VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Religious freedom and environmental disaster were on the agenda in late January for U.S. Catholic bishops from five southern states making their periodic "ad limina" visits to Rome.
In meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican officials, bishops from Region V -- which includes parts of Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee -- discussed a wide range of pastoral matters, both local and national.
One topic that arose in practically every meeting was the pope's speech to another group of visiting American bishops earlier in the month.
"Radical secularism" threatens the core values of American culture, the pope warned at that time, as he called on the church in the U.S., including politicians and other laypeople, to render "public moral witness" on crucial social issues.
"The Holy Father's message, as always, is very clear and also very strong," said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We have not only a right, but we have a responsibility to be in the public square."
One day after the pope warned of threats to freedom of religion, and specifically the "right of conscientious objection ... to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices," the Obama administration announced that it would require all private health insurance plans to cover surgical sterilization procedures and artificial birth control.
The U.S. bishops have forcefully denounced the administration's move, and during their visit to Rome, Region V bishops personally expressed their objections to officials of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, said Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans.
At the Vatican, the bishops also raised more local concerns, including the continuing impact of natural and man-made environmental disasters.
"We specifically mentioned to the Holy Father the continued rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill," said Archbishop Aymond, who added that Pope Benedict "asked us to express his concern and his solidarity with the people of Louisiana" in their struggle.
The bishops' periodic visits are formally called "ad limina apostolorum," which means "to the thresholds of the apostles" Peter and Paul, who were martyred in Rome. Traditionally, the visits serve as an occasion for leaders of local churches to draw inspiration as well as guidance from the center of Catholicism.
Coming as they did less than a year before this October's Vatican Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization, the bishops naturally discussed Pope Benedict's call to present Catholicism in ways and terms compelling to contemporary society.
"I want to bring that back to the people of the Archdiocese of New Orleans," Archbishop Aymond said. "What can we do in our local church in order to be in solidarity with the Holy Father as he says this is a year of re-evangelization, of new evangelization? What can we do in a city and a culture as Catholic as New Orleans and much of Louisiana is, (where) sometimes the church can be taken for granted?"
Archbishop Aymond said that he and other Louisiana bishops urged the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes to move forward on two local causes, that of Venerable Henriette Delille and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos.
The beatification of Mother Delille, in particular, "would be a wonderful celebration, not just for the United States and for our area, but for the African-American community," Archbishop Aymond said.
Other bishops in the region face markedly different challenges.
"In the diocese of Memphis we Catholics are about 4.4 percent of the population," said Bishop J. Terry Steib. "We're in, as I always say, the buckle of the Bible Belt."
Yet Memphis Catholics have learned much about effective evangelization from their evangelical Protestant neighbors, Bishop Steib said.
"We have learned from them, and we are learning from them, particularly as we move into the whole social ministry component," the bishop said. "We are helping others, to make them better people, better Catholics, better Christians."