Anne-Marie Welsh

Bishop Lawrence Persico at the North American College in Rome, 
immediately after his audience with Pope Francis.
Photo by Anne-Marie Welsh

“I can’t emphasize enough how pastoral the Holy Father was. I was amazed.” So said the Most Rev. Lawrence Persico, bishop of Erie, during an interview immediately following the two-and-a-half-hour meeting between Pope Francis and the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey on Thanksgiving Day.

“It was much more than I had imagined – very impressive. The Holy Father was very kind. It was like talking to a brother priest. He is concerned about us and interested in how our dioceses are.”

Bishop Persico discussed the encounter with the Diocese of EriE-News during an interview on the roof of the North American College in Rome, overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Francis opened the meeting, which took place in the papal library, with a brief statement. He spoke in Italian throughout the encounter, using an interpreter to communicate with the 20 bishops in attendance. The multi-lingual exchange also included comments in Spanish and Italian from some of the American bishops.

 "As the bishop of Erie, I was bringing the thoughts and concerns of the faithful and the clergy of the diocese to Rome,” Bishop Persico said. “The Holy Father listened very attentively to all of the comments made, and responded to each question and comment.”

Several times during the interaction, Pope Francis emphasized the important pastoral role a bishop has, encouraging them to remain close to the lay faithful and the clergy. He specifically underscored the need to be present to victims of abuse within the church. He also urged them to make sure the church accompanies young people, gently leading them to the Lord even if they seem uninterested.

Offering Mass at the Tomb of St. Peter.
Photo by Anne-Marie Welsh

Bishops from across the United States each will be making their weeklong ad limina visit to Rome by region between now and the end of February. All bishops, worldwide, are required to participate in the visits every 5 to 7 years. Each ad limina is preceded by a report about the diocese, giving bishops a unique opportunity to provide Rome with a confidential and frank assessment of the state of the diocese.

The visit included meetings with as many as four offices a day, and during his time in Rome, Bishop Persico’s schedule included conversations with officials at the Congregation for Clergy; the Congregation for Bishops; the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life; the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; the Congregation for Catholic Education; and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, among others. On the final day of his visit, Bishop Persico attended a meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state.

“The prefects of the congregations who met with us were well-versed about the grand jury report and what it has meant to the church in Pennsylvania,” Bishop Persico said. “My understanding is that in the past, sometimes the bishops came away feeling they were being questioned about the way things were being handled. But that was not our experience at all, and I think that is because of Pope Francis. The message throughout the week was that the Vatican is there to help us. They wanted to know how they could support our work. It was a fraternal experience.”

Bishop Persico was pleased to learn during a number of meetings that the Diocese of Erie is very much in sync with the Vatican’s latest recommendations.

“We know we can’t continue passing on the faith the way it’s been passed on for generations,” he said, “The initiatives we’re introducing through our new efforts in faith formation are right on track. We need to meet people where they are and accompany them on their faith journey throughout their lives.”

Faith magazine, which the diocese has been producing for 15 years, is another tool that is in line with what the Vatican is asking,” the bishop said. “People witness to their faith in the stories we publish, promoting understanding and a desire to grow in Christ.”

Bishop Persico concelebrating Mass with the bishops of Penn-
sylvania and New Jersey at the Basilica of St. Paul
Outside the Walls in Rome.   Photo by Anne-Marie Welsh

In addition to the meetings, each day included several opportunities for prayer, most notably Mass at each of the four papal basilicas during the week: St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Peter’s. After each Mass, the bishops gathered to venerate a significant relic, including the tomb of St. Peter and the tomb of St. Paul.

“The Masses were, for me, very spiritual moments,” Bishop Persico said. “You’re going into these basilicas that are hundreds of years old. During these experiences I was thinking of all the people who went before us, who had come there to pray and worship. It’s a connection not only with the universal church, but also with fellow believers who come here to experience the magnificence of these churches and the beauty and history of each. It was quite moving.”

As he prepared to wrap up his visit to Rome, Bishop Persico said he hoped the people of the Diocese of Erie would know that the Holy Father care for them.

“He was very much interested in our diocese and showed a real concern for our people. He wants to be close to the people and sends his prayers and blessing,” the bishop said. “At the same time, this affords us the opportunity to remember our Holy Father in prayer, and to know that he is not a distant pastor or father. He is close to the people.”