ROME — As the bishops of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana began celebrating an early morning Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the church was abuzz with activity and repeated banging on a bass drum.

In Rome for their visits ad limina apostolorum — to the threshold of the apostles — the bishops celebrated Mass Dec. 9 at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls and in a chapel of St. Mary Major Dec. 10, the feast of Our Lady of Loreto.

Pope Francis has declared a special jubilee to mark the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Loreto being named patron of aviators and air travelers.

As the U.S. bishops prayed in the Marian chapel, workers moved chairs and pews and decorated the railing around the basilica’s main altar with pine boughs, poinsettias and other flowers. And the orchestra of the Italian air force, which claims Our Lady of Loreto as their patron, began tuning their instruments.

The rumble from all that activity carried into the chapel.

Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the principal celebrant and homilist, noted how the bishops’ ad limina week in Rome had a very Marian flavor: the transferred feast of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 9, the day’s Loreto feast and the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe Dec. 12.

“We have been truly blessed to walk these days with our Blessed Mother,” he said. “The world is in need of her intervention, her prayers, her grace and this is a time when she is reaching out to save souls and bring them to her son Jesus.”

The day’s first reading, from Isaiah 40, began, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”

Many, many people need comfort — not the comfort of material goods, he said, “but the comfort of true and genuine peace that comes only from God.”

“Often, my brother bishops, we are called to give comfort to our people, to listen to their trials and tribulations, sometimes their anger, sometimes their hostility,” he said, “and we are called to walk with them, to accompany them in their sorrow, their sense of betrayal, their sense of needing God.”

“And thank God they’re still coming to us for consolation, some comfort,” he added.

Bishops also are called to offer solace, affirmation and consolation to their priests and seminarians. “The challenges of being a priest today,” Ricken said, “are more than anything I remember in my almost 40 years of priesthood, 20 years of being a bishop.”

The Isaiah reading also spoke about being a “herald of good news” and not being afraid to share the glad tidings of salvation. “Courage is needed today to engage in a mission we’ve all been called to, a mission that seems defeated at this point, but we know in hope and confidence that this is God’s church and the world needs the Church now, perhaps more than ever,” the bishop said.

During the ad limina visits, Ricken said, the bishops should renew their “‘disponibilita’ — radical availability” to serve God, serve God’s people and proclaim the Gospel.

Cardinal James M. Harvey, a native of Milwaukee and archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, was invited by the group to be the principal celebrant and homilist at their Mass Dec. 9 near the tomb of the apostle.

While the bishops did pray at the tomb, the readings for the Mass were those for the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The cardinal quoted William Wordsworth’s poem, “The Virgin,” which includes the lines: “Woman! above all women glorified, our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

“We do boast about Mary,” Harvey said. “We boast when we say, ‘See what the power of God has done for a member of our human race.’ And herein lies our hope. If the power of God is great enough to preserve from sin a human person like ourselves, Mary, then it is great enough to cure us of the effects of sin.”

Celebrating the Immaculate Conception during Advent, he said, helps Catholics “recognize with humility that we are not worthy of Emmanuel — God with us — and yet God never fails to want us” because as St. Paul said, “God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Praying at St. Paul’s tomb, the cardinal said, the bishops pray for a renewal of their “zeal to be missionary disciples, first and foremost by living up to our calling as those chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s sight.”

Contributing to this story was Carol Glatz in Rome.

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