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The visit “ad limina Apostolorum” by all the Bishops who, in communion with the Apostolic See, preside in charity and in service over particular Churches in every part of the world, has a very definite purpose: that is, the strengthening of their own responsibility as successors of the Apostles and of their hierarchical communion with the Successor of Peter. The point of reference is a visit to the tombs of St. Peter and Paul, pastors and pillars of the Roman Church.

The “ad limina” visit is an important moment in the exercise of the Holy Father’s pastoral ministry: in fact, on such a visit, the Supreme Pastor receives the Pastors of the particular Churches and discusses with them questions concerning their ecclesial mission.

An analysis of the origins and historical-juridical development of the “ad limina” visit together with a reflection on its theological, spiritual and pastoral meaning can deepen its significance. This analysis and reflection also allow us to clarify the foundations, reasons and ultimate objectives of an institution which is so revered because of its antiquity and so filled with ecclesial importance. For this reason, three notes are attached to this Directory: a theological consideration, a spiritual-pastoral one, and finally an historical-juridical one.

For the purposes of this Foreword, we will limit ourselves to highlighting a few points for a better understanding of the Directory.

 I.  The “ad limina” visit cannot be understood simply as an administrative and juridical act, consisting of certain ritual and juridical obligations and protocol that must be fulfilled.

In the canonical legislation (C.I.C., can. 400) prescribing the visit, the two basic purposes for it are clearly stated:

a.  to venerate the tombs of the Holy Apostles, Peter and Paul;

b.  to meet with the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

 II. The veneration of the “trophies” of the Apostles Peter and Paul and pilgrimages to their tombs have been practiced from earliest Christian times. These practices have retained their deep spiritual meaning and their significance for ecclesial communion. It is precisely for this reason that these practices were institutionalized for the bishops.

Indeed, both the pilgrimages and the veneration express the unity of the Church, founded by the Lord on the Apostles and built upon blessed Peter, their head, with Jesus Christ Himself as the chief cornerstone together with His “Gospel” of salvation for all men.

III. The meeting with the Successor of Peter, the primary guardian of the deposit of truth handed down from the Apostles, serves to consolidate their unity in the same faith, hope and charity. It also allows the immense heritage of spiritual and moral values that the whole Church, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, has spread throughout the world to be better known and appreciated. The forms and the frequency of the meeting with the Pope can vary, and indeed, have varied throughout the centuries. The essential meaning, however, has always remained the same.

IV.  The world today is tending towards ever greater unification; the Church too knows itself to be a “sign and instrument of intimate Union with God and of the unity of the human race” (LG 1). It thus seems indispensable to promote and foster constant communication between the particular Churches and the Apostolic See by an exchange of information and a mutual sharing of pastoral concerns about problems, experiences and sufferings as well as orientations and plans for working and living.

There is a twofold movement in this ecclesial communication. On the one hand, there is a convergence towards the center and visible foundation of that unity which, in the commitment and personal responsibility of each bishop and with the spirit of collegiality (affectus collegialis), is expressed in groups and conferences that are bonds of unity and instruments of service. On the other hand, there is the munus “confided to Peter alone” (LG 20) at the service of ecclesial communion and of missionary expansion so that nothing is left undone in promoting and guarding the unity of faith and the common discipline of the whole Church, and so that the consciousness of the Pastors regarding their duty to announce the Gospel everywhere might be enlivened.

 V.  Clearly, if the Bishop of Rome is to fulfill his special munus, he needs reliable and authoritative information on the actual situation of the various Churches, their problems, the initiatives they have undertaken, the difficulties they have encountered, and the results of projects they have completed. Today, of course, this can happen, even more than in former times, by means of letter, the communications’ media, the reports of the Representatives of the Holy See in various countries, and also through the personal contact that the Holy Father can have with the local situation on his apostolic journeys. What remains irreplaceable, however, is the direct contact that individual bishops, or the Conferences associated with them in the various countries, can have with the Sovereign Pontiff periodically in Rome, during their pilgrimage visit after adequate preparation, both remote and immediate.

The 15 day visit of Paul with Peter (cf. Galatians 1:18) was a meet­ing that provided help for their respective ministries. In an analogous way, the visit of the bishops, Vicars and Ambassadors of Christ in the particular Churches entrusted to them, with the Successor of Peter, “the Vicar of Christ and visible head of the entire Church” (LG 18), also brings a richness of experience to the Petrine ministry and its service of illuminating the serious problems of the Church and the world as these problems are perceived in their various features within different places, times and cultures.

 VI.  Part of the preparation for the “ad limina” visit (can. 400) is the writing of the quinquennial Report, as prescribed by the Code of Canon Law (can. 399).

This Report is a means of facilitating the relationship of communion between particular Churches and the Roman Pontiff. It must be sent well enough in advance of the visit so that the Holy Father can have a profitable meeting with each bishop on both a personal and pastoral level and so that the competent Dicasteries of the Roman Curia can have a constructive dialogue with diocesan Pastors.

 VII.   It is from these considerations that the need has been felt by the Holy Father, the bishops, and the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, to regulate the fulfillment of the “ad limina” visit by Ordinaries of the Latin Rite, as well as the preparations that precede it, both on the part of the bishops and by the Roman Dicasteries. Thus the present Directory is being published, with suitable norms for this purpose.

With reference to the bishops of the Oriental Rites, we must wait for the promulgation of the Code of Oriental Canon Law.


I.    Remote Preparation

The principal stages of the remote preparation are: spiritual preparation, the writing and sending of the quinquennial Report, and con­tact with the local Pontifical Representative.

1.1   A time of reflection and prayer

The best preparation is spiritual. The “ad limina” visit is an action that each bishop performs for the good of his own diocese and for the whole Church, in order to foster unity, charity and solidarity in the faith and in the apostolate. Every Ordinary, therefore, will try to identify from his own experience the principal elements of the situa­tion, to carefully investigate them, and to synthesize the conclusions he feels he can make before God for the good of the Church.

At this stage he will undoubtedly sense the need to involve the entire diocesan community in reflection and prayer, particularly cloistered monasteries or other centers of prayer and penance, on behalf of the eminently ecclesial act he is about to perform.

1.2    The Quinquennial Report

1.2.1    In arranging for the “ad limina” visit, the Ordinary will take great care in drawing up the quinquennial Report on the condition of the ecclesiastical territory entrusted to his care: this Report is prescribed by the Code of Canon Law for all Ordinaries who have been in office for at least two complete years of the established quinquennium.[2]

1.2.2   To make the work easier and to provide some editorial uniformity that would be helpful in subsequent study and dialogue, the Ordinary can make use of the special schema that has been prepared by the Congregation for Bishops.[3]

1.2.3    The value of the Report will be its combination of brevity with clarity, its precision, its concreteness and its objectivity in describing the actual situation of the particular Church for which the Ordinary is responsible, its problems, its relations with other non-Catholic and non-Christian religious communities, with civil society and with the public authorities.

1.2.4   In drawing up the Report, the Ordinary can ask for the collaboration of competent and trustworthy persons, while always maintaining the discretion that must surround all documents of this type and indeed all correspondence with the Apostolic See about funda­mental problems of the Church.

1.2.5   The Report should ordinarily be sent to the Congregation of Bishops approximately six months (and in every case, not less than three months) before the “ad limina” visit, so that it can be studied and synthesized and a summary presented to the Holy Father. This will allow him to acquaint himself with the condition and the problems of each Church prior to the visit.[4]

1.2.6  It would be helpful for the Ordinary to send 3 copies of the Report, or complete extracts of individual sections that refer to the specific competencies of the various Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, for possible problems or specific cases that need to be discussed with them.

1.3  Collaboration with the Papal Representative

1.3.1   In every country the Papal Representative will be respon­sible for reminding each bishop, a few months before the beginning of the year, of the time fixed for the visit.

1.3.2   At the same time, he will invite the President of the Episcopal Conference to determine, together with the bishops, one or more time periods of the year in which the bishops intend to go to Rome, whether individually or, if circumstances so warrant, in groups. This does not prejudice the fact that the timetable must be submitted for the approval of the Supreme Pontiff.[5]

1.3.3   The Pontifical Representative will also take care to urge all bishops, who are so obliged, to send their quinquennial Report.

II.   Immediate Preparation

The immediate preparation concerns the prior arrangements made with the competent Office of the Congregation for Bishops to establish the dates and other particulars of the visit.

