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Pope's U.S. visit frames issues at bishops' annual gathering

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened the organization's annual meeting in Baltimore this week, saying the church would follow the pope's teachings in addressing immigration, religious liberty, abortion and marriage.

Pope Francis "called us to be 'pastors close to the people, pastors who are neighbors and servants,'" Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville. Ky., told more than 300 bishops gathered for the annual General Assembly at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel on Monday.

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The bishops are convening this week to discuss the "strategic priorities" the conference will focus on through 2020.

The religious leaders regularly hold their fall meeting in Baltimore, in recognition of the city's role in church history. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, founded in 1789, is the oldest diocese in the United States.

The meeting was the first since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The bishops had argued in support of state laws that limited marriage to the union of one woman and one man.

Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., described the high court's decision as "a tragic error" and "profoundly immoral and unjust." He announced that the conference would "continue to uphold the meaning of marriage as between one man and one woman" and called for renewed pastoral attention to the importance of marriage.

Malone also called pornography "a particularly sinister instance of consumption." He led a group that studied the issue and recommended increasing resources for church counselors and members to address it.

The bishops also are working to amend a conference document on the role of the church in "forming consciences for faithful citizenship," said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston. The document is meant to help Catholics weigh such subjects as religious liberty, immigration and marriage during the coming election cycle.

DiNardo said Catholic officials discussed adding teachings from Pope Francis that might help address the "dysfunctional" American political system.

The conference revisits the document every four years, in advance of presidential elections.

Church leaders also gave presentations on Project Rachel, a church counseling ministry for those who have had abortions; on the need for more priests in the American armed forces; and on the importance of preserving religious freedom.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore recalled the pope's visit to the Washington offices of the Little Sisters of the Poor in discussing religious freedom. Pope Francis made his first trip to the U.S. in September.

The Supreme Court recently said it would take the case of the Baltimore-based Little Sisters, a charitable order of nuns that is suing the federal government over a provision in the Affordable Care Act that they say compels them to support abortion, a practice the church opposes.

Religious freedom, Lori said, is "not just about the survival of our institutions, but for the survival of a public square" that allows for "a healthy pluralism."

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio — the pope's official representative in the United States — prayed during his opening remarks for God to "heal the many injuries and dry the tears of the many who mourn" the deaths of those killed in the terror attacks that left at least 129 dead Friday in France.

Leaders met before the General Assembly to pledge prayers for those suffering from the attacks as well as support for those working to build "just and peaceful societies."

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Kurtz told reporters at a news conference Monday that the church would continue to call for policies that support and welcome immigrants.

"We are always open to families who come into the U.S. and need help," Kurtz said.

Some Republicans have called for an end to accepting immigrants from Syria after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.

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