Archbishop Gregory Aymond is in Rome for an ad limina visit with Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican officials. On Saturday morning, Jan. 28, he spoke with the Clarion Herald and summarized his most recent activities, which included a Mass on Friday at the Tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica and meetings with the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He came away with specific impressions of the challenges the church is facing in China and in dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Ireland.
On Friday morning, you and the other bishops on the trip celebrated Mass at the Tomb of Blessed John Paul II. How did that go?
It was very nice. As many people will remember, John Paul was buried in the crypt of (St. Peter’s) basilica, and recently, Benedict XVI moved his body to the first floor, and his body is actually contained within the base of an altar that is present in the basilica. We had Mass there, and Bishop William Houck, the retired bishop emeritus of Jackson, Miss., was the main celebrant, primarily because he had been ordained a bishop by John Paul II himself. So there was an actual tie there.
The Mass was very powerful. Most of us had been appointed bishops by John Paul II and had met him many times, so it was really a very powerful experience to be able to kneel at the tomb of the one who was truly the successor of Peter and was pope for so many years and was someone we all knew.
That came back to me yesterday morning, and then I was walking through St. Peter’s Square Friday afternoon going to pick up something, and I saw this cardinal that I thought looked familiar, and sure enough, he called me over. He said, “I think I know you.” It was Cardinal (Agostino) Cacciavillan. He used to be the (apostolic) nuncio in the United States. And he said, “I know you – Aymond, New Orleans. How is (Francis) Schulte?” It was just wonderful. Those two things happened on the same day – being at the tomb of John Paul and, of course, it was Cardinal Cacciavillan, who was nuncio at the time and then was an archbishop, who called me to tell me I was appointed an auxiliary in New Orleans. So it was just a nice connection of the day.
At the tomb of John Paul, are there a lot of pilgrims coming by?
It’s interesting that you would ask that question because when his tomb was downstairs and it was just the tomb, there was a constant flow (of people). There are people visiting the tomb now, but I think, in a way, though it’s much more prominent, for some reason it just doesn’t stand out as much. In the bottom of the basilica, there are a lot of popes buried, and it really is like a burial place for a lot of the popes. Once they moved him up it, just seemed to me that there weren’t quite as many people around. But it’s certainly an honored place that they’re giving him as he is blessed and moving toward being declared a saint.
You also met with the Secretariat of State at the Vatican to give you an idea of what’s going on in the universal church and topics of concern and interest.
In government terms, he would be like a foreign minister. We were able to meet with him and a member of his staff. We talked at great length about many of the things that are going on in the world. He specifically talked about things in Africa and some things in India and also in China, some of the areas where the church is experiencing some difficulties – Israel, Palestine and Central and South America. We were able to get an overview. Those were the things he presented, but we were free to ask any questions. So we talked about many of the things that are going on in the world – the places where the church is flourishing and also where the church is still struggling. And, of course, there are still some countries where the pope cannot appoint a bishop. He has to get permission from the government, for example, in China. The pope actually has to go to the government and ask permission to appoint bishops. There are a lot of those kinds of things, which gives you a worldview.
He also talked at some length about the whole issue in the United States about religious freedom. Obviously, this would be something he would be very, very concerned about. We spent some time talking about that and the concerns that the Holy See could have that even in a first-world country that in some ways the rights of Catholics to practice what they believe would be in some way limited or hampered. So, it was a very interesting discussion.
What is the state of the Catholic Church in China? I know there’s the so-called government church and then there is the church that is certainly faithful to the Roman Catholic Church. What’s the status of the church in China right now?
It’s a complicated issue and I don’t claim to understand all of that, but there is the Roman Catholic Church that is faithful to the pope, and faithful to the teachings of the church, but there’s also the government church, which is still a very strong force. And it’s difficult to be a Roman Catholic; there are certainly a small number of people who are Roman Catholics in China, but there are difficulties in professing one’s faith.
You are chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, and you had a private meeting with the Congregation for Divine Worship at the Vatican. Can you share a little bit about what you spoke about?
I can, and some of those things we’re still working on. I would say that there are a number of projects that we’re working on from the conference – or projects that we would like to work on. For example, now that we have completed and implemented the new Roman Missal, we’ll now be looking at translations on marriage and confirmation, so I was able to get an update on that. We were talking about the revisions that we’re presently doing in the United States on the new Lectionary – the New Testament, the Gospels and the letters. We were able to do an update on that. We talked about some of the processes that we have. We talked about the Spanish Missal, which is not complete and still needs a great deal of work and strategy. (We talked about) the extraordinary form (of the Mass) and how that’s going pastorally.