2.1  Prior arrangements with the Congregation for Bishops

2.1.1   The date of the “ad limina” visit by the bishops of each country or ecclesiastical region will be agreed upon between the Secre­tariat of the Episcopal Conference and the Prefecture of the Papal Household, which will communicate the information to the special Coordinating Office for the visit existing within the Congregation for Bishops.

2.1.2  Normally a common date will be established for all the bishops within the same Ecclesiastical Province or Pastoral Region, so that all bishops who belong to it can be in Rome together at the same time; it must be kept in mind, however, that the nature of the visit is an eminently personal one.

2.1.3   The Secretariat of the Conference will provide the abovementioned Coordinating Office with a description of the group which is about to make the visit: the number and identity of the members, the pastoral and social situation from which they come, the problems regarding their territory, the solutions they propose, etc. For this purpose it would be helpful to send to the Coordinating Office in advance a common document or report from each group containing the information, proposals and other possible requests that are to be made known to the Apostolic See.

2.1.4  The same Secretariat of the Episcopal Conference will also arrange with the Coordinating Office those meetings which the bishops, either individually or in groups, will have with the Roman Dicasteries. The purpose for such meetings and the issues to be discussed should be specified in such a way that each Dicastery can prepare the subject matter. Individual bishops, however, are free to ask directly for meetings with the Dicasteries and to State the reasons for the request.

2.1.5   In making all the arrangements for the “ad limina” visits, the Episcopal Conference (national or regional) may designate a person, resident in Rome, to be responsible for looking after the local preparations for the visit, seeing to their execution, and thus maintaining con­tact between the bishops and the Coordinating Office. Should such a person be designated, his name should be communicated to the Coor­dinating Office.

2.2  Responsibilities of the Coordinating Office

2.2.1   In order to serve the bishops, the Coordinating Office, together with the Secretariat of the Conference or the local contact per­son in Rome, handles all questions concerning the preparation and exe­cution of the “ad limina” visit, particularly the timetable of the visit, the program and times of the liturgical celebrations and the meetings in Rome, as well as the relations with the Roman Dicasteries.

2.2.2   In order to assist the work of the individual Dicasteries interested in meeting with the bishops during their “ad limina” visit, the Coordinating Office:

— informs each Dicastery of the scheduled dates of the visits for each half-year;

— informs them in sufficient time concerning the material obtained from contacts with the Secretariat of the Conference or from the local contact person in Rome;

— transmits to the Dicasteries, according to their competence, excerpts from the quinquennial Reports on the points which concern them;

— deals with the various Dicasteries in submitting the requests and scheduling the dates of meetings with them on the part of the bishops or in finding out if the Dicasteries themselves desire a meeting with the visiting bishops, either individually or in groups;

— in such cases, it informs the Secretariat of the Conference or the local contact person in Rome; sometimes, it will directly inform the bishop involved. At the same time, it provides for the Dicasteries all pertinent information on the situations, persons and groups involved.

2.2.3  Without prejudice to the competence of the Prefecture of the Papal Household in determining and communicating the dates of the meetings of the bishops or of groups of bishops with the Holy Father, the Coordinating Office:

—  transmits annually to the Prefecture a complete list of bishops expected for the “ad limina” visit; it also communicates the dates preferred by the bishops for the visit, so that the Prefecture is made aware of the preferences;

—  receives from the Prefecture, with sufficient notice, a general calendar scheduling the Audiences of individual bishops or groups of bishops, and communicates this information to the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia.

2.2.4  For those bishops subject to the Congregations for Oriental Churches or for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Coordinating Office will collaborate with the respective Offices for the “ad limina” visits of those Dicasteries.

III.     The Execution of the “Ad Limina” Visit

The principal moments of the “ad limina” visit are:

—  the pilgrimage to and veneration of the tombs of the Princes of the Apostles;
—  the meeting with the Holy Father;
—  the contacts with the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia.

To these one can add also the contact made with the pastoral life and activity of the Roman Church.

3.1  The Liturgical aspect

3.1.1  The pilgrimage to the tombs of the Princes of the Apostles, an essential aspect of the visit, is realized through a liturgical celebration which firmly unites all the participants in ecclesial communion and builds them up in it, whether they be bishops, the faithful, or others who for whatever reason are assisting at the service, as often happens in Rome.

3.1.2    To this end, the Coordinating Office, together with the Secretariat of the Episcopal Conference or the designated person responsible in Rome, will contact the Patriarchal Basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul to schedule the times and places for the celebrations of Holy Mass and possibly of the Liturgy of the Hours or a Service of the Word. It will also prearrange everything regarding the environ­ment and the persons involved, so that the liturgy is carried out in a fitting, dignified and meaningful way, in keeping with the very purpose of the visit.

3.1.3  The proposed ritual for this celebration is attached to the present Directory.

3.1.4  Whenever the bishops, individually or as a group, desire to have some celebration in the Patriarchal Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, the Coordinating Office can schedule the date and make the preparations.

3.1.5  It would be commendable if, as with certain other meetings in Rome, some pilgrims from the dioceses or regions of the visiting bishops, or other fellow countrymen living in Rome or Italy, would join themselves to these celebrations with their Pastors as a witness of faith and of ecclesial communion at the tombs of the Princes of the Apostles and at the Chair of Peter.

3.2  The meeting with the Holy Father

3.2.1   Every bishop will meet the Successor of Peter for a personal conversation; the day and time for the Audience will be established by the Prefecture of the Papal Household.

3.2.2    Whenever a communal celebration or a group meeting with the Holy Father is possible, the place and time of the event will be communicated to those involved or to the contact person in Rome.

3.2.3   Appropriate dress for the meetings with the Holy Father is the black cassock with appropriately colored piping and the sash.

3.3   Contacts with the Dicasteries

3.3.1  The visit of the bishops to the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia has special significance and importance because of the intimate connection that exists between the Pope and the Curial Offices which are the ordinary instruments of the “Petrine ministry”.

It is therefore recommended that, in the course of their “ad limina” visit, individual bishops, or groups of them, or their Commissions, go to the various Dicasteries to make known their problems or ask questions, to seek information, to furnish any clarifications and to respond to possible requests. In any event, it is most appropriate for the Presidents of individual Commissions to pay a visit to the relevant Dicastery. All of this is to be done in a spirit of communion in truth and in charity.

3.3.2   For these contacts to be fruitful, it is necessary that the Dicasteries receive in advance the information from the quinquennial Report that pertains to their competency. Therefore, it is necessary that the Coordinating Office make this material available to them well in advance of the meetings, together with any other information on particular questions that bishops may want to discuss personally with a given Dicastery.

3.3.3  In every case, it is advisable to schedule the day, time, and the form that the meetings will take with the Dicasteries through the Coordinating Office, which will endeavor to accede to the requests of the bishops in the best way possible.

3.3.4  At the same Coordinating Office, the bishops can obtain any clarifications they may need concerning the competencies of the Dicasteries, concerning the Offices and persons they are to visit, the procedures to be followed, and any street addresses needed during the visit.

3.3.5   In the case of a group visit, one of the participating bishops will represent the group in order to present it, to give a synthetic over­view of the pastoral situation in the region represented, and to discuss the questions that are within the competency of the given Dicastery. If among the participants there is a bishop present who is President of the Episcopal Conference or of a Commission that is to meet on a visit to a Dicastery, then it seems advisable that he would be the one to present the group and speak on its behalf.

3.3.6  The clarifications and responses of the Superiors of the Di­casteries, though they would not have official status until they were written and registered in the customary manner of the Roman Curia, can still serve as information, counsel, orientation and a guide for general pastoral practice and as a solution for those particular problems where it would be appropriate to apply practical norms based on experience and on the canonical tradition.

3.4   The possibility of contact with the ecclesial and pastoral situation in Rome

3.4.1   In the light of the communion that exists between the par­ticular Churches and the Roman Church, those bishops who so desire, can have one or more meetings with a given Roman parish or with some other particularly significant community, or with centers of religious, cultural and charitable activity in Rome, in order to deepen mutual understanding and to exchange views about pastoral life and experiences, particularly on matters of common interest or concerning similar situations.

3.4.2   Given the opportunity, it would be appropriate to give attention to one’s own national Church in the city, to any personal parishes, or to the titular Church of a Cardinal from the region, par­ticularly if these Churches are centers of pastoral activity.

