At the time of writing, the Catholic Bishops of Australia are in Rome (from 10-22 October 2011) for their ad limina Apostolorum (to the threshold of the Apostles). All bishops charged with the leadership of a diocese are required to make such a visit, normally every five years, and present a report on the pastoral situation of their individual dioceses.
It is an important spiritual pilgrimage and a reminder of a local bishop's wider role in communion with the bishops of the world. The key events for Australia's bishops will be a visit to the tombs of Sts Peter and Paul and a personal meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. The last such ad limina visit took place in March 2004, when the Australian bishops met with an ailing Pope John Paul II.
Statement of Conclusions
The ad limina prior to that took place in dramatic circumstances when, at a meeting between the Roman Curia and some of the senior bishops in December 1998, a no-nonsense document, known as the Statement of Conclusions, was drawn up detailing a diocesan bishop's responsibilities (see AD2000 website).
The (then) Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was a key figure in the writing of that document so it is significant that now, almost 13 years later, for the first time as Pope he is meeting Australia's bishops on an ad limina visit.
Before leaving for Rome, Melbourne's Archbishop Denis Hart wrote in the archdiocesan journal Kairos (16 September): "Sometimes we hear voices raised in criticism against 'centralisation' in the Church. But, just as Peter and Paul did not exercise their respective missions in isolation from one another, no bishop exercises his ministry in isolation from either his brother bishops or from the Bishop of Rome, who is the head of the 'College of Bishops' ...
"The ad limina visit is a time for the Australian bishops, both individually and collectively, to reflect on the situation in the churches under their care. We are encouraged in the exercise of our mission in harmony with the mission of the universal Church."
These words are timely, given the Pope's removal of Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba last May for not being in complete "harmony with the mission of the universal church."
At the time of his episcopal ordination in 1993, Bishop Morris made the usual promise to uphold all the Church's teachings while the Statement of Conclusions, agreed to by the Australian bishops as a body in 1999, said in no uncertain terms:
"It is their [the bishops'] grave responsibility, clearly and unambiguously, to proclaim the Church's teaching and to do all that they can to preserve the faithful from error ... The bishop may not tolerate error in matters of doctrine and morals or Church discipline, and true unity must never be at the expense of truth."
Yet Bishop Morris in his 2006 Advent Pastoral Letter, which was circulated throughout his diocese, raised the possibilities of women priests and recognition of Protestant orders as solutions to the chronic priest shortage in Toowoomba. His words could not have been more transparent.
More astonishing was Bishop Morris' failure over subsequent years to resolve the matter with the Holy See by making a public retraction of what he had written while reaffirming his commitment to Church teachings.
Nevertheless, a large proportion of Toowoomba's Catholics, including most clergy and leading officials, remain in a state of shock, anger and dismay at the removal of their bishop. A Mass of thanksgiving for Bishop Morris, held in the Cathedral on 28 August, was filled to overflowing and included Bishop Brian Heenan of Rockhampton and Bishop James Foley of Cairns as concelebrants. Brisbane's archdiocesan weekly, Catholic Leader, published the warm tributes to Bishop Morris from both bishops.
At the same time, an Open Letter from a group of progressives calling itself "Catholics for Renewal", which attracted several thousand names for its petition to the Pope and the Australian bishops, among other things called on the bishops to query the "transparency" of Bishop Morris' dismissal during their forthcoming ad limina.
Even if some bishops were to do this, it might not be prudent to press the matter, given this could perhaps remind Benedict XVI that much unfinished business remains from the Statement of Conclusions in certain dioceses, despite the lengthy passage of time.
With many Australian dioceses already vacant or soon to be, the Bishop Morris saga should have shone the spotlight on the selection process for new bishops.
Bishop Heenan of Rockhampton added his name to the growing number of episcopal vacancies when he told a Plenary Meeting of the Council of Priests of the Diocese on 10 August that he had submitted his resignation to the Pope and that it had been accepted. His resignation was not due until 4 August 2012 when he would turn 75.
It was Bishop Heenan who compared Bishop Morris to the suffering Jesus during his homily at the aforementioned thanksgiving Mass on 28 August.
The consultation process for the selection of new bishops needs, in some cases, to look beyond the usual sources of advice and candidate material. Some religious orders may well merit a closer look for strong future diocesan leaders.
The present situation more than ever calls for men of exceptional leadership qualities given the continuing erosion of the faith within the Catholic population and the damaging inroads of secularism, underlined most recently by the relentless push for same-sex "marriage."