Catholic News Service photos
Archbishop John Vlazny greets Pope Benedict during ad limina visit.
Catholic News Service photos
Archbishop John Vlazny greets Pope Benedict during ad limina visit.
ROME — Continuing their pilgrimage of prayer at the major basilicas of Rome, bishops from Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon celebrated Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome.

Bishop Donald Kettler of Fairbanks was the principal celebrant and homilist at the Mass April 26, which was part of the bishops' "ad limina" visits to reaffirm their faith, pray and discuss what is going on in their dioceses with Pope Benedict and Vatican officials.

The bishop gave a history of St. John's basilica, noting among other things that the church originally was dedicated to the Holy Savior, but was rededicated to Sts. John the Apostle and John the Evangelist. And six councils of the church were held there.

In his homily, Bishop Kettler said, "This basilica, this cathedral points us today to the temple of Jesus Christ, who three days after he died was raised up. As Jesus' disciples came to believe in his resurrection, so do we as well."

By their pilgrimage and celebrations of the Eucharist, the bishops increase their belief in the risen Lord, he said.

The bishops began their "ad limina" pilgrimage at the tomb of St. Paul, praying for courage to proclaim the Gospel like he did.

Dressed in red vestments in honor of the martyred apostle buried at Rome's Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the bishops of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska chanted the creed in Latin and reflected on what faith calls them to do.

Archbishop Roger Schwietz of Anchorage was the principal celebrant and homilist at the Mass April 23. A handful of seminarians from the North American College and visitors to the basilica — either thrilled to find bishops celebrating a Mass in English or just curious about the sight — joined them.

The archbishop said it was "a tremendous honor" to celebrate the Mass with his fellow bishops, especially at the tomb of St. Paul, who has had a significant influence on his life.

"I grew up in St. Paul with its great cathedral; I chose Paul as my confirmation name," he said, and he took a line from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, "Jesus Christ Is Lord," as his episcopal motto.

Archbishop Schwietz also noted that Pope John XXIII chose the Basilica of St. Paul as the place where he announced he was convoking the Second Vatican Council. The late pope made the announcement in January 1959, "the same month and year Alaska became a state."

In the day's Gospel reading from St. John, the crowd asked Jesus, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?" and Jesus replied, "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent."

Archbishop Schwietz said the "ad limina" visits, which bishops make to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses, are a time for them, too, to ask, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?"

The visits are an opportunity for the bishops to share their experiences with one another and with Pope Benedict XVI and his collaborators at the Vatican and to learn from their experiences and insights, the archbishop said.

Archbishop Schwietz, the other bishops of Alaska and the bishops of Washington had their small-group meeting with the pope earlier in the day. The archbishop said the pope told them, "Have the courage to be messengers of Jesus Christ."

In the Gospel story, the archbishop said: "First comes belief. And we come together as a group of disciples, asking the Lord to confirm our belief and strengthen it so that our zeal may be like the zeal of Paul to make the Lord Jesus known" and to proclaim the truth.

St. Paul made the ultimate sacrifice for his faith, being martyred in Rome. Archbishop Schwietz prayed that he and the other Northwest bishops would "fearlessly preach the truth despite the consequences, knowing we come from a long line of great people who have gone before us and pray for us before the throne of God."

One of the visiting bishops has been charged with overseeing a review and reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle says the period offers the sisters and their bishops an opportunity to communicate and work together more closely.
The Vatican announced April 18 that Archbishop Sartain will provide "review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work" of the conference for a period of up to five years. His tasks will include overseeing revision of the LCWR's statutes, review of its liturgical practices, and the creation of formation programs for the conference's member congregations.

The LCWR, a Maryland-based umbrella group that claims about 1,500 leaders of U.S. women's communities as members, represents about 80 percent of the country's 57,000 women religious.

In an eight-page, "doctrinal assessment" based on an investigation that began in April 2008, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reported that the "current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern." The assessment cited deviations from Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality.

Archbishop Sartain said that his main role in the reform process would be to "facilitate relationships and understanding."

Saying that he hoped he could "help the sisters and the LCWR recognize that we are all in this together," the archbishop called the reform a "great opportunity" for women religious, U.S. bishops and the Vatican to "strengthen and improve all of our relationships on every level."

Noting his extensive experience with religious communities in the four dioceses where he has served as a priest or bishop, the archbishop expressed his "personal appreciation for the role of religious women in the United States" and "all the extraordinary things that they've done."

Archbishop Sartain said he expected to meet with the LCWR "very soon," and declined in the meantime to discuss the reform process in any detail.

The archbishop dismissed press reports suggesting that the doctrinal congregation's action was a response to widespread support by women religious of the Obama administration's health care reform law, which the U.S. bishops have argued does not adequately protect rights to conscientious objection or guarantee against federal funding of abortion.

"There's been nothing in any conversation that I have had about the (doctrinal) assessment that would indicate to me that there would be any truth to that," he said.