The “ad limina” visit between the English and Welsh Catholic Bishops and Pope Benedict XVI is the first one since he took office.
Archbishop Vincent Gerard Nichols of Westminster led eight other bishops from England and Wales to the Apostolic Palace for their encounter with the Holy Father.
The bishop-delegates will continue to meet with Vatican congregations and councils until Feb. 4 as part of the periodic visit.
Each of the individuals will have the opportunity for a private audience with the Pope over this period.
An "ad limina" visit, which means “to the threshold” of the Apostles Peter and Paul, is not only a pilgrimage to the apostle's tombs but is also time when each bishop gives the Pope an account of his diocese.
The visit also indicates the acceptance of St. Peter's Successor—the Pope—as the universal pastor of the Catholic Church.
Normally, the delegates of a bishops' conference pay a visit to the Pope every five years, but in the case of England and Wales more than six years have passed since their last encounter.
In preparation for the visit, the bishops send a report to the Vatican, based on answers to a questionnaire issued by the Holy See, on which the Pope and the appropriate congregations and councils are briefed.
Bishop Kieran Conry told the British Catholic weekly The Tablet about the report this year from England and Wales, explaining, "we made clear that we are facing challenges that the Church in the West is generally facing. These include a more strident secularism and atheism alongside a declining number of priests, which is having an effect on parish life."
The British Catholic Herald also reported Bishop John Rawsthorne of Hallam as saying that "a shortage of priests would be a key issue during the visit" and expressing his wish to consult with the Pope on the matter, considering that many priests in his diocese will be retiring in the next decade.
Bishop Rawsthorne added that other issues on the agenda for the visit would be the new provision for Anglican communion, tackling the issue of legally-assisted suicide, addressing second marriages among Catholics and adjusting to the impact of immigration on the Catholic Church of England.
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