For the past week, I have been sequestered at the Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum in Rome, an institution about five miles west of St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m here for the Formation for New Bishops’ program, more colloquially known as “Baby Bishop School.” My colleagues are about 150 other bishops from around the world who have been appointed in the last twelve months.
The accommodations are fairly Spartan: my room reminds me of my quarters in the college seminary, the bed is about two and a half feet wide, and there is no air conditioning. The meals, however, are tasty, and the conversations even tastier. In the course of the week, I’ve interacted with bishops from France, Canada, Venezuela, Iceland, Australia, Ireland, England, Mexico, Ghana, Tanzania, and Guatemala. And I’ve been compelled to use all my linguistic skills—which are only okay—moving from English to decent French to mediocre Spanish to terrible Italian.
The typical day begins with a combined Mass and Morning Prayer, beautifully sung by a choir of seminarians. The principal celebrant and preacher at the Liturgy is a prominent Archbishop or Cardinal from the Roman Curia. We were graced by the presence of Cardinal Oullet (head of the Congregation for Bishops), Cardinal Parolin (the Vatican Secretary of State), Archbishop Fisichella (head of the dicastery for the New Evangelization), and Cardinal Amato (prefect of the Congregation for Saints), among others. After breakfast, we gather in the auditorium for a formal presentation on some aspect of episcopal ministry. For example, Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, gave a lively talk on the bishop as father, brother, and friend to his priests; Monsignor Lucio Ruiz, from the Secretariat for Communications, offered his reflections on the new media in relation to evangelization; and Fr. Franco Imoda, former rector of the Gregorian University shared his thoughts on the rapport between psychological development and spiritual commitment. There were also talks on administration, canon law, and the reform of the Roman Curia under Pope Francis. I tried my best to follow the lecture in whatever language it was offered, but I usually got a bit tired and resorted to the simultaneous translation in English. (There was an indefatigable team of translators working around the clock in a special booth in the back of the auditorium).
After the formal talks, we would repair for a half-hour break and then move into what the Italians call circoli minori (small groups), arranged according to language. This gave me a chance to mingle with my fellow American bishops, men from Brooklyn, Dallas, Boston, Tulsa, Washington, D.C., Metuchen, and Superior, Wisconsin—as well as bishops from India, Canada, and Ireland. During these discussions, we applied the theory to our particular situations, and to be honest, had a lot of laughs too. After a little siesta—a lovely tradition that should be adopted immediately in the United States—we would pray evening prayer and then settle in for another talk and discussion. This would be followed by dinner and then, commencing at 9:15 PM, a final session. It made for a long day.
On Wednesday, it was announced that the late evening session would involve short talks from representative bishops from every corner of the world. I confess that I thought, “Oh, those poor men who have to give a talk on such short notice” and that I had more or less resolved to skip that segment. Showing that God has a sense of humor, Cardinal Ouellet approached me at the 5:00 PM break and asked me to give the presentation on the Church in America! Well, it turned out to be a very stimulating event. Besides myself, seven other bishops spoke, and they told us about churches struggling against secularist ideology, churches growing by leaps and bounds, churches under dire persecution, and churches struggling to be born. It was an extraordinarily vivid demonstration of the universality and catholicity of the Church born from the wounded side of Jesus and perduring across vast expanses of space and time. You know it theoretically, but it’s wonderful when you can see it, and hear it, and touch it.
I think it’s fair to say that, for all of us, the highlight of the week was our audience with Pope Francis. We gathered in the beautiful, but very warm, Sala Clementina and heard a substantial, thirty-minute discourse from the Pope. His theme was simple and compelling: remember how you were caught, “fished out” was his word, by the mercy of God and then share that mercy with everyone you meet. What really surprised and impressed me was the amount of time the Pope spent with each bishop after the talk. Keep in mind that there were 157 of us and the man is almost eighty years old. But we all got a smile, a handshake, and usually an encouraging word. When I came forward with my brothers from Los Angeles, who were ordained with me a year ago, he grinned and greeted us as “triplets.” He then showed that he was well aware of my work in media and preaching. It was a deeply moving and unforgettable encounter with the successor of Peter.
By way of conclusion, I’ll share a liturgical moment that has stayed with me. The seminarian choir here would sing songs for Mass from a variety of cultures and in an array of languages. On Thursday morning, for the post-communion meditation, they broke into “Here I Am, Lord.” Now I’ve heard “Here I Am, Lord” about ten thousand times, and if I were planning a liturgy in the United States, I would probably steer clear of it, but as the voices of the bishops took up the tune, and the whole place was filled with the words and music, I admit I was deeply moved. All I could think of were the innumerable times I sang that song in college, in the seminary, in all of my different parish and teaching assignments—and I realized that I had “heard him calling in the night,” and that I had managed, often despite myself, to say, “Here I am, Lord,” and that following the mysterious voice had led me to this room, surrounded by bishops from all across the world, who had heard and followed the same voice.
That moment alone made baby bishop school worth it.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.