The "ad limina" visits bishops make to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses no longer take place every five years.
In 2004 the U.S. bishops came on a pilgrimage to the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, to the "threshold of the apostles" -- "ad limina apostolorum" in Latin.
But they will not be back in 2009 and not even in the first months of 2010, said Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, which schedules and coordinates the visits.
Things are backed up at the Vatican.
Almost every week, bevies of bishops can be seen making their way to different Vatican congregations and councils and crossing St. Peter's Square to go up to the papal apartments, but they all are making their visits for the first time in at least six years.
"Ad limina" visits were suspended during the Holy Year 2000; Pope John Paul II tried to get the visits back on schedule, but his failing health and his death in 2005 made that impossible.
In addition, "the number of bishops in the world has increased significantly since 1983," when the Code of Canon Law was published, Archbishop Monterisi said. The code reaffirmed the obligation of bishops to send a report on the status of their dioceses to the Vatican every five years, visit the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul and "appear before the Roman pontiff."
According to the Vatican's official statistical yearbook, at the end of 1983 there were 2,285 diocesan bishops in the world and they had 651 coadjutor or auxiliary bishops.
By the end of 2006 -- the year covered in the most recent edition of the yearbook -- there were 2,705 diocesan bishops with 606 coadjutor or auxiliary bishops.
In essence, that means that in 1983 the pope would have had to meet an average of 457 diocesan bishops each year in order to see them all every five years. By 2006, the average number of meetings needed each year rose to 541.
While the obligation to come to Rome does not extend to coadjutor and auxiliary bishops, most of them come with their diocesan bishops, and they all go together to meet the pope.
As Pope John Paul aged, he cut elements he had added to the visits -- the two most popular and papal time-consuming parts: a group morning Mass in the pope's private chapel and lunch with the pope.
Still, the "ad limina"-free Holy Year and a commitment to giving every bishop 10-20 minutes alone with the pope took its toll.
"It is just not possible to preserve the five-year schedule," Archbishop Monterisi said, although he added that no one at the Vatican is talking about changing the written rules.
The time lag, however, does allow the bishops wiggle room on writing what is still referred to as their "quinquennial reports."
The Code of Canon Law says, "The diocesan bishop is bound to present a report to the supreme pontiff every five years concerning the state of the diocese committed to him."
But the Vatican's directory for "ad limina" visits ties the report's deadline to the date of the bishop's appointment with the pope, saying it should be turned in "approximately six months, but not less than three months" before the scheduled visit.
So, while the heads of Brazil's 252 dioceses spend most of 2009 and part of 2010 making their visits to Rome, the U.S. bishops will have an extra year to pull together diocesan statistics and information covering everything from Catholic schools to vocations, and from health care to ecumenical and interreligious initiatives.