3.4.3 If from these meetings some form of pastoral or charitable collaboration arises, it would be a visible and concrete result of the ecclesial communion inspired by the “ad limina” visit.

3.4.4  In arranging these meetings, particularly the necessary con­tacts with the competent Pastoral Centers of the Vicariate of Rome, the Coordinating Office can serve as a helpful instrument in choosing various places and persons and in scheduling suitable dates and times.

Given at Rome, the 29th day of June, 1988, the Solemnity of the St. Apostles, Peter and Paul, at the Congregation for Bishops.

+ Bernardin Card.Gantin, Prefect

+ Giovanni Battista Re, Secretary



Theological  -  Spiritual-Pastoral  -  Historical-Juridical

From its very beginnings the institution of the “ad limina” visit has retained a profound theological, spiritual-pastoral, and historical-juridical meaning for those Pastors who have fulfilled it and for the Particular Churches entrusted to their care.

In order that the richness of its content might be better understood and that the “ad limina” visit might enjoy an ever greater fruitfulness in the life of each ecclesial community, the following three texts have been included; they are meant to be initial contributions to the subject and the authors assume full responsibility for their contents.

The theological notes of His Eminence, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, were prepared as an introduction to a colloquium with some of the Brazilian Bishops, who were representing that episcopate in a meeting with the Holy Father and the Roman Curia at the conclusion of their “ad limina” visit (March, 1986). These notes are included here because they present essential aspects of the “ad limina” visit itself.

The reflections of His Eminence, Lucas Cardinal Moreira Neves, offer some insights on the spiritual-pastoral dimension of the “visitatio”. Finally, Msgr. Vicente Cárcel Ortí outlines its historical-juridical development.


The “ad limina” visit is not merely some kind of administrative procedure. It involves an ecclesiology which is implemented in concrete activities. It is, in other words, an ecclesiology “in practice”.

By profoundly linking its four great Constitutions—on the Liturgy, on the Church, on the Word of God, and on the Church in the Modem World—the Second Vatican Council has taught us anew about the dynamism of the Church, always directed towards the salvation of the world and guided by the moving force of the Gospel. Vatican II has also taught us that the center of the Church’s life and constitution is in adoration—in the Liturgy. The Church not only celebrates com­munion; the Church is communion. The essential structure of the Church follows from its liturgical center, which is the center of its “being Church”. Thus I think that a brief analysis of some constitutive elements of the Eucharistic Prayer can help us to better understand the theological context and the profound roots of an ecclesial action as important as the “ad limina” visit.


1.   The “perichoresis” (mutual indwelling) betwen the Church Universal and the local Church and its Petrine Center in the Eucharistic Liturgy

The concrete subject of the Eucharistic celebration is the local community, which, in receiving the presence of the Lord, the presence of Christ, receives the complete gift of salvation and thus becomes the realization of the Church. In saying this, we must keep in mind the essential implications of Christology. Christ is our Mediator with the Father and guides us to the Father uniting us in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The solemn conclusion of the Canon shows this Trinitarian character of the Liturgy, expressing the Christological dimensions with the words “through - with - in”, guiding us to the “You” of the Father (“tibi”) and including everything “in unitate Spiritus Sancti”. Historical investigation has shown that this formula, “in unitate Spiritus Sancti”, is equivalent to another one, as is found, for example, in the Canon of Hippolytus, “in sancta Ecclesia tua” (“in your holy Church”). The Church is the unity created by the Holy Spirit. Christology implies the Trinitarian faith; the dynamism and realism of Trinitarian faith implies the catholicity of every Eucharistic celebration. The presence of the Lord is the presence of his own, the union of the local community with all the members of the Church of God. The particular Church and the universal Church interpenetrate in an indissoluble perichoresis.

This perichoresis between particular and universal Church is one of the fundamental data of a biblical ecclesiology and a logical consequence of the connection between Christology and Ecclesiology. The Liturgy also shows us the various dimensions of this perichoresis. As the Preface says, the Eucharist is celebrated in the presence of the angels of God. In the Liturgy we are gathered with the saints and with the souls of those still suffering in purgatory—a very important factor in present day discussions on inculturation. The question of ancestors is very important in Africa, but not only there; it could help us to rediscover the extension of the Church beyond the confines of death—a universality not limited by the wall of death. Finally, the Eucharist is celebrated “una cum Papa nostro et cum antistite nostro...”. Historical research has shown that these formulas are found in the Roman Liturgy at least by the Third Century; this expression of the presence of the universal Church in the particular Church belongs in fact to the essence of Christian consciousness.

We have now come to the point where we can clarify the theological significance of the “ad limina” visits. Individual priests celebrate the Eucharist in union with their bishop who is their link with the chain of Catholic tradition, and this chain is—according to the radical personalism of Christianity—a chain that is at once both personalized and sacramental: apostolic succession. With the bishop there enters into the Eucharist a diachronic dimension as well, the faith of every age. But the bishops are not a formless mass, juxtaposed externally one to another, as is intimated today in a widely circulated view about the supposed “conciliarism” of the Church. In the footsteps of the Council of Nicea, the Byzantine Church had formulated the idea of the “Pentarchy”, that is, of five central points in which the unity and universality of the Church is concretized. The theological nucleus of this model was the Petrine idea, here interpreted in the tradition of the three Petrine Sees (Jerusalem, Antioch and Rome), of the See of St. Mark (Alexandria), inserted into the Petrine tradition by way of the connection between St. Peter and his interpreter in the Greek world, and of the See of the brother of St. Peter, Andrew (Constantinople). It is evident that the historical basis of this construction is very weak as far as Alexandria and Constantinople are concerned. What is im­portant is that with this structure the East too has maintained the idea of a Petrine foundation of unity and of the concreteness of the unity and universality of the Church in the succession of St. Peter. Unity does not result from some vague harmony of a polite conciliarism of different local Churches among themselves; unity has a name: Peter, and a See: Rome. Thus, we celebrate Mass not only in union with the local bishop, but also “una cum Papa nostro”. This union with the Bishop of Rome also unites the bishops among themselves; it is the fundamental condition of their collegiality.

2.  The “ad limina” visit as a specific consequence of this structure

As with all the other dimensions of the Eucharist, so too this dimension of “una cum” requires a “praxis”. It cannot be a mere formula. A primary element of this praxis, implicit in the very words “una cum”, is a common order, the law of the Church. Its function is to preserve the permanence of the essential givens of unity: faith and the sacraments, and to guide the progress of ecclesial communion day by day. A second element of this “una cum” is thus a real collaboration with the Pope in the daily life of the Church and obedience to the Pope who is both guarantor of the Church’s unity and authentic interpreter of its demands. Christian personalism requires finally that this “una cum” not exhaust itself in bureaucratic and administrative structures, but that it also become a personal encounter with the See of St. Peter. The “ad limina” visit is thus an instrument and a real expression of the catholicity of the Church, of the unity of the College of Bishops embodied in the person of the Successor of Peter and symbolized by the place of Peter’s martyrdom. It is a visible realization of that mutual indwelling of the universal Church and the particular Churches, which we spoke about earlier. We find traces of a first “ad limina” visit in the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians, where he speaks of his conversion and of his path to an apostolate for the Gentiles. Though he was an apostle—called and instructed directly by the Risen Lord, he says in that Letter: “Afterward ... I went to Jerusalem to consult with Cephas, and remained with him for 15 days ...” (1:18). The same act is repeated another time 14 years later: “After 14 years I went again up to Jerusalem ... I laid out for their scrutiny the gospel that I preach to the gentiles ... to make sure the course I was pursuing or had pursued was not in vain” (2:2). Further, in a certain sense it can be said that the “ad limina” visits continue an important element of the religious practice of the Old Testament, exemplified in Exodus 34:24: “Three times a year you will go to appear before the Lord, Your God”. This command was given to preserve and actualize the unity of Israel; in this “permanent” pilgrimage the experience of the years of wandering in the desert is continued. The people of Israel thus remained a pilgrim people marching towards unity, towards their God. Pilgrimage, being on the way towards unity and the local and Personal expression of this unity preserve all their value also in the Church of the New Testament.

