In his 36 years as a bishop – first as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, then as bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and as archbishop of Atlanta and now as the archbishop of Washington – Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has taken part in many Ad Limina visits to Rome, when bishops report every five years on the state of their dioceses to the pope and Vatican officials. 

But Archbishop Gregory said the Ad Limina visit that he experienced in the first week of December, along with bishops from two regions of the United States, was different, thanks to the tone set by Pope Francis.

“I have had the privilege of participating in Ad Limina visits with Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.  Each was different as reflected the different personalities of these three men.  What made my encounter with Pope Francis different in this setting was that this was a conversation – a give and take dialogue with the successor of Peter,” Archbishop Gregory said in a statement.

The name for those meetings at the Vatican comes from the Latin phrase “ad limina apostolorum” – which in English means “to the threshold of the apostles.” At the Ad Limina meeting with Pope Francis on Dec. 3 in Rome during the first week of Advent, Archbishop Gregory was joined by his fellow bishops from Washington, along with bishops from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, West Virginia, the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, representing Regions IV and V of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Describing Pope Francis’s conversations with those bishops, Archbishop Gregory noted, “He made it clear that he wanted such an exchange, and he was the first to let down the barriers that we might feel when speaking with the pope.  He was candid and he invited us to be candid with him – honest and informal.”

That approach, said Washington’s archbishop, fostered a heartfelt and open dialogue among Pope Francis and the bishops.

“He spoke from his heart and suggested that we be as candid and open as he was with us,” Archbishop Gregory said, describing how Pope Francis engaged in the conversations.  “He showed his compassionate side, his pensive side, and his humorous side.  He demonstrated that he understood what it meant to be a bishop in today’s environment, and he suggested ways that we could be better bishops – praying together, being honest with one another in our feelings – and fears, and supporting one another.”

By that approach, Pope Francis demonstrated how he listens to and encourages those whom he serves, offering an example to the bishops in their own ministries as shepherds, Archbishop Gregory said. 

“Heretofore, most of us, certainly myself, thought of Ad Limina visitation as a reporting session – and that it is with the materials submitted in the quinquennial reports sent ahead in preparation for this visit.  However, Pope Francis – for his part – wanted a chance to speak with us, to listen to us, and to encourage us,” the archbishop said, adding that the Holy Father “is a master at setting a conversational and candid atmosphere and tone for dialogue.  I felt that I was in the presence of and in communication with a servant leader who was anxious to help me to become a better and more effective shepherd for the people of the Archdiocese of Washington.”  

Pope Francis meets with U.S. bishops from Regions IV and V during their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican Dec. 3, 2019. The regions include the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, U.S. Virgin Islands, West Virginia, the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Among the bishops meeting with the pope, at left is Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington. (CNS photo/Vatican Media) 

Archbishop Gregory – who turned 72 on Dec. 7 – was installed as the seventh archbishop of Washington in May 2019. A native of Chicago, he was ordained as a priest for that archdiocese in 1973 and served as an auxiliary bishop there from 1983 to 1994, when he was installed as bishop of Belleville, Illinois, where he served for the next 11 years. From 2005 until this past spring, he served as the archbishop of Atlanta.

The Archdiocese of Washington – which encompasses Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding Maryland counties of St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery – includes 655,000 Catholics who attend Mass in 139 parishes. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington is the largest nongovernmental social services agency in the metropolitan area, serving more than 143,000 people annually. The archdiocese also includes 93 Catholic schools serving approximately 26,000 students.