To the Threshold of the Apostles


By Most Reverend Robert J. Cunningham

On November 22nd, I boarded a late morning plane from Syracuse to Philadelphia to connect with an early evening flight to Rome. From November 23rd through December 1st, I joined the Bishops of New York State for the Ad Limina visit required of Bishops every five years. Since my return I have been asked a number of questions about the Ad Limina visit. My Place in the Sun column this week provides the opportunity to offer a response to these questions.

What does Ad Limina mean?

The full title of the visit is Ad Limina  Apostolorum, which means To the Threshold of the Apostles, signifying a visit to the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. St. Peter’s Basilica is built over the burial place of St. Peter and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls is the burial place of St. Paul. This visit or pilgrimage also gives a bishop the opportunity to show proper reverence for our Holy Father, the Successor of St. Peter, to acknowledge his universal jurisdiction and to receive his wise counsel.

What is the purpose of the visit?

During my time in Rome, I gave an account to our Holy Father regarding the state of our diocese. Five months prior to the visit I sent a Quinquennial Report to the Holy See which provided information about the life of the Church, here in our diocese, its works, challenges, and hopes for the future. This extensive report was a collaborative effort prepared by me and personnel from our various diocesan offices. 

Did you see the Holy Father?

Yes. I saw the Holy Father on two separate occasions. On Thursday morning (Thanksgiving Day) the Bishops of Albany, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Rochester and Syracuse met with the Holy Father for about a half hour. He welcomed us to Rome and spoke about the fact that when bishops come from all over the world on the Ad Limina visit the universality of the Church is evident. He also spoke about his recent visit to Benin where once again the universality of the Church was apparent. He thanked us for coming to pay tribute to the Successor of Peter and then invited each of us to say something about our diocese.

When it was my turn, I reminded Pope Benedict of our Thanksgiving Day Holiday celebrated that day and expressed our gratitude to God for the gift of the Holy Father’s life and ministry. I assured him of the prayers of the people of the Diocese of Syracuse which was celebrating that week the 125th anniversary of its foundation by Pope Leo XIII. I also told our Holy Father the forthcoming Year of Faith would be the occasion for all the faithful in our diocese to deepen their faith through active participation in the Church’s call to a new evangelization.

On Saturday morning, all of the Bishops of New York State met with the Holy Father in the Consistory Hall where he welcomed us again and spoke to us concerning several matters including the Church’s conscientious efforts to confront the reality of child sexual abuse. He hopes these efforts will help the broader community to recognize the causes, true extent and devastating consequences of this scourge. Pope Benedict spoke also about the need to summon the Church in America to recognize the urgency and demands of the new evangelization. He mentioned the grave challenges to a consistent Christian witness in an increasingly secular society. He encouraged us to use the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal as a source of ongoing catechesis on the Liturgy, the summit and source of the Church’s life.

If you are interested you can see a brief YouTube clip of this audience by going to the homepage of our diocesan website and clicking on the item that refers to the Ad Limina visit. 

Were there other meetings that you were expected to attend?

Each morning we were scheduled to meet with members of the Curia or departments of the Holy See. The Curia is somewhat akin to the Cabinet positions in our government.  A cardinal or archbishop oversees each department. The departments are concerned with a particular aspect of the Church’s life and mission, for example, Education, the Laity, the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Clergy, Religious, Bishops, The Causes of Saints, where I had an opportunity to speak about our beloved Blessed Marianne Cope, the Family and the Signatura, which supervises the work of Tribunals throughout the world.

Why is the meeting called a pilgrimage?

A pilgrimage is a journey made to a sacred place for the purpose of venerating the place, the event or the person/persons associated with the place. It is an opportunity to express one’s faith but also to ask for God’s grace. I joined my brother Bishops at the tomb of St. Peter to celebrate Mass early on Friday morning, November 25th.  I always find this a particularly moving experience. To pray over the tomb of Peter and acknowledge my union with the first Vicar of Christ and our current Holy Father leaves me with a profound sense of gratitude for my faith and my vocation. Here also the bishops renewed their profession of faith by chanting the Creed. You were all held especially close in prayer at that time.

The following day we did the same at the tomb of St. Paul in the Basilica that bears his name.

We also celebrated Mass at the two other major basilicas: St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran which serves as the Pope’s Cathedral as Bishop of Rome. It is called the mother and head of all the churches in Rome and in the world because of its position as the Cathedral of the Church of Rome. We also celebrated Mass at the tomb of Blessed John Paul II. Prayer was a vital aspect of our days in Rome. Often, during the early afternoon hours when the Italians enjoy their siesta and most shops and businesses close for a few hours, I would walk the streets of Rome, visiting churches and holy places of interest. You can be sure that I remembered you and your intentions during these visits. I prayed also for our diocese that the fruits of holiness would be evident in its life and work.

Where did you stay?

We stayed at the Pontifical North American College, located on the Janiculum Hill, not too far from St. Peter’s. This gave us an opportunity to visit with some of the 250 seminarians from the U.S. who are studying for the priesthood at one of the Roman universities. We had dinner with them on a number of occasions including Thanksgiving Day, which was a delightful occasion.

Did you have any free time?

Not much! Sunday was the only day that a business meeting was not scheduled. This gave me and Bishop Kmiec from Buffalo the opportunity to visit the Felician Sisters’ Motherhouse. I knew and worked with a number of Felician Sisters when I was in Buffalo and, of course, we are blessed with the presence and ministry of three Felician Sisters in our diocese. Generally we were free for a couple of hours each evening. One evening the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Diaz, invited us to his home for a reception. We also had lunch at the Casa Santa Maria, which is the graduate house, for the Pontifical North American College. Fifty-six priests are studying there this year for graduate degrees in theology, Canon Law, Church History, and other ecclesiastical sciences. There was also a reception at the Villa Stritch, which is a home for American priests who are working at the Vatican.

What are your overall feelings after the visit?

It was a graced period in which I joyfully recommitted myself to the work of the Church, grateful for my life, family, vocation and the people I have been and am privileged to serve as priest and bishop. The presence and words of the Holy Father were an inspiration and encouragement. Time spent in the Eternal City with my brother Bishops was a great blessing.

If you have an intention you would like me to remember in prayer, please forward it to me at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, NY 13202.

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