 3. The Ecclesiological dimensions of the “ad limina” visit

The “perichoresis” or mutual indwelling between the universal Church and the particular Churches, realized and visibly expressed in the “ad limina” visits, also entails three specific dimensions of episcopal ministry which I would briefly like to outline as the conclusion of my reflections.

a)   This perichoresis entails a mutual indwelling between the collegiality of bishops and the primacy of the Successor of St. Peter. The visit requires a reciprocal exchange. The Pope receives the bishop; he is related to the members of the episcopal college. He, the guarantor of unity, of the universality and catholicity of the Church, needs to meet with his brother bishops, with the concrete catholicity of the Church. Juridical, theological Catholicism and concrete, empirical Catholicism must encounter one another and interpenetrate so that the true catholicity of the Church, in accordance with theological criteria, might increase all the more and be enriched by the multi-faceted reality of the faith of the people.

The Pope relates to the Bishops; the Bishops relate to the Pope—“to make sure the course I was pursuing or did pursue was not in vain” (Galatians 2:2). They are the members of the episcopal college, the successor of the college of the apostles. In the visit to Rome they express their recognition that collegiality needs the Petrine center and becomes an unreal idea without that center.

b)   The encounter between collegiality and primacy entails, therefore, a meeting between lived experience and permanent confession of faith, between the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of the faith, between principles and lived reality. This meeting can be difficult; so much the more is it necessary. For faith to be real it needs the ever new experiences of human history, but these experiences—which are always partial—can only become part of the riches of catholicity when they are purified and illuminated by the brilliant light of a common faith. In the period between the First and Second World Wars, it was often said that the great human experiences need to be baptized. This is a true enough statement. But it has frequently been forgotten that baptism is not just the sprinkling of a little water; it is a death and the resurrection from the dead to a new life. Faith is not born from experience but from the Word of God; it is then enfleshed and verified in experience. The penetration of theological catholicism with juridical catholicism—the very purpose of the “ad limina” visits—requires the ever renewing penetration of experience with the doctrine of the faith. Experience must be related to and purified by the faith. Faith must be enriched by experience.

c)   The “ad limina” visit finally entails a meeting between the personal principle and the communitarian principle in the governance of the Church. The Lord has entrusted that governance to persons and not to structures. It is not structures that are responsible; only persons are responsible, in whose conscience the voice of God is reflected. The fact that the unity of the Church ultimately expresses itself not in some vague conciliarism but in a person is but the pivot of a personalism that constitutes the Church. On the other hand, isolated persons are constantly in danger of falling into arbitrariness. Personalism becomes unilateral without the complement of a communitarian dimen­sion. The personal responsibilities of the Pope and of individual diocesan bishops are linked together in the collegiality of all the Successors of the Apostles and in the communion of particular Churches. Beyond the fundamental link of faith and sacraments through which the “we” of the Church is realized, tradition also recognizes above all the figure of a “council”. It contains such elements as common reflection, dialogue, discussion and voting. In the notion of council we discover a synthesis between personal responsibility and communitarian structure. In the “ad limina” visits one can see this perichoresis between personalism and the communitarian dimension (collegiality) also reflected. Two persons meet one another—the Bishop of a particular Church and the Bishop of Rome, successor of Peter. Each has his own unbreakable responsi­bility, but they do not meet as isolated individuals. Each represents in his own way the “we” of the Church, the “we” of the faithful, the “we” of the bishops, and each must represent this “we”. In their com­munion, their faithful are communicating, the universal and particular Church are communicating.

Thus, at the end of our reflections, we return to our starting point. Everything is entailed in the “una cum” of the Eucharistic Prayer. The “ad limina” visits find their theological roots and their lived reality in these words.

Joseph Card. Ratzinger



At the conclusion of each quinquennium, in obedience to a specific canonical norm (can. 400) and in the spirit of the “Directory of the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops” (N. 45 f.), each bishop is required to leave his diocese and come to Rome to fulfill the “visitatio ad limina Apostolorum”. This action is linked, at least implicitly, to certain dogmatic presuppositions which clarify its theological content. It is from this theological content that the spiritual inspiration and significant pastoral meaning of the “visitatio” are derived.

It is helpful then to focus our attention, even if in summary fashion, on those elements that confer a theological, or more precisely, ecclesiological, spiritual and pastoral dimension on the ancient “ad limina” visit, so that it is not reduced to a merely administrative, juridical or disciplinary activity.

I.   Episcopal Collegiality

The “ad limina” visit calls us back above all to the doctrine of episcopal collegiality, a doctrine as old as the Church itself, at some times and in some ways solidified in history, at other times perhaps left in the background, but today confirmed in all its strength by the Second Vatican Council.

“Just as, in accordance with the Lord’s Decree, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a unique apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another”. In this declaration of Lumen Gentium (n. 22) one discovers the hinge of the Church’s teaching on episcopal collegiality. Some fundamental observations on this conciliar text provide the essential elements of this “locus theologicus” and the doctrine it transmits.

1.  The College of the Twelve, chosen and constituted by Jesus, has a causal relationship to the College of Bishops. The former is not only exemplary cause, insofar as it is prototype and model of the latter, but more profoundly, it is efficient cause of the latter. The Episcopal College in fact arises from the Apostolic College, both in the strength of apostolic succession and because of the continuity through which both groups transmit the same faith, communicate the same sacraments of grace, and build up and maintain in unity the same community of believers.

2.  Every bishop as such responds to a personal, incommunicable and unrepeatable vocation; he thus responds in view of his singular individuality. But the matrix of this individuality is a Collegium; the individuality is in ontological collegamento with those who compose the Collegium.

3.  In the course of the centuries and throughout history, both the charism and mission common to all the successors of the Eleven as well as the ministerium Petri to “confirm his brothers” (Luke 22:32), a ministry confided to him alone by the Lord (LG 20), are handed down within the Episcopal College.

4.  Precisely because of the Petrine ministry, the person of the Successor of Cephas is deeply inserted into the College, and carries out his function in it, a function that would not be understandable either at the margins of or above the College. Rather, this function, expressly willed by Jesus Christ, is placed in the position of Head of the College itself and as visible principle of communion of its members (LG 18, 22 and 23; cf. Nota praevia, 3). For this reason, “the College or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head” (LG 22). The formula—“with Peter and under Peter” (AG 38)—appropriately defines the nature of the College in the theological vision of the Second Vatican Council, one in perfect harmony with the preceding Magisterium. In the College the Roman Pontiff is truly the Head to whom the members are related by a clear hierarchical-sacramental communion (cf. Nota praevia, 2 and 3).

In the act of officially meeting with the Roman Pontiff, each bishop implicitly professes his deep relationship—a relationship to be sure of hierarchical communion “affectiva et effectiva”-—with the One who, holding the primacy in the Church as visible Head, is also visible principle of unity among the Bishops (LG 23).

For this last reason, each bishop making the “ad limina” visit ideally encounters in the Successor of Peter and Head of the College the universality of his brother Bishops throughout the world. There he meets that living link of communion and point of convergence that is for all a brother who has been placed at the head of his brothers.

Strictly speaking, one cannot call the “ad limina” visit an act of collegiality. Such an expression is reserved to the Council, as well as to the agreed upon action of Bishops, though spread throughout the world, if such an action were approved or at least “received” by the same Head (LG 22). One could say, however, that the “visitatio” is an act inspired or derived from the principle of collegiality or the spirit of collegiality. It is because of this principle and spirit that the Members of the College express their internal relationship to its Head.


II.  Particular Church and Universal Church

The “ad limina” visit forcefully calls us back to still another theological given: that of the intimate relationship between the particular Church and the universal Church.

This is also a point of doctrine that occurs frequently in the Second Vatican Council and it is well for us to reflect on its content, even if briefly.

1.  The New Testament proclaims with forthright simplicity two distinct dimensions of the Church: on the one hand, its unity and universality, and, on the other, its realization in a multiplicity of communities spread throughout the world and marked by geographical, historical and cultural traits that stamp them with their own identity.

“My Church”: with this expression (Matthew 16:18), Jesus is certainly referring to a unique reality that is not circumscribed by the limits of a given city, province or nation, but rather that is ready to extend itself throughout the entire universe. The author of the Acts of the Apostles sees the Church in such a universal dimension when he writes that “the churches throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria were now left in peace, building themselves up ...” (Acts 9:31). Paul also often thinks of the Church as spread and extended beyond the small local communities which he addressed. Thus he says: “the Church is subject to Christ as a wife to her husband” (Ephesians 5:24). In another place, in the same thought pattern, he States that “He (Christ) is the Head of the Body, the Church” (Colossians 1:18, 24). Finally, in another place, he confesses that “he had persecuted the Church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).

