BALTIMORE — Just days after Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential victory sent shockwaves through the United States, members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gathered in Baltimore to elect their new president, take stock of a transformed political landscape and reinforce their concern for immigrants living in the U.S. without legal documentation.

At the start of the annual meeting, the assembly was reminded that Pope Francis also had a keen interest in the U.S. elections and that his signature message of mercy was deeply relevant to a divided nation.

“I honestly think that mercy is what this country needs to heal the wounds of division after a polarizing campaign,” said Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States, in his opening address.

“Many Americans have personally reached out to me to voice their frustration with what has been happening.”

“As Catholics and shepherds, we need to give witness to hope, to carry on through the coming days, so that we can truly be ‘one nation, under God,’” said Archbishop Pierre.

During their Nov. 14-16 meeting, the U.S. bishops made clear that they were with the Pope and would defend the inalienable dignity of every human person — particularly those most vulnerable, including the unborn, the elderly and the immigrant — as Trump’s election sparked a small number of protests against his presidency amid the celebrations.

And the main discussion amid the three days centered on the millions of people living in the U.S. illegally.

“No words of Jesus are more concrete in capturing God’s mercy at work in our bishops’ conference than his call in Matthew 25: ‘What you did for one of my least, you did for me,’” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the outgoing USCCB president, during an address before his brother bishops.

“Bishops are called always to seek the common good — an environment in which all might thrive with dignity.

“For 99 years, we bishops have addressed vital issues on a national level — seeking the common good and mindful of those without a voice,” he said in comments that referenced his personal encounters with undocumented immigrants, the disabled, and refugees dealing with wartime violence and natural disasters.

The bishops reaffirmed their prophetic role in the public square with the election of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston as USCCB president and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles as the conference’s vice president.

Both men lead vibrant, ethnically diverse dioceses with burgeoning Hispanic communities.


Cardinal DiNardo

In their choice of Cardinal DiNardo, the bishops have entrusted the conference to an unapologetic pro-life advocate and opponent of the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate. The cardinal is also a specialist in patristics (study of the Church Fathers).

During a news conference following his election, Cardinal DiNardo, 67, said he would focus on ways to promote unity in the wake of a deeply divisive presidential election and stand up for undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable groups, including the unborn, the elderly and refugees.

“I would want our work as shepherds and leaders to bring Catholics together to recognize the beauty of the human person, even if someone disagrees with you,” said Cardinal DiNardo Nov. 15.

Asked about his reaction to Trump’s election, Cardinal DiNardo said the bishops “certainly respect the government.”

However, “we also have a shepherd’s heart,” he noted, and so said the Church’s outreach to those on the margins would continue.


Archbishop Gomez

Secular media outlets framed the election of Archbishop Gomez, 64, a Mexican-born, high-profile advocate for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, as a bold counterweight to President-elect Trump’s  proposals to stem the influx of the criminal element of immigrants, in trying to correct the current immigration system’s flaws.

That assessment received a boost from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, secretary-delegate of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who applauded Gomez’s election.

 Archbishop Gomez “has written and spoken very clearly on the rights of migrants and the need to respect their family structure, the family unit,” Archbishop Tomasi told EWTN News Nightly.

But as he and other Church leaders have made clear, Archbishop Gomez’s strengths extend beyond his role in the U.S. debate over immigration reform. Of equal importance, the archbishop has helped build bridges between Latino and Anglo-Catholic communities and is a founding member of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders as well as Endow (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women). 

In a statement marking the news, Archbishop Gomez said his election as USCCB vice president was a “recognition of how important Latino Catholics are to the growth and the future of the Church.”

“These are challenging times for the Church in our society,” he added. “But we go with God, and every Catholic knows that we have a great mission — to share the Good News about God and to tell our brothers and sisters about his mercy and his beautiful plan for our lives and our world.”


Evangelizing the Culture

Further, Archbishop Gomez expressed joy that Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles was elected chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis.

Last year, Bishop Barron — the host of the Catholicism and Pivotal Players television series from Word on Fire Ministries and a popular author with a strong presence on social media — was named an auxiliary bishop. And his prompt election to leadership of an important committee suggests he will play an increasingly influential role in the conference.

Indeed, while the timing of the bishops’ fall assembly impelled conference leaders to highlight their stand on policy matters like immigration reform, Church leaders also remain highly focused on evangelizing the culture, stabilizing troubled marriages and finding new ways to reach young Catholics, many of whom are leaving the Church in droves for many reasons, a major one being the result of poor catechesis.

In 2014-2015, the synods on the family pondered Catholic teaching on marriage and discussed the best way to improve marriage-preparation programs and strengthen marriages.

Pope Francis has since released his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). The document affirms the Church’s radiant vision of married love, but has also sparked controversy over its ambiguity. According to some critics and also some proponents, it supports changes in Church discipline regarding reception of the Eucharist for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics.

The majority of USCCB leaders who served as delegates for the synod, including Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Gomez, did not endorse proposals to change pastoral practice regarding reception of Communion. A discussion of the apostolic exhortation, initially planned for the USCCB fall assembly, was tabled until a gathering in July 2017 in Florida.

That said, the bishops did move ahead and approve strategic goals designed to address a number of pastoral issues raised at the synod, as well as long-standing challenges posed by legal abortion and ongoing threats to religious freedom.


Synod Preparations

Looking ahead, the bishops will soon begin preparations for the next synod, set for October 2018, on “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.” This subject will likely spark an intense discussion about the best way to catechize millennials, a generation that is overall drifting away from organized religion.

“We are living in a period of profound transition, of a silent cultural revolution, which affects us all,” acknowledged the papal nuncio, Archbishop Pierre.

“In a changing environment, it is we who must be … open to real conversion, a true metanoia of mind and heart, so that we may be authentic witnesses to Jesus, becoming real instruments of encounter for our youth.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

The Register’s Matthew Bunson contributed to this report.