The Vatican ambassador to the U.S., addressing American bishops at their first national meeting since Pope Francis was elected, said Monday they should not "follow a particular ideology" and should make Roman Catholics feel more welcome in church.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano noted the challenges from broader society to Christian teaching. He cautioned that the bishops' witness to faith would be undermined if they failed to live simply. Francis, in office for eight months, has captured attention for eschewing some of the pomp of the papacy, including his decision to live in the Vatican hotel and his use of an economy car.
"There has to be a noticeable lifestyle characterized by simplicity and holiness of life. This is a sure way to bring our people to an awareness of the truth of our message," said Vigano, the apostolic nuncio based in Washington.
"The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people," Vigano said, noting that he visited the pope in June. "He made a special point of saying that he wants pastoral bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology."
In a September interview, Francis said Catholic leaders should give greater emphasis to compassion and mercy, arguing the church's focus on abortion, marriage and contraception has been too narrow and alienating. For the last several years, the public sessions of the fall bishops' assembly have centered on those hot-button social issues. This year's meeting gave the first glimpse of how that message was resonating among American leaders.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dedicated his speech to persecuted Christians overseas, asking the bishops to make international religious freedom a top priority. He made only a passing reference to the bishops' own religious freedom campaign, and then only to say that their struggles "pale in comparison" to the plight of Christians and others overseas.
Dozens of Catholic charities and dioceses, along with evangelical colleges and others, are suing the Obama administration over a requirement that employers provide health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage. The bishops say the religious exemption to the rule violates the religious freedom of nonprofit and for-profit employers. The issue is expected to reach the Supreme Court.
Dolan said in a news conference his speech was not a shift away from that fight - but an expansion of it. "It's almost raised our consciousness to say we can't stop here," Dolan said.
But Mathew Schmalz, religious studies professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said highlighting the fight with the Obama administration would be seen as out of step with Francis' message, especially at a time when the Vatican is moving away from a European focus. Francis is the first pope from Latin America.
"The bishops realize that they themselves are going to have to change their tone if they are to become more inclusive and complement the new tone coming from Pope Francis and the Vatican," Schmalz said. "There is definitely something going on here: The American hierarchy is going to have to change its style or be left behind."
The bishops had early in the meeting prayed for the thousands of victims of Friday's typhoon in the Philippines and also discussed the response to the disaster by Catholic Relief Services, the bishops' international relief agency.
But after a presentation on overall priorities of the U.S. bishops, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, a former president of the conference, rose to say it was "missing this essential element" of a focus on the poor.
"It would help our conference be on record as trying to achieve what Pope Francis has put before us," said Fiorenza, who retired as archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Texas.
Bishops also discussed how they would collect the information the Vatican is seeking ahead of a major meeting, or synod, on the family in Rome next year.
Last month, Vatican officials sent a survey to the national bishops conferences that took the unusual step of seeking broad input on how parishes deal with sensitive issues such as birth control, divorce and gay marriage. Bishops in England have put the questionnaire on the web for parishioners to respond. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said he planned to post the survey online within days.
Dolan is at the end of this three-year term as conference president. His successor will be elected Tuesday, the final day of the public part of the meeting.