At other times, the word, ekklesia, refers to different local com­munities. In this sense, using the plural, the Seer of Patmos writes to “the Churches” (Apocalypse 1:4-11, 20), and the author of the Book of Acts remarks that Paul “traveled through Syria and Cilicia and gave new strength to the Churches” (Acts 15:41). Paul, for his part, does not hesitate to speak to the Churches existing in a province (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:19: “the Churches of Asia”; Galatians 1:1: “the Churches of Galatia”); in a city (1 Corinthians 1:1: “the Church of God that is at Corinth”; Colossians 4:15: “the Church of the Laodiceans”; 1 Thessalonians 1:1: “the Church of the Thessalonians”); or in the house of a family (1 Corinthians 16:19: “Aquila and Prisca and the Church that meets in their house”).

2.  The Church meditates on this given both at the level of its historical journey and on that of its doctrinal reflection. The Church knows itself to be contemporaneously—not alternately or successively— universal and particular. There are not two Churches, but one and the same Church which for one reason or another can appear now universal, now local and particular. (The terminology of local Church or particular Church, still fluid in the Conciliar documents themselves, has been more precisely refined after the Council. The new Code of Canon Law, in adapting the expression, “particular Church” to be synonymous with “diocese ” has carried this refinement further in consolidating terminology).

In being called Universal, or in the same sense, Katholikè or Oikuméne, the Church is seen insofar as it is meant for all men without distinction to the very ends of the earth; it is “sacramentum salutis”, sign and instrument of the salvation won for us by the Son of God in his Cross and Resurrection; it is the Church embraced in faith, present in the sacraments, and renewed by the Word, proclaimed and accepted.

In being called Particular, on the other hand, the Church is seen insofar as it presents the same salvific plan in this or that specific human community gathered and guided by the Shepherd the Lord has sent.

It is by the will of God and the design of Christ our Savior that the Church manifests itself in its unity and universality; nevertheless, this same universality is achieved and realized concretely in the various particular Churches spread throughout the world. The universal Church is not some numerical sum or material juxtaposition, a species of the federation of pre-existing particular Churches, but it is certainly their communion and interplay of life. On the other hand, it is the unique and universal Church that is reflected completely in the particular Churches, who are “formed in the image of the universal Church” (LG 23).

The full mystery of the Church demands a harmonic realization of its two dimensions. The aspect of catholicity, properly emphasized, saves the authentic universality of the Church from being reduced to overtones of a “synagogue” as well as from any other reductionist con­ception that would limit it to the confines of a given people or culture; overly emphasized, this same universality could lead to an idealized vision of the Church that would distance it from its concrete historical incarnation. On the other hand, a properly emphasized understanding of the particular dimension of the Church has the advantage of showing the individual face of a Church, composed of specific persons and concrete geographical and historical situations, of the Church defined by the specific contours of a definite portion of humanity; excessively emphasized, the particular character of the Church would risk its ghettoization, fragmenting its global dimension.

3.  In the ongoing movement from universal to particular Church, and vice versa, the Bishops have a privileged and singular role. Heads of their own particular Churches, and together members of the episcopal College, it is in their very persons, in union with the universal Shepherd, that the particular Churches are integrated in the universal Church, which latter permeates them all.

It is proper to say, then, that the “ad limina” visit is, for every bishop, an urgent invitation and a stimulus to compare his own mission regarding his care of his particular Church with the universal vocation of the Church. It can happen that his engagement with a restricted community, his own particular Church, has reduced his “spatia caritatis” that he must leave open for his “sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum” (2 Corinthians 11:28). The “visitatio” will help him understand more profoundly what the Second Vatican Council stated: “Individual bishops, insofar as they are set over particular Churches, exercise their pastoral office over the portion of the People of God assigned to them, not over other Churches nor the Church universal. But insofar as they are members of the episcopal college and legitimate successors of the apostles, by Christ’s arrangement and decree, each is bound to have such care and solicitude for the whole Church which, though it be not exercised by any act of jurisdiction, does for all that redound in an eminent decree to the advantage of the universal Church” (LG 23). The “ad limina” visit can revivify awareness of this solicitude.

III.  Towards the Church of Rome

Reflection on the theme of the relationship between the universal Church and the particular Churches is seen from a very particular angle when it is applied to the Church of Rome. This reflection, in fact, enjoys an altogether singular place.

1.  The Church of Rome is not to simply be identified with the universal Church. It is, under every aspect, a particular Church, having its own Pastor, appropriate institutions and particular physiognomy.

Nevertheless, because its first Shepherd was the Apostle Peter, established by the Lord as head of the Apostolic College, invested with the primacy conferred on him as the “Rock” on which the Church was built, the “sedes romana” has, from the very beginnings of the Church, acquired a privileged place among all the other Churches. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the Second Century: “It presides in universal charity” (Introduction, Letter to the Romans). For his part, Cyprian declared that the Roman Church is called to watch over “all those who invoke the name of the Lord” (Letter  8:2-3). The fact that a Bishop of Rome like Clement could authoritatively give directions and send admonitions to the Church of Corinth, shows what honor was given to and what responsibility was recognized for the Roman Church, even from the beginning.

The Second Vatican Council, completing and deepening the teaching of the First Vatican Council and of preceding ones, forcibly and clearly repeats the perennial teaching on the centrality of the See of Rome and of its Pastor, due to the undeniable design of the Church’s Founder. Because of this centrality, all the Churches look to the Roman Church, are related to it, and receive from it light, orientation, comfort and support.

An interrelationship exists between the particular Churches and the Roman Church, a movement, which an eminent theologian has defined as “perichoresis” or vital circulation; other theologians do not hesitate to compare this movement to the diastolic-systolic circulation of the blood’s movement from the heart to the extremities of the body and back again to the center, the heart.

In the universal Church, the Church of Rome has this function of con-vergence and con-centration, for the benefit of the Churches themselves and for the universality of the Church. The often troubled history of the particular Churches attests abundantly to their backing and support of the Primacy.

The Church of Rome, then, though not being the universal Church, possesses, by divine vocation and historical destiny, a grace by which through it—and not to any other Church—the unity of all the other Churches among themselves and their universality are solidified.

2.  This charism of the “Petri sedes” or “cathedra Romana” finds a very concrete expression in the “ad limina” visit.

In fulfilling what the Apostle Paul called “videre Petrum” and in individually expressing their faith in the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, the individual bishops recognize publicly—also for the building up of their faithful—the proper and distinctive role of the Roman Church, “mater et centrum omnium ecclesiarum orbis”. This does not mean that the world’s particular Churches must, in servile fashion, copy the being and acting of the Roman Church. A Roman centralization, a corruption and a caricature of the centrality praised earlier, would not respect the legitimate autonomy of the particular Churches, would impoverish their spiritual and pastoral heritage, would deform their physiognomy and would not contribute to “variety in unity”. It is certain, however, that in the Roman Church and in its Pastor, every particular Church can see itself reflected, and somehow concentrated in it, the images of all the other Churches.

The “Romam adire”, a principal action of the visit, finds further confirmation and meaning in the pilgrimage (as the very name itself implies) “ad limina (or, ad trophaea) Apostolorum”.

If Rome enjoys the above mentioned centrality in the Church it is due to the witness given by the two illustrious Apostles who poured out their own blood there. Because of their witness, they are considered the foundations of the Church of Rome, and, at the same time, foundations of the universal Church. The pilgrimage to their bones has always been and continues to be for the millions of “romei” who come, a return to the sources, a renewed encounter with the deepest and most decisive origins of the faith and of the Church.

The meaning of pilgrimage has an even richer and pregnant meaning for a Successor of the Apostles. There is a double and visible reference. On the one hand there is a reference to the missio apostolica fulfilled by Peter and Paul on Roman soil, a moment and turning point decisive for the history of the Church. On the other hand, there is reference to the confessio fidei, brought to completion and fulfillment by both of the Apostles, by one on the Vatican Hill and by the other at Tre Fontane on the Via Ostia.

Each Bishop will want to reflect on the witness of both Apostles and in this way also reflect on his own mission and episcopal witness before his own particular Church.

