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Bishops celebrate Mass at tomb of St Peter before meeting with Pontiff to discuss Church in Australia

G’day mate: Pope Francis tries on an Akubra presented by Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

POPE Francis gave an apostolic blessing to Australian Catholic bishops visiting the Vatican, encouraging them to explore new ways of being missionaries.

Pope Francis met with a group of 38 Australian bishops on June 24 for more than two hours as part of their Ad Limina Apostolorum visit, translated as “To the Threshold of the Apostles”.

It was a high point of a memorable first day of the Ad Limina, which began with the bishops celebrating Mass at the tomb of St Peter.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge told his fellow bishops that it was “a time of humiliation” for Catholic Church leaders, but he was convinced that God was still at work.

“To celebrate the Eucharist at the tomb of Peter and then to engage in pastoral dialogue with his successor was a unique and grace-filled way to start our week in Rome,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

There was a classic photo moment when Archbishop Coleridge presented Pope Francis with an Akubra hat. 

The Pontiff immediately put it on and appeared to enjoy the gift.

The bishops raised with Pope Francis a number of topics that are of deep concern to the Catholic Church in Australia; the Church’s work to eliminate child sexual abuse and to accompany survivors of abuse; the bishops’ desire to support and minister to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; the hopes for the Plenary Council 2020; and the need to find new ways of witnessing to Jesus Christ in Australian society in a time of change.

“There was an ease and a fraternal warmth in the way Pope Francis spoke and an attentiveness in his listening to the questions the bishops asked,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“For a man of his years, the Holy Father’s energy through a long and complex conversation was amazing.”

Peter’s tomb: Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge concelebrates Mass with Australian bishops in the crypt of St Peter’s Basilica during their Ad Limina visit to Rome. Photos: CNS

Delivering the homily during Mass in the grotto of St Peter’s Basilica, Archbishop Coleridge referred to the clerical sexual abuse crisis and attempts by Church leaders to cover it up: “We as bishops have to discover anew how small we are and yet how grand is the design into which we have been drawn by the call of God and his commissioning beyond our betrayals”.

He prayed that St Peter – “the Galilean fisherman,” who betrayed Jesus, was forgiven and given the mandate to feed his sheep – would “be our companion and guide on the journey”.

After a week-long retreat near Rome, the Australian bishops’ Ad Limina itinerary includes Masses in the basilicas of St Peter, St Mary Major and St Paul Outside the Walls – and series of meetings with Pope Francis and with the leaders of many Church offices to share experiences, concerns and ideas.

ACBC vice-president Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said the meeting with Pope Francis was “moving and deeply encouraging”. 

He said it showed the benefit of the Petrine ministry, “of being our solid ‘rock’ and ‘confirming the brethren’”.

“The Holy Father clearly understood our situation in Australia. It was a real moment of grace,” Archbishop Fisher said.

Darwin Bishop Charles Gauci, the most recently ordained of the Australian bishops, said he was “deeply impressed” by Pope Francis.

“I was impressed by his humanity, his compassion, his sense of collegiality, his passion for working with all the people of God in a synodal Church and his true commitment to the Gospel,” Bishop Gauci said.

“I felt a deep sense of connection with the Holy Father as a fellow member of the College of Bishops, as bishops in service of the People of God and in partnership with the People of God.”

Melbourne Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli posted on social media that the meeting with the Pope was “an extraordinary conversation, brother to brothers”. He said it was “spiritually intense, deeply honest, pastorally astute, free and frank. Wow”.

The Ad Limina continued until June 28.

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