The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opens its 2016 fall assembly with a Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
Uncertainty over what to expect from the administration of President-elect Donald Trump hovered over the opening Monday of the Catholic bishops' annual fall assembly in Baltimore.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the gathering he had written Trump to ask that he use his influence to promote both the protection of life and the preservation of human dignity.
Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the bishops' committee on migration, congratulated Trump on his victory in last week's election, offered "support for all efforts to work together for the common good" and pledged to pray for the incoming administration.
But Kurtz, Eusebio and others also made clear that church leaders intend to continue to offer succor to immigrants and refugees in the United States, whatever their legal status, as part of their determination, on biblical grounds, to "welcome the stranger."
That response — which Pope Francis has emphasized from the beginning of his papacy — would likely bring the church into conflict with Trump, who campaigned on criticism of foreigners and promises to build a wall along the southern border and ban Muslims from entry.
Trump told "60 Minutes" on Sunday that he plans to build the wall and to deport 2 million to 3 million immigrants here without legal documentation who have committed crimes in the United States.
In remarks to open the bishops' assembly, Kurtz pledged solidarity with immigrant families.
"Families will know that we carry them in our hearts as we engage the new administration in dialogue," he said. "We are with you." The gathering applauded.
Elizondo was more explicit.
"Serving and welcoming people fleeing violence and conflict in various regions of the world is part of our identity as Catholics," he said. "The church will continue this life-saving tradition. Today, with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, the need to welcome refugees and provide freedom from persecution is more acute than ever, and our 80 dioceses across the country are eager to continue this wonderful act of accompaniment born of our Christian faith."
Elizondo said he prays that the United States remains "a nation of hospitality that treats others as we would like to be treated," all "without sacrificing national security or American values."
Nearly 300 bishops have gathered in Baltimore for the assembly. They are scheduled Tuesday to elect a new president, vice president and committee chairs. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori is a nominee.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, a consultant to the migration committee and a member of the committee for international justice and peace, spoke of working with the Haitian community in South Florida as a parish priest when Ronald Reagan was elected.
The election left many Haitians fearful that the conservative Republican would order their deportation, Wenski said. But it was Reagan, he said, who in 1986 signed the most recent bill granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants.
"For many people, that same fear is really there [today]," he said. "We know that many people have long gone to sleep for fear of that knock on the door in the middle of the night. [But] we have a rule of law. Nobody can arbitrarily try to send out of the country in one fell swoop 11 million people, may of whom are members of American families … who have spouses or children who are American citizens.
"I want to say 'take it easy,' just as I did to those Haitians in 1980. And those people are still here," Wenski said.
Kurtz and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the diplomatic representative of the Holy See to the United States, tied immigration and other issues to Pope Francis' Jubilee Year of Mercy, which concludes Sunday.
Pierre said mercy is at the heart of several of the pope's pastoral priorities: reaching out to the young, supporting families and helping people come together.
"I honestly think that mercy is what this country needs to heal the wounds of division after a polarizing campaign," he said. "Many Americans have personally reached out to me to voice their frustration.
"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.'"
The assembly heard from several of its committees about their work during the previous year.
Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, chair of the committee on laity, marriage, family life and youth, said more than 40,000 American Catholics attended World Youth Day in Poland last summer, the largest such pilgrimage ever to travel abroad from the United States.
Lori, who leads the conference's ad hoc committee on religious liberty, was to report on his panel's work during the previous year later in the day, and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta was to share recommendations from his task force on promoting peace in American communities.
The prelates celebrated an opening Mass on Monday afternoon at a predominantly African-American church in West Baltimore.
Lori said St. Peter Claver Church was chosen to underscore the church's concern for challenges facing inner cities.
He said parishioners helped clean the streets last year after the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray.
"This parish is a perfect example of the church's unique role and importance in communities like these around the country," he said. He called St. Peter Claver a "field hospital" for the deep wounds that persist in West Baltimore.
Then Kurtz thanked the church for hosting the bishops.
"For us, this is historic, and we are so grateful for your willingness to welcome us," he said.
His homily was briefly interrupted when a protester unfurled a sign that read "Catholic Bishops: Stop Persecuting Gays." The protester was escorted out.
Kurtz continued, urging the bishops to bring unity through dialogue during these divisive days.
"May the peace of Christ reign," he said, "and may violence fall and civility rise. Amen."
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.