The bishops will have a new (Roman) Pontifical in February. That’s a book that will contain all of the ceremonies that are done specifically by bishops. I was able to give a report to them on our (U.S) staff and on the priorities that we are doing and the possibility of revising the Liturgy of the Hours. So it was a very friendly discussion and very helpful. I met with two members of the staff. One was the archbishop secretary and the other is the person who works directly with English-speaking countries. It’s a very good relationship we have with them. I met with them for about an hour and a half.
Msgr. Hedrick from the archdiocesan worship office was mentioning that the marriage rite was being discussed by this congregation. Is that what’s going on right now?
That’s correct. And we expect to have something in the next couple of months, the next year, that we will be able to look at and do some adaptations to and then bring it to the bishops’ conference for consultation and ultimately for a vote.
On Saturday morning you also met as a group with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. How was that?
It was a very good meeting. Cardinal (William) Levada, the prefect – or the person in charge – is from the United States, and so it’s always a pleasure to see him again and to meet him. He knows all of our bishops by name. We met with him as well as the five members of his staff. It was a very good meeting. He specifically applauded the bishops of the United States for their efforts in catechetics, specifically the implementation of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” and also the adult catechism, which he thinks is very well used in the United States. He talked about the work that is going on in the bishops’ conference about authoring textbooks for elementary school and high school, in all the religion classes, both in schools and religious education classes. He was very appreciative of what we’re doing. He also mentioned that there should be some ways that the United States could take the lead in this and help other countries to a better catechetical thrust.
We also talked at length about the new decree of Anglican parishes and Anglican priests joining the Roman Catholic Church. We talked about that because that has just begun to be implemented, so a lot of the bishops have a lot of questions. It was an opportunity for us to ask questions about some of the specifics, and of course, the Anglican priest can come with his entire congregation or an Anglican priest can come on his own and he would have to go through some years of study and then be ordained. And then, obviously, if he was married, he would remain married.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith still oversees and is involved in the abuse cases from the United States and from the world. We received some very positive news that – and we as bishops and people in the United States continue to pray for and to work toward healing of people who have been abused, first and foremost – there are very, very few accusations taking place in the United States in terms of sexual abuse by priests. That’s a very positive thing.
In other countries it’s becoming more prominent, especially in the European countries. There’s a lot more of these accusations taking place. Every once in awhile the congregation not only gets these communications of abuse. But as we know with safe environment programs – and they specifically talked about the importance of safe environment programs – that it’s not only to educate priests and seminarians and religious, but it’s also important that we educate children and that we educate parents and teachers and people in ministry so that boundary issues are dealt with. The congregation is very aware of and very supportive of all the work that we’re doing in terms of safe environment.
What’s the situation in Ireland, from what you picked up from either the Doctrine of the Faith or the Secretary of State? Do they think they are about to turn the corner? How does it stand?
I don’t really know. I would say from what I hear, they still have a long ways to go. That’s my impression. Secondly, a new nuncio (Archbishop Charles Brown) has been appointed for Ireland, and he is from the United States. He’s a priest who worked in the Vatican in the Secretariat of State for a long time. He was just named a bishop and he will go as the new nuncio. So in a way he brings the experience and the expertise of what we went through in the United States to Ireland. From my impression, Ireland is still suffering greatly from all that has happened, and at the present time they don’t have the stringent guidelines that we have in the United States through what is called the charter.
Locally, either in New Orleans or in the state of Louisiana in terms of the Anglican issue, have there been any Anglican congregations or priests who have investigated or talked to you about the possibility of coming into the Catholic Church?
No, we have not had (anyone). There are a few dioceses as close as Mobile, as close as Shreveport, and I know there’s several in Texas, but we have not gotten any inquiries.
I know Saturday evening you will have Mass at the Tomb of St. Paul. Is Sunday a little bit of a freer day for the bishops?
It is. On Sunday, we will be at the Casa Santa Maria. It’s the residence where the priests from the United States who are studying in Rome – for example, Father Nile Gross (from New Orleans) – live. We will have Mass there on Sunday with a reception and lunch, and that’s the only planned thing we have. But we have a busy day on Monday before we prepare to leave on Wednesday.
Well, archbishop, thank you so much for your updates.
Please give my thanks to the people of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for their prayers and solidarity. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, I constantly pray for the people, but in a very particular way at the tombs of Peter and Paul and the tomb of John Paul II. So the people from my family – the Archdiocese of New Orleans – are very much with me during these days.