To judge from the comments of several bishops during the ad limina visit to Rome between 14 and 28 March by 36 of Australia's 44 bishops, the atmosphere was relaxed and cordial. This seemed in contrast to the drama at the time of the previous ad limina and the Synod of Oceania when the Statement of Conclusions was released with its call for bishops to address the crisis of faith in specific areas.
Despite the lack of progress in some dioceses since 1999, Rome has put the emphasis on encouraging the positive developments of recent years.
Pope John Paul II was clearly conscious of the challenges facing the bishops when he addressed them on 26 March. Among other things he urged them to restore emphasis on Sunday Mass obligation. "Any weakening in the Sunday observance of Holy Mass," he said, "weakens Christian discipleship and dims the light of witness to Christ's presence in our world". The Australian Bishops should "give pastoral priority to catechetical programs which instruct the faithful about the true meaning of Sunday and inspire them to observe it fully."
Confirming the Holy Father's concerns were the latest National Church Life Survey figures showing weekly Mass attendances down from 18 to 15 percent.
During the ad limina, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney was interviewed by Zenit. He was asked to what extent the problems identified in the Statement of Conclusions had been addressed. He replied that the overall response was "a little bit uneven across Australia" and that there was "no spectacular progress to report".
Certainly the situation has varied from diocese to diocese.
Regarding the priesthood and seminaries, the Statement had stressed that a priest's identity needed "strong affirmation and almost constant clarification" and it was "fundamental that correct intellectual, ascetical and doctrinal formation, as well as dutiful and inspired discipline, be assured in seminaries."
This approach is now being largely followed, with Melbourne, Sydney and Perth having well-run seminaries, encouraging numbers of recruits and a new generation of orthodox, well-credentialled young priests entering parish service.
Cardinal Pell was cautiously optimistic on this subject during his Rome interview: "I think in Melbourne [where Dr Pell had earlier reformed the seminary] there have been good fruits, the number of seminarians has increased, that increase continues. These are good-quality seminarians, and we now have a significant number of very fine young priests in Melbourne to join a bigger body of priests there.
"I think they are well-educated. Most of them have studied at university before they come in. The seminary course now means that they are well-schooled in prayer - regular daily prayer for many years - and they also have a variety of pastoral experiences."
The picture is becoming similar in Sydney, where reforms have also taken place under Cardinal Pell's leadership.
The question of liturgy has remained a vexed one, and in his address to the Australian Bishops, Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, saw the need to ask the bishops to ensure that their priests used the texts of the Missal, Lectionary and Ritual "as they are, and unchanged." He described these as "the Church's offering" and said that it was expected they be used "without deletion or addition".
On his return from Rome, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne circularised his priests regarding the ad limina, including the following reminder: "As Archbishop I ask all our priests and communities to follow the approved liturgical texts and rites with the vestments and ceremonies given there without change. I would be grateful if you could emphasise this with those helping to prepare liturgies in your parishes, colleges, schools and communities."
In his 26 March address to the Australian Bishops, Pope John Paul II drew attention to the threat of secularism: "Yet it is also true that the pernicious ideology of secularism has found fertile ground in Australia. At the root of this disturbing development is the attempt to promote a vision of humanity without God. It exaggerates individualism, sunders the essential link between freedom and truth, and corrodes the relationships of trust which characterise genuine social living. Your own reports unequivocally describe some of the destructive consequences of this eclipse of the sense of God: the undermining of family life; a drift away from the Church."
Such a situation called for strong leadership: "Bishops must stand out as fearless prophets, witnesses and servants of the hope of Christ ... In proclaiming this hope, which springs from the Cross, I am confident that you will lead men and women from the shadows of moral confusion and ambiguous thinking into the radiance of Christ's truth and love."
"It is the Bishop's particular task to ensure that within civil society - including the media and entertainment industry sectors - the values of marriage and family life are supported and defended".
The challenges facing today's bishops are immense and call for strong leadership qualities. More than ever, future episcopal appointments need to be of a high calibre if there is to be some hope of arresting the present spiritual erosion.