Other aspects of the “ad limina” visit could be highlighted for a better understanding of its spiritual and pastoral content. The preceding reflections seem to be sufficient in light of the needs and background of this Directory which is being sent to the Bishops as a useful help in preparing their “ad limina” visit.

Lucas Card. Moreira Neves



Canonical Norms


Canons 399 and 400 of the new Code of Canon Law deal with the quinquennial Report which Bishops must present to the Holy See and with the visit “ad limina apostolorum”.

Can. 399 says:

1.    “Every five years the diocesan Bishop is bound to submit to the Supreme Pontiff a report on the State of the diocese entrusted to him, in the form and at the time determined by the Apostolic See.

2.    If the year assigned for submitting this report coincides in whole or in part with the first two years of his government of the dio­cese, for that occasion the Bishop need not draw up and submit the report”.

And can. 400 affirms:

1.    “Unless the Apostolic See has decided otherwise, in the year in which he is bound to submit the report to the Supreme Pontiff, the diocesan Bishop is to go to Rome to venerate the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and to present himself to the Roman Pontiff.

2.    The Bishop is to satisfy this obligation personally, unless he is lawfully impeded; in which case he is to satisfy the obligation through his Coadjutor, if he has one, or his Auxiliary, or a suitable priest of his presbyterium who resides in his diocese.

3.    A Vicar Apostolic can satisfy this obligation through a proxy, even through one residing in Rome. A Prefect Apostolic is not bound by this obligation”.


Historical tradition


Although there is no concrete date, not even of a proximate nature, in which to situate the “ad limina” visit,[5] there are, however, numerous testimonies which speak of its existence from the 4th century. Even more ancient was the custom of coming on pilgrimage to Rome to pray before the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The first Councils deal with the relations between the particular Churches and the Church of Rome, and in 347 the Synod of Sardica addressed a letter to Pope Julius (341-352)—Ad Iulium urbis Romae Episcopum—explaining to him that it was fitting for him to be informed of the religious situation in the different parts or provinces of the Roman Empire.[6]

In May 597, Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) reminded his ambassador Cyprian of the ancient practice, initiated by the Bishops of Sicily, according to which they visited the Eternal City every three years. The same Pope determined that the “ad limina” visit should take place every five years.[7] The Council of Rome in 743 issued new provisions for the visit itself.[8]

At the height of the Middle Ages, Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) reminded the Archbishop-elect of Split in Dalmatia, who had shown surprise at being asked to take an oath to fulfil the “ad limina” visit, that the obligation of the visit was common to all Bishops who committed themselves to it with the oath which preceded their episcopal consecration, and also pointed out to him that the Bishops of the remotest regions of Europe, for example of Saxony and Denmark, fulfilled it annually through their delegates.[9]

During the llth and 12th centuries, Bishops knew of the annual obligation of the visit, although not all of them fulfilled it because of the difficulties of the journey to Rome. For this reason, during the pontificates of Innocent IV (1243-1254) and Alexander IV (1254-1261) numerous dispensations were granted.[10]


Tridentine Reform


In 1540, before the Council of Trent, a few Bishops brought to Paul III’s attention the fact that the annual obligation of the “ad limina” visit constituted a grave impediment to the residence of Bishops in their respective dioceses and proposed a triennial or quinquennial frequency according to the distance of their Sees from Rome.[11]

The Council dealt with the question[12] and the “ad limina” visit was included in the heavy program of reforms promoted by the post-Tridentine Popes, in relation to the pastoral ministry of the Bishops.

But it was Sixtus V (1585-1590) who reformed the ancient discipline on the “ad limina” visit with the apostolic constitution Romanus Pontifex of 20 December 1585,[13] and who introduced a few innovations which were extended in an obligatory manner to all Bishops, since the decisions of the Council of Trent were not duly observed in all dioceses. Sixtus V stepped up vigilance on this matter, changing into a norm the ancient custom of visiting the Apostolic See and imposing the obligation of informing the Pope periodically about the material and spiritual State of the particular Churches. He also recalled the necessity of maintaining periodic communications with prelates so that the needs of the different dioceses could be known directly and the growth and expansion of heresy could be withstood.

In its dispositive part, the constitution of Sixtus V established that all Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops and Bishops, as well as the Cardinals, before being consecrated or receiving the pallium or being transferred to another See, should swear to fulfill faithfully a personal visit to the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul and to the Pontiff, understood as a way of informing him about their pastoral ministry and of receiving necessary instructions, as much from the Pope as from the Roman Curia. If a Bishop was legitimately impeded, be could fulfill the obligation by means of a proxy or delegate, who could be a canon or a priest of recognized repute. The impediment of the Bishop had to be proven by documents before the Cardinal proto-deacon.

With the purpose of organizing and facilitating the manner in which the visit would take place, the apostolic constitution itself divided the dioceses into four groups, fixing the following periods for their realization:

—  every three years the Bishops of Italy and adjacent islands, Dalmatia and Greece;

—  every four years those of Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Bohemia, Hungary, England, Scotland, Ireland, the Baltic countries and the Mediterranean islands;

—  every five years the remaining Bishops of Europe, those of the island of the coast of Africa, and those of the other European and African islands of the Atlantic;

—  every ten years those of Asia, America and the rest of the world.

As regards the reckoning of these periods, the Sistine constitution explained that the starting point from which the time assigned to each Bishop would begin to elapse would be the moment of his consecration (and one could not invoke the fact of not having taken possession of the diocese or not having taken up residence in it as a pretext for deferring the visit) or from the moment in which he received the pallium or was transferred to another See. Moreover, so that the distance between the “ad limina” visits was not too great, the Pope explained that it was also necessary to count the time which had elapsed since the death, transferal or inactivity of the preceding Bishop, whatever the reason may have been.

The penalties prescribed for those who did not observe the obliga­tion were very serious: automatic suspension from the spiritual and temporal administration of the diocese, from collecting the benefits arising from the same and even suspension “ab ingressu ecclesiae”, until such times as they were absolved by the Holy See.

With this Sistine constitution, all privileges, dispensations, con­cessions and previous authorizations were abolished, including those which Sixtus V himself had granted.[14]

The historian of the Popes, Von Pastor, affirms that the great sti­mulus which the Church in Germany received at the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century coincided with the application of the Sistine constitution. Later studies have permitted us to deepen and complement this opinion so as to reach the con­clusion that the constitution Romanus Pontifex marks one of the most important stages in the reform of the episcopate after the Council of Trent, by the fact that it demands the presence of the pastors in the Roman Curia in order to give a periodical account of the State of their respective Churches.[15]

The competence to control the “ad limina” visits and to examine the reports of the Bishops, as well as to respond to them with the necessary observations, was entrusted at first to the commission of Cardinals, instituted in 1564 by Pius V to give an authentic interpretation and ensure the exact application of the norms established by the Council of Trent. A sizeable part of the competence of this commission then passed to the new Congregation of the Council, created by Sixtus V with the apostolic constitution Immensa aeterni Dei of 22 January 1587.[16]


Further reforms until the 1917 Code


After the institution of the Congregation De Propaganda Fide (22 June 1622), dioceses in the mission territories fell under the competence of the new dicastery, to which the Bishops sent their reports. However, the Spanish-American dioceses continued to depend on the Congregation of the Council insofar as they were put under the patronage of the Spanish crown—which extended to those Churches.[17]

From the beginning of the 18th century, the Popes introduced various modifications in the way in which the “ad limina” visit was to take place and on the report or relation, while leaving unchanged the substance of the Sistine constitution in its threefold aspect: to venerate the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul in the respective Roman Basilicas, to visit the Pope and to submit the report on the State of the diocese.[18]

The most important innovation, introduced by Benedict XIII (1724-1730) and confirmed by Benedict XIV (1740-1758), consisted in the publication of a papal instruction in which the points with which the Bishops were to deal in their report were expressly indicated, while leaving to the personal judgment of each Bishop the treatment of other questions not included in the instruction itself. Such a decision became necessary since experience had shown that many Bishops limited themselves to sending the report, accompanying it with a brief letter of greeting and loyalty without deepening—and at times without even indicating—the themes which might interest the Holy See. In other cases, the Bishops sent their proxy without the report, authorizing him to inform the Pope verbally of the State of the diocese, if the Pope received him in audience, or else the Congregation of the Council.

