Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican officials fully support U.S. bishops' efforts to overturn the Obama administration's mandate requiring many religious organizations to provide contraception and sterilization under their employee health plans.
That's according to the Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese, who returned Saturday night from an official 10-day ad limina visit to Rome, where he met with the pope.
"The holy father, when it comes to these kinds of things, he'll leave to the U.S. bishops, but he's definitely with us on this issue," Rhoades said during a news conference at Fort Wayne International Airport. "There's definitely grave concern on the part of the Vatican about this issue."
Rhoades reiterated that a proposed religious exemption is too narrow and would exclude many religious hospitals, universities and other church-related agencies.
Also, he said, private employers and employees who object to the mandate should not be forced to violate their consciences.
The issue has been a hot topic since President Obama tried to get religious-affiliated employers to provide free birth control coverage to their employees. Facing intense opposition, he recently said such coverage would be provided by insurance companies instead.
The bishops are now turning to the legislative branch, Rhoades said.
He said they support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, allowing those who purchase health insurance plans to retain the right to have coverage consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions.
"I think we may have to look at the judicial route as well," Rhoades said.
He urged parishioners to pray and to consider the issues when voting.
Even for a bishop, a meeting with the pope is a special experience, Rhoades said. The pope asked him a number of direct questions during the Feb. 9 meeting, he said.
"He is so gentle and so kind that I wasn't nervous at all," Rhoades said. "He asked about Notre Dame and how things were going. It was a really wonderful encounter."
Ad limina visits are typically scheduled for bishops every five or six years. The name is short for ad limina apostolorum, which means "threshold of the apostles."
During the visits, bishops meet with the pope and members of the Curia, which has been compared to a papal cabinet. Members of the Curia specialize in various areas of church affairs such as doctrine, education and finance.
Bishops must submit detailed reports on their dioceses. The one for the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese was about 400 pages and took six months to prepare, said Sean McBride, diocesan spokesman.
On behalf of a committee he heads for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rhoades also presented a report on marriage and the family to the Pontifical Council for the Family.
He also celebrated Mass at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul and on Friday was main celebrant during a Mass at the altar over the tomb of the late Pope John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago.
He also visited the tomb of Pope John Paul II.
This was the first ad limina for Rhoades, even though he has been a bishop in two dioceses, McBride said.
That's because Rhoades became bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg in Pennsylvania just after the previous visit of its former bishop. Rhoades said he has met with Pope Benedict about five times.
He distributed papal rosaries to a group of Bishop Dwenger High School students who greeted him at the airport.
The Rev. John M. D'Arcy, bishop emeritus of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, accompanied Rhoades on the trip.
Other bishops in the group who also met with the pope included all bishops from Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.