I was intrigued by Archbishop Dolan’s reflections on the “ad limina” visit he and other US bishops have been having at the Vatican. It sounds like a great way to come together and discuss, with colleagues in similar positions, the benefits and pitfalls of their particular locations as well as questions about the state of the church today. It also sounded a bit like a retreat atmosphere, a necessary part of continuing to flourish vocationally.

In fact… it sounds a lot like the benefits I get at some of the academic conferences I attend, if, in fact, my colleagues are limited to the ones in the academy.

There’s the sticking point for me, though. As a theologian, my colleagues – or at least my conversation partners – are not just those in the academy but are also the ones in the church. But though each of us individually might seek to have relationships with bishops, priests, other religious, and lay people, beyond what we have in the academy, I’d love to see what would happen if we could conference with each other kind of like in the ad limina visits.

In the article, Archbishop Dolan remarked:

“I heard more than one bishop say, ‘I should spend as much time with my priests as these people have spent with us.’ It’s a great example to us”

It made me wistfully think, “I wish I could spend even just a little bit of time with my priests and bishops, discussing benefits and pitfalls and questions about the state of the church today. I wish I could spend even just a little bit of time on retreat with some other theologians, but also some priests and a bishop or two.”

I worry that sometimes the emphasis I get in the church is that I’m a lay woman, and not that I’m a theologian – even though being a theologian is supposedly an important role in the church. But when do I (or others) really carry out that task for the church itself?

Is it only to be in the classroom or in books, which would seem not to be particularly for the church itself? Is it only to be in piecemeal discussions that, in my experience, tend to happen only occasionally and only between a few? For example: my parish priest constantly seeks to involve me and other theologians in parish life and conversations, just as he seeks to involve others with other particular skills – but he’s a rarity. More often than not, I think I’ve been seen as a threat, merely because another parishioner happens to introduce me to Father as “a theologian.” That’s usually been a conversation stopper, or seen as self-aggrandizing. But if being “high and mighty” is always the assumption made about theologians, then where’s the possibility for the real role of theologian in the church? (Lest this be totally one-sided, I do think theologians have a responsibility to cultivate virtues of humility….)

My colleagues Emily Reimer Barry and Charles Camosy have already spoken about the conference they attended on the new evangelization. I think that was an important meeting. But I’m wondering about that kind of thing happening at other levels. What would it be like if many of the theologians in my diocese got together for regular (once every 2-3 years? Or more often?) retreats, with a few priests or diocesan officials?

And, what would it be like if theologians had ad limina conferences?