According to the instruction mentioned, the report had to be comprised of nine chapters: the material State of the diocese; the activity of the Bishop; secular clergy; regular clergy; women religious; the seminary; churches, confraternities and places of piety; the people and requests for favors or faculties.[19]

Benedict XIV modified the frequency of the “ad limina” visit as follows: every three years for the Bishops of Italy and adjacent islands, and every five years for all other Bishops.[20]

During Vatican I there was no lack of Bishops who observed the need to introduce some innovations in the way of carrying out the “ad limina” visit and, in particular, in the questionnaire prepared for the report, with the purpose of adapting it to the needs of the Church in the society of the 19th century. In fact it reached the stage of preparing an outline or project of reform which could not be discussed because of the unexpected interruption of the Council.[21]

The new guidelines had to wait until the pontificate of St. Pius X (1903-1914) and were incorporated into the general plan of reform of the Roman Curia, which came into force on 29 June 1908, with the apostolic constitution Sapienti consilio,[22]by virtue of which the competence of the Congregation of the Council with reference to the pastoral activity of the Bishops ceased, in order to be assumed by the Consistorial Congregation.

This dicastery issued the decree de relationibus dioecesanis et visitatione SS. Liminum on 31 December 1909, addressed “to all Ordinaries not subject to the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide” in which noteworthy modifications to the material of the ancient discipline were introduced, especially regarding the frequency of the “ad limina” visit, which all the Bishops were to carry out every five years, beginning from the lst January 1911, according to a calendar fixed by the dicastery. It insisted on the well-known fundamental aspects of the obligation: to venerate the tombs of the Apostles and to visit the Pope. The Ordo servandus in relatione de statu ecclesiarum followed this decree, containing a questionnaire of 150 questions which the Bishops had to answer and which were a substantial reflection of the nine chapters of the instruction of Benedict XIII, supplemented with other themes relating to the formation of youth, the activity of confraternities and pious associations, works of charity and social assistance, the press and the reading of prohibited books.[23]

The 1917 Code of Canon Law dealt with the “ad limina” visit in canons 340, 341 and 342, giving precedence to the obligation of presenting the quinquennial report over that of venerating the tombs of the Apostles and of visiting the Pope. In this Code, the “ad limina” visit was included among the fundamental obligations of Bishops: residence, application of the Mass pro populo, the written report to the Holy See on the government of the diocese and pastoral visitation. One year after the promulgation of the Code, the Consistorial Congregation prepared a new set of formulas to be followed in drafting the report. The Congregation De Propaganda Fide also adapted to the new canonical legislation.[24]

The Consistorial Congregation, moreover, with the decree of 28 February 1959, extended to the Military Vicars the obligation of carrying out the “ad limina” visit and to submit every five years the report on the state of the vicariate, in the sense of canon 341.[25]


Present Legislation


During both the preparation of Vatican II and in the conciliar assembly itself, a few Bishops presented various proposals with regards to the “ad limina” visit and to the opportunity to introduce changes into the present norms. Once the Council finished, the Holy See repeatedly insisted on the necessity and importance of relations between the Pope and the Bishops.[26] The Congregation for Bishops, in the Directorium de pastorali ministerio episcoporum of 1973,[27] explained that the “ad limina” visits and the quinquennial reports are necessary to promote personal contacts between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops: “Visitationem ad limina peragens laetam arripit occasionem videndi Petrum (Gal 1, 18), cum eoque de rebus suae particularis necnon universalis Ecclesiae fraterne colloquendi”.[28]

On 29 June 1975, the same dicastery issued the decree Ad Romanam Ecclesiam,[29] which deals “De visitatione SS. Liminum deque relationibus dioecesanis” and is divided into two parts: the first, explanatory, contains a compact historico-theological synthesis of the canonical institution in question and justifies the new norms; the second, which contains the regulations, prescribes the relevant legislation in five articles.

At the beginning the decree demonstrates the necessity to maintain and promote unity between the particular Churches and Rome, where the See of Peter is, and which is the perpetual principle and visible foundation of the communion of the Bishops and likewise of the faithful, according to the doctrine of Irenaeus and the decree of Vatican II on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. Referring to a text of St. Leo the Great, according to which the stability of Peter is transmitted to his successors, the decree concludes by affirming that his chair, whilst protecting legitimate differences, watches so that the particularities of the different Churches, far from being and obstacle to unity, foster it. Therefore the Pope does not only have the mission to provide for the common good of the universal Church, but also for that of the par­ticular Churches, according to the conciliar doctrine of the decree Christus Dominus. Hence the appropriateness of his presence in the dif­ferent countries of the world in order to know at first hand the local needs and circumstances of the various communities of believers.

However, as the decree Ad Romanam Ecclesiam affirms, although material progress has put means at the disposal of the Bishop of Rome permitting him to go frequently to distant countries, it is not expedient to abandon century-old customs which have great importance insofar as they are a manifestation of ecclesial communion at the highest level. Consequently, the decree insists on the need to intensify the personal contacts between the Pope and the Bishops, not only by means of letter, above all by means of journeys to Rome. It is in fact obvious, and thus such meetings are justified, that in the Church, to the movement which goes from the centre to the extremities, reaching all and each of the particular Churches, there must be a corresponding opposite move­ment which goes from the periphery and leads to the center, to the very heart of the Church.

Taking these foregoing considerations into account, it seemed fitting to review the preceding legislation on the “ad limina” visit and to write a new set of norms, adequate for our times, in which new criteria are determined for the subdivision of the quinquennia; Papal Representatives are given the task to remind the Bishops of the countries concerned, some months before the beginning of the new year, of the time fixed for carrying out the “ad limina” visit and to invite the Presidents of the respective Episcopal Conferences to arrange, with the agreement of the Bishops, the calendar of dates on which each of them, or in groups if particular circumstances advise it, will go to visit the Pope; and they are recommended to send their diocesan report sufficiently in advance of the time of their journey. This report should be drawn up according to the questionnaire suitably prepared by the Congregation for Bishops.[30]


Recent practice


From lst January 1976, the date from which the new quinquennia for the “ad limina” visit began to be counted, according to what was established in the decree Ad Romanam Ecclesiam, Paul VI set up a new practice in relation to the visit itself, a practice of which there had been a few isolated anticipations in the preceding years.[31]

In effect, a few Spanish Bishops who could not be received in a private audience by the Pope in the autumn of 1972, because of the intense activity of the Pope in those days when he was very involved with the work of the Synod of Bishops. Being unable to receive them individually in private audience, Paul VI received them in a collective audience and addressed to them a discourse in which he assured them he had examined their quinquennial Reports with due attention, to discover in them “not so much a mere written exposition as the zeal, dedication and spirit of each one of you, as pastors of your flock, of your priests, of religious and faithful, who collaborate in the mission of rendering the Kingdom of God present among all men; without doubt these pages of yours are very beautiful pages of ecclesial life, and reading them we are filled with spiritual joy, and from this moment we desire to make known to you and all your collaborators our sincere admiration and love in the Lord”.[32]

After the decree Ad Romanam Ecclesiam came into force, the System of collective audiences was made permanent and Paul VI, from 1976 until his death, showed that he desired to intensify personal contacts with the Bishops.[33]

An attentive analysis of his final discourses permits us to synthesize the fundamental aspects of the “ad limina” visit. In one discourse, addressed to the Czechoslovakian Bishops on 18 March 1977, he expressly indicated its three essential acts—to venerate the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, to make a visit to the Pope and to inform him of the State of their dioceses[34]—whilst he reminded the French Bishops of the northern region of the antiquity of this canonical institution.[35]

Paul VI justified the new norms issued by the Congregation for Bishops in a discourse to the Italian. Bishops of the Marches, to whom he clearly illustrated the values of the direct meeting and personal visit: “As in every visit, it is a question of an encounter, that is of an occasion to speak, to be together, to exchange in the name of Christ the holy kiss of charity and of peace. If for your part it is carried out in coming to Rome and in fulfilling certain practices and duties ... for our part it is expressed in reciprocity of communion and in openness to thoughts which we are pleased to confide to you ... Naturally, in the visit We intend to honour each individual Pastor. Before the birth of Episcopal Conferences, which are a recent institution, the visit consisted of a direct encounter between two: the pastor of each diocese with the Vicar of Christ. Now this is not something that has been surpassed, even if the evolution of our times, the complexity of problems and the “superdiocesan” character of certain situations have favoured the community and associative form of expression at the level of pastoral practice. The precise and distinct structure which each diocese, with its pastor and presbyterium, has in the context of the universal Church can never be suppressed or distorted: is it not true that the mystery of Christ is present in its entirety in the particular Church, which—as the Council teaches us (cf. Constit. Lumen Gentium, n. 23)—-is formed in the image of the one Church and reproduces its features? Here —we repeat—is why honour is directed to each one of you. Our desire is therefore to recognize the authority of each Bishop, to help him in every possible way, to confirm him in the evangelical sense of this word (cfr. Lk 22, 32), to fortify him in his sense of responsibility, so that he watches over the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made him Pastor (cfr. Acts 20, 28)”.[36]

