The 50-day Easter season is quickly drawing to a close as we prepare to celebrate the solemnities of the Lord’s Ascension and Pentecost. Ascension is our annual reminder that the risen Jesus decided upon a new way to remain here on earth, namely, in the church, through those of us who are baptized believers. Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit who accompanies all of us on our journey of faith and blesses us with the gifts we need to continue Christ’s work of proclaiming good news, calling people to conversion and building the kingdom of God here on earth. Pentecost also celebrates the universal call of Jesus, his invitation to people of every race, culture and creed to be his disciples.  Pentecost invites us to see the big picture of our worldwide Catholic community, not the small one of our parishes or archdiocese which tends to dominate our thoughts, reflections and conversations about the church.

As many of you know, during the final week of April we bishops of the Northwest made our traditional ad limina visit to Rome. The last time we had embarked upon such a journey was 2004 when Blessed Pope John Paul II was still serving as the Vicar of Christ. These visits usually occur every five years, but with the transition in the papacy, the schedule of visits had been slowed down. Finally, all the bishops of the United States were invited to come in late 2011 and early 2012. For us it is a time to see that big picture of our church. Things definitely do look different in the eternal city.  There the Pope is acclaimed by the many pilgrims who come to pray at the shrines of the martyrs. There priests and religious abound. Catholic faces are white, black, yellow, red and brown, and, even though the secularists have the upper-hand in Italy today, as they do in our own nation, people of faith are in no way hesitant to give witness to what they believe and cherish.  

Recent articles in the media reflect a decline in the numbers of Catholics once again in the United States. No one here feels very good about that trend, but it is not a worldwide trend, thanks be to God. The churches in the southern hemisphere are growing dramatically while at the same time churches in the northern hemisphere seem to be in decline. But even in the midst of downsizing here in our own nation, growth in numbers still is happening in many places, including in our own archdiocese. I told the Pope that the number of Catholics was definitely on the upswing here in Portland, but I wished it was happening because of the outstanding preaching and teaching of those of us entrusted with the pastoral care of the people. The truth is we have been experiencing a great influx of Hispanic people, who are largely Catholic. This is a wonderful gift but also an imposing challenge. He smiled and, without saying so, suggested that we open our hearts and arms and churches a little more widely. I am grateful to all our pastors and people who have been doing so in the past decade.

Our visit in Rome was, as always, highlighted by the time we were able to spend with our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. The bishops of the Province of Portland in Oregon, six of us, gathered with Pope Benedict on Thursday morning, April 26. He spoke to us briefly and then gave each of us an opportunity to share with him some aspect of Catholic life in our dioceses. We told him about the ministries we offer and the challenges we face in Oregon, Idaho and Montana. He listened attentively and responded graciously. At the end he presented each one of us with a gift of a pectoral cross and some rosaries that we would be able to share with coworkers and friends. He blessed us and sent us on his way, after a very busy morning of meetings with others who came to seek his counsel and support. 

As I shared with you earlier, the original purpose of the ad limina visit was to come to Rome and pray at the shrines of the apostles, especially Saints Peter and Paul. We bishops were blessed with the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist at the four major basilicas in Rome, twice at St. Peter’s.  I was privileged to have the opportunity to preside at the Mass on the final day at the Altar of Blessed Pope John Paul II.  Throughout the week priests and seminarians from the North American College in Rome assisted us in these celebrations and prayed with us for you and your intentions. At the Basilicas of St. Paul and St. John Lateran we bishops gathered around the main altar and together made a public profession of our own faith by singing the Nicene Creed. This was a very moving moment for all of us, reminding us, as teachers of the faith, that it is our duty to proclaim the good news to our people and thereby strengthen their bonds with Jesus himself and our fellow disciples in the worldwide Catholic community.

Meetings with many of the Pope’s collaborators were on our agenda each day. More about those sessions in next week’s online column.  

All in all, this visit energized us bishops and renewed our commitment to serve Christ and His church more effectively, with the help of the Holy Spirit. When one doesn’t see the big picture, he or she can get some erroneous notions about where the church is going. Sometimes things happen in the United States that make us look askance at programs that come from the Holy See.  But when one thinks about the activity of the Holy Spirit alive and well throughout the world, then we see things somewhat differently.  

As we approach the beautiful feasts of Ascension and Pentecost I pray that we here in the Archdiocese of Portland will grow in our own enthusiasm for the gospel and fidelity to our church’s evangelizing mission.  As we bishops prayed in Rome last month, I invite all of you to pray with us on these final days of the Easter season, “Send forth your Spirit, Lord, and renew the face of the earth!  And if you can’t take on the whole earth right now, dear Lord, please start with the face of our Catholic Church here in Oregon!”