt.

One other notable gathering for the Wisconsin bishops, priests and seminarians was a dinner and private tour of the archeological site at St. Paul Outside the Walls with the basilica’s Wisconsinite Archpriest Cardinal James Harvey.

Even though Bishop Powers and Fr. Tobolski each took part in different meetings and Roman Curia office visits, they similarly called the experiences positive, pastoral and eye-opening.

Bishop Powers admitted he didn’t know what to expect ahead of time. The last round of U.S. “ad limina” visits took place in 2011-2012, and he was ordained and installed as bishop in February 2016.

As part of the remote preparation for the encounter, a bishop, with delegated assistance, prepares a quinquennial report based on a uniform format that concretely and objectively outlines the situation of the diocese for which he is responsible. It includes elements both internal and external to the local church and is sent to Rome months prior to the visit.

For the bishop, the overarching sense was the universal church as a servant and serving church.

Recounting the many visits, he said, “There was no lecturing, so to speak. With every one of the dicasteries (administrative departments) I visited, there was an openness and genuine wanting to hear what some of our struggles are … wanting to hear what they can do to help us.”

He added that he felt a sense of understanding and mutual support throughout.

Fr. Tobolski’s comments on those meetings included a consonant “disposition of listening,” and a “very positive approach to church life.” From conversations he had with others in the Region VII group, he said they seemed to find it all very helpful.

Having both been to Rome before, the two men said the “ad limina” experience took their experience of the universality of the church, in the words of Bishop Powers, “to another level.”

“Our struggles here aren’t the end-all-be-all of the world,” he said. Without discounting that they are very real for each local church, “the solutions, the helps – they have to have that universal flavor.”

“Joyful, jovial and warm” were words used to describe the personal greetings with Pope Francis. Since John Paul II, the acts of veneration of the Holy Father, such as genuflecting or kissing the papal ring have not been in use.

Bishop Powers called it a “fatherly encounter,” but added that there was a definite sense of reverence and respect. The Argentinian’s warm greeting, open sharing and informal disposition was for the bishop a “reassurance of the Pope not being so far removed from or out of touch with us.”

He noted that the Holy Father was running late from another engagement for his encounter with the Midwestern bishops, but then spent more than two hours listening and sharing with them as a pastor.

“He was present to each of us,” Bishop Powers affirmed.

Given the nature of the “ad limina” visit, which assists the Holy Father in his role as universal shepherd, Bishop Powers could not share details of what was discussed.

“There are certainly some very serious issues in the church right now – no doubt about it, but it’s not the first time,” he said. “Yes, the church is divine, but it is also made up of frail human beings. And although there are problems, it’s not all bad or negative.”

He acknowledged the good the church is doing, and the message of Christ that Christians are called to proclaim. There are challenges to address inside the church and in the culture the church’s members live in, but the bishop also spoke of the vibrancy and hope, something that doesn’t make the headlines.

Being in Rome during the Advent added a special sense of emotion to the visit. Fr. Tobolski said how beautiful the Vatican was lit up in white lights. Sharing that he and Bishop Powers – in addition to enjoying the Italian pasta and gelato – visited the Vatican manger scene in the center of St. Peter’s Square several times.

“The experience is kind of like time outside of time,” Fr. Tobolski described.

“You realize that life at home is different,” he added, mentioning that he had special moments of prayer and Eucharistic adoration praying for his parishioners. He was grateful for his “special time” in Rome, but was ready to get back for his people in Superior.

To sum up their personal take-aways, both men used the phrase “full of hope and joy.”

Fr. Tobolski added, “Not to make it sound trivial, but we are all in this together.”

The final thought from Bishop Powers was to recognize that the world will never be perfect, but the perspective of faith allows for peace and perseverance through difficulties, especially when one remembers whose church we belong to and that Jesus promised his grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“These is hope and reassurance – God is in charge,” the leader of the Superior diocese affirmed.