Paul VI also gave due importance to the quinquennial Report, which is not a simple bureaucratic formality, but a means which makes possible for the Pope and the Holy See “a deeper knowledge not only of your personality, but also of the ministerial activity which engages your energies in joys, sufferings and hopes”;[37] and at the same time a reflection of the pastoral interest felt by Bishops to know the life of their dioceses. “Your quinquennial reports—he said to the French Bishops of the Western region—drawn up with great concern for truth and precision, reflect your preoccupation to know and to love everything which makes up the life of your diocesans”.[38]

In all the discourses he addressed to Bishops, Paul VI explained the profound meaning which the “ad limina” visit contains, its raison d’être and its finality, beginning from a framework of ideas which are the doctrinal basis of the discourses themselves: ecclesial communion, communion of all the Bishops with the See of Peter and mutual communion between the Bishops and the Pope.[39] For Paul VI, contact with the Bishops was one of the most important acts of his ecclesial mission,[40] arousing emotion in him, since it expressed the profound sense of attachment and communion of the pastors with the Head of the Episcopal College.[41]

Pope John Paul II has given to the “ad limina” visit a radically new stimulus, which has no precedent in the history of the Church, intensifying the meetings with the Bishops, discussing with them the pastoral problems of the different dioceses and giving them advice and guidelines in abundant doctrinal discourses. In this way the canonical norms acquire a profound ecclesial meaning, since they surpass the purely bureaucratic aspect of the visit and reveal its authentic raison d’être, which is essentially to manifest and strengthen the union of the Bishops with the Pope, as well as to confirm the solicitude of all for the Church of Christ.[42]

Vicente Cárcel Ortí




I.   Remote Preparation
II.  Immediate Preparation
III. The execution of the “ad limina” visit

Foreword to the notes


I. Theological notes

(Joseph Card. Ratzinger)
II.Spiritual-pastoral notes

(Lucas Card. Moreira Neves)

III.    Historico-juridical consideration

(Vincente Cárcel Ortí)

[2] Cf. C.I.C., can. 399, § 2. For the quinquennial, cf. Decree De Visitatione SS. Liminum deque relationibus dioecesanis, June 29, 1975, n. 2: AAS  LXVII (1975), pp. 675-676.

[3]Formula Relationis Quinquennalis, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1982.

[4] Cf. Decree De Visitatione SS. Liminum deque relationibus dioecesanis, n. 5: AAS LXVII (1975), p. 676.

[5]     Cf. Decree De Visitatione SS. Liminum deque relationibus dioecesanis, n. 4 : AAS LXVII (1975), p. 676.

[5]From the Latin limen, -minis. In Italian it is translated by soglia; in French with pas ou seuil d’une porte; in Spanish with el umbral de la puerta; in German with Schwelle, der Querbalken an der Türe, und zwar oben und unten; in English with “the threshold of a door” or “lintel”. In Latin literature it is also used to indicate the door or entrance to a place (Eg. Forcellini, Lexicon totius latinitatis, III, Patavii 1940, p. 88). By saying the visit ad limina apostolorum, the Church refers to the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, preserved, according to tradition, in Rome.

[6]J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio,vol. III (Graz 1960), col. 40.

[7]Migne, P. L.,vol. 77, col. 875.

[8]Mansi, vol. XII, col. 382; Corpus Iuris Canonici, ed. Richter-Friedberg, pars prima (Graz 1955), col. 321.

[9]Corpus Iuris Canonici, pars secunda, col. 50.

[10]Bullarium Romanum, III, p. 383; J. B. Ferreres,Las relaciones diocesanas y la visita “ad limina”:“Razon y Fe” 27 (1910), p. 385.

[11]Concilium Tridentinum... tomus quartus, actorum pars prima, ed. Goerresiana (Friburgi Br. 1904), p. 484, n. 27.

[12]Ibid.,tomus secundus, diariorum pars secunda, pp. 750, 782, 790; tomus nonus, actorum pars sexta, p. 854.

[13]Bullarium Romanum, vol. III (Augustae Taurinorum 1863), pp. 642-645.

[14]R. Robres Lluch y V.Castell Maiques,La visita "Ad limina" durante el pontificado de Sixto V (1585-1590). Datos para su estadística general. Su cumplimiento en Ibero- américa:“Anthologica annua” 7 (1959), pp. 147-213.

[15]Ibid., p. 212.

[16]F. Romita, Le origini della S.C. del Concilio. “La Sacra Congregazione del Concilio. Quarto Centenario della Fondazione (1564-1964). Studi e ricerche” (Vatican City 1964), pp. 13-50.

[17]Collectanea S. Congregationis de Propaganda Fide seu decreta instructiones rescripta pro apostolicis missionibus, vol. I (Romae 1907), p. 10, n. 24.

[18]V. Cárcel Ortí, La visita “Ad limina Apostolorum Petri et Pauli”. Notas históricas desde sus orígenes hasta 1975: “Questioni canoniche” (Studia Universitatis S. Thomae in Urbe: 22) (Milano, Massimo, 1984), pp. 101-132.

[19]A. Lucidi,De visitatione Sacrorum Liminum. Instructio S.C. Concilii edita iussu Benedicti XIII,ed. tertia, I (Romae 1883).


[21]V. Martin, Documenta Concilii Vaticani (Romae 1876), pp. 131 ff.

[22]AAS1 (1909), pp. 7-35.

[23]Ibid. 2 (1910), pp. 13-16; F. M. Cappello,De visitatione SS. Liminum et dioeceseon ac de relatione S. Sedi exhibenda. Commentarium in decretum “A remotissima Ecclesiae aetate”, iussu Pii X, Pont. O.M. a S. Congregatione Consistoriali die 31 decembris 1909 editum(Romae 1912-13), 2 v.; A. Boudinhon, La visite “ad limina” et le rapport sur l’état du diocèse: “Le Canoniste contemporain” 33 (1910), pp. 219-226.

[24]AAS 14 (1922), pp. 287-307.

[25]AAS 51 (1959), pp. 272-274.

[26]V. Cárcel Ortí, Legislatión vigente sobre la visita “ad limina”. El decreto “Ad Romanam Ecclesiam" del 1975: “Questioni canoniche” (Studia Universitatis S. Thomae in Urbe: 23) (Milano, Massimo, 1984), pp. 99-136.

[27]L. De Echeverria, El directorio para el ministerio pastoral de los obispos: “Revista española de Derecho Canónico” 29 (1973), pp. 385-419.

[28]Directorium de pastorali ministerio Episcoporum,p. 51, n. 45.

[29]AAS 67 (1975), pp. 674-676.

[30]The questionnaire was published by L. De Echeverria, La visita “ad limina”: “Revista española de Derecho Canónico” 32 (1976), pp. 361-378 and X. Ochoa, Leges Ecclesiae, V, Roma 1980, col. 7136-7146. The Congregation for Bishops prepared a new edition in 1981.

[31]V. Cárcel Ortí, Legislación vigente sobre la visita “ad limina” …, pp. 108-117.

[32]L’Osservatore Romano, n. 249, 7 October 1972.

[33]V. Cárcel Ortí, Legislación vigente sobre la visita “ad limina”..., pp. 117-120.

[34]AAS 69 (1977), p. 461.

[35]Ibid., p. 467; cf. also the Discourse to the Bishops of Puglia, ibid., p. 401.

[36]Ibid., pp. 414-415.

[37]Ibid., p. 397.

[38]Ibid., p. 457.

[39]Ibid., p. 341.

[40]Ibid., p. 401.

[41]Ibid., p. 337.

[42]Ibid., p. 341.