As President-elect Donald J. Trump considers how to fulfill his campaign promise to build a massive border wall, Catholic bishops on Tuesday chose for their top leadership posts two prelates from states touching Mexico, a region where Catholicism is growing fastest in the United States.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops while Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles was picked for the number two spot. The picks represent a recognition that the church is growing in the southwest, largely in part to an influx of Hispanic Catholics. That reality was highlighted in a video message to bishops from Pope Francis.
Promoting a 2018 U.S. gathering of Hispanic Catholics called Encuentro, the pope urged American bishops to continue working to embrace multiculturalism in the U.S. church.
“Our great challenge is to create a culture of encounter which encourages individuals and groups to share the richness of their traditions and experience,” Francis said, “to break down walls and to build bridges.”
The pope urged the U.S. church “to go out from its comfort zone” and “to be a sign of prophecy.”
“We are called to be bearers of good news for a society kept by disconcerting social, cultural and spiritual shifts and increasing polarization,” Francis said.
Cardinal DiNardo, the new president, is currently vice president of the conference, a position that serves as a launching pad to the top spot. If that tradition holds, Mexico-born Archbishop Gomez would become the first Hispanic leader of the conference in 2019.
Both men are church traditionalists—Cardinal DiNardo has questioned reforms championed by Pope Francis and Archbishop Gomez was ordained a priest of Opus Dei—but they are also outspoken advocates for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, which could lead to a clash with the Trump administration.
During a press conference after their election, both archbishops cautioned against trying to predict the future but said the church would continue to advocate for the rights of immigrants.
Bishops will respect the government, Cardinal DiNardo said, but they “also have the shepherd’s heart.”
“If there’s somebody hungry, we’re going to feed them. If there’s somebody thirsty, we’re going to give them a drink,” he said. “And if there’s somebody who is a stranger, we want to make them welcome.”
Mr. Trump has said he plans to deport up to three million undocumented people living in the United States—which is down from his previous promises to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living here.
That revised number gave hope to at least one archbishop.
“I hope there’s the possibility that there will be some doors in that wall he wants to build,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said at a press conference on Nov. 14. He said he understands the anxiety some families are experiencing in the wake of Mr. Trump’s victory, but he urged calm.
“I don’t want to discount the fear or the uncertainty many have because of their lack of status, but I would say, take it easy,” he said. “It’s time to take a deep breath and continue our advocacy.”
In his opening remarks on Monday, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the current president of the conference who wraps up his three-year term on Wednesday, offered a strong message to families worried about deportation.
“Let us repeat to our sisters and brothers who have come to America fleeing persecution and working hard to build a better life for their families: We are with you,” he said to the full body of bishops.
The bishops were meeting in Baltimore at the Marriott Waterfront hotel for their annual fall general assembly.
Relations between the American church and the federal government have been frosty in recent years, with several Catholic institutions, including some dioceses, clashing with the Obama administration over rules related to contraception and sexual orientation. Cardinal DiNardo has been especially critical of Mr. Obama, calling his policies “coercive” in trying to restrict religious liberty.
While some Catholics who supported Mr. Trump see a possible thaw, bishops expressed caution on a few fronts.
A new American cardinal, for example, urged bishops on Tuesday to highlight the pope’s teaching on the environment in light of concerns about Mr. Trump’s views on the subject.
Cardinal-designate Joseph Tobin, who will soon become archbishop of Newark, took to the hotel ballroom floor to ask if “the magisterial teaching of Pope Francis on the care for creation” was prominent enough in the bishops’ proposed strategic plan.
He said the pope’s teaching “is more urgent than ever given the possibility that the administration isn’t going to be very interested in the questions that Pope Francis is interested in,” including “the clear link [the pope] demonstrates between human misery and the environmental degradation.”
Passed overwhelmingly by bishops, the plan includes the bishops’ five priorities through 2020: evangelization; family and marriage; human life and dignity; vocations; and ongoing formation and religious freedom.
On another front, the archbishop tasked with exploring ways the church could respond to a surge of violence in recent months said a statement condemning racism is needed in the election’s wake.
Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory urged bishops to move quickly in drafting a statement condemning racism “particularly in the context of post-election uncertainty and disaffection.”
Archbishop Gregory, the first African-American bishop to serve as president of the conference, chaired a special task force created to address an outburst of violence throughout the country, including various police shootings of unarmed black men as well as lethal attacks on police officers. He said the group believes church could help the country heal.
“The church is uniquely situated to bring people together in honest dialogue to foster healing,” Archbishop Gregory said. “As bishops we must recognize the significance of this moment and work with the faithful and affected communities for lasting peace.”
Concerns aside, some bishops expressed optimism that they might work with Mr. Trump’s administration, especially on pro-life and religious liberty issues.
Archbishop Kurtz, for example, said he has already written to Mr. Trump congratulating him and promising to work on shared goals.
Cardinal DiNardo, who once chaired the bishops’ pro-life committee, said pro-life issues are “very important” to him. He said he hopes the new administration will support the decades-old ban on using federal money to fund abortions and that representatives from the bishops conference can sit down with the Trump transition team.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the head of the bishops’ religious liberty committee, said he sees with the new administration “tremendous challenges on the one hand and a few opportunities on the other.”
In an interview with America, Archbishop Lori said that while the Trump campaign talked about repealing parts of the Affordable Care Act bishops disagree with, such as providing contraception coverage, that other issues remain an open question.
“We really don’t know when it comes to [sexual orientation and gender identity] laws where the new administration stands,” he said.
Regardless of the election, Archbishop Lori said bishops face the same set of challenges.
“The challenges that face us, the bishops, is the same after the election as before the election,” he said, “and that’s to show that religious freedom is not a mask for discrimination but a critical building block in building a healthy, pluralistic society.”
The pope’s new ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, had beencritical of U.S. bishops in recent weeks, suggesting they needed to do more to address issues of war and peace.
But he used his address to the full body of bishops on Nov. 14 to talk about the need for the church to find creative ways to keep young people in the fold.
“A new language, new methods and a new missionary ardor is necessary so that each young person may experience tangibly the mercy of God,” he said. “Our methods of evangelization require a profound reconsideration to see whether they are effectively communicating the authentic Christian experience—with closeness, simplicity, warmth and transparency.”
Young people “are not allergic” to the faith, he continued, but many of them lack an understanding of how to practice or understand it.
For his part, Cardinal DiNardo acknowledged that bishops face many challenges in coming years, including leading the faithful in a divided nation, but he remained upbeat.
“I would want our work as shepherds and leaders to bring Catholics together, to recognize the beauty of the human person, even someone who disagrees with you,” he said during the press briefing. “My hope is that we will listen to one another.”
“I’m very hopeful about the church in the United States,” he said.
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.