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Catholic bishops, in Baltimore, elect advocates for immigrants to top jobs

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, right, the newly-elected vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, listens as Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, left, the conference's newly-elected president, speaks at a news conference at the USCCB's annual fall meeting in Baltimore.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, right, the newly-elected vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, listens as Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, left, the conference's newly-elected president, speaks at a news conference at the USCCB's annual fall meeting in Baltimore. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

The nation's Catholic bishops embraced both tradition and change Tuesday when they elected as their top officials a pair of prelates who lead two of the most diverse — and most heavily Hispanic — archdioceses in the United States.

More than 200 voting members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Baltimore this week for their annual fall assembly, elected Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo their president and Archbishop Jose H. Gomez their vice president.

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DiNardo is archbishop of Galveston-Houston,Texas, which has 1.6 million members, about 50 percent of them Hispanic. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles, the nation's largest Catholic diocese with 5 million members, more than 70 percent of them Hispanic.

The election of DiNardo, known for his background as a parish priest in southwestern Pennsylvania, his participation in numerous committees and his fluency in multiple languages, came as no surprise. As current vice president of the conference, he was considered a lock for the top job, and he captured enough votes on the first ballot — 113 — to gain the required simple majority.

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The choice of Gomez, 65, a native of Mexico who is known as a gentle pastor and advocate for immigrants to the United States — here with legal documentation or otherwise — was less predictable.

After two votes failed to yield a simple majority for any candidate, he squared off against Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans — seen as a more middle-of-the-road choice — and won the office by 24 votes, 105-81.

DiNardo's election is in keeping with long-standing tradition: Since 1956, every vice president but one who stood for election was elevated to president. He'll begin a three-year term when the assembly adjourns Thursday.

Hispanics have long been the fastest-growing segment of the Catholic Church in the United States — at 30.5 million, they constitute about 44 percent of the church's members.

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The bishops are weighing their options as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to assume power in January.

Trump's promises to deport 2 million to 3 million immigrants who are in the country without legal documentation and have committed crimes, build a wall along the southern border and bar Muslims from entering the United States will likely place him on a collision course with the church. The bishops have made clear they view refugees and immigrants from a pastoral, not a political, perspective, welcoming them as a matter of religious duty.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori saw the elections of DiNardo and Gomez as "very significant."

"We're recognizing the growing Hispanic presence and influence in the church, and I'm very pleased that we're embracing and acknowledging our future," Lori said. "Are we also saying to the incoming administration that we're concerned about the plights of immigrants and refugees? You bet."

Lori said he and most of his fellow bishops were as surprised as anyone at Trump's victory last week, and questions about his policies have been a major theme at the assembly.

DiNardo and Gomez sat side by side at a news conference after their election Tuesday. Because Trump has never held office, they said, they were uncertain how to engage the new administration on issues important to the church.

Both advocated prayer to help heal a church that was as divided as the general electorate by the rancorous presidential campaign.

They stressed the importance of addressing potentially contentious issues by remembering to take the pastoral and merciful approach to others that Pope Francis has advocated throughout his papacy.

DiNardo said that in immigration policy, health care policy and civil rights for minorities under a Trump administration, it will be important to recall that the church's key role is to ask, "How we can most respect the human person in our midst?"

Gomez said he wanted to stress that "we are all children of God," whatever one's views on the issues, and to emphasize "the importance of helping people to pray for one another to promote unity in our country."

As for Trump's promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, DiNardo said it has long been the position of the bishops that everyone — particularly the poor and the vulnerable — should have access to affordable health care.

What such care should look like is less clear, he said. He made a reference to abortion, a highly contentious issue in the debate over the Affordable Care Act.

"The problem is in the details," he said. "What is considered 'care?' Some might say, 'That [procedure] is not care. That's killing someone.'"

DiNardo and Gomez said no presidential administration has ever offered the church support for all its declared positions.

Bishop Nelson Perez of the Diocese of Rockville Center in New York gave a presentation on V Encuentro, a plan to "develop resources and initiatives to better service the fast-growing Hispanic population in dioceses, parishes, ecclesiastical movements and other Catholic organizations and institutions."

Pope Francis appeared on video to offer support for the initiative, which is to take place at the diocesan and parish levels between now and 2020.

"Our great challenge is to create a culture of encounter which encourages individuals and groups to share the richness of their traditions and experience; to break down walls and to build bridges," the pope said. "The Church in America as elsewhere is called to go out from its comfort zone and be a leaven of communion; communion among ourselves, with our fellow Christians, and with all who seek a future of hope.

"Mindful of the contributions that the Hispanic community makes to the life of the nation, I pray that the Encuentro will bear fruit for the renewal of the American society and for the Church's apostolate in the United States."

The bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve a proposed strategic plan for the next four years.

"Encountering the Mercy of Christ and Accompanying His People With Joy" lays out five priorities: evangelization, family and marriage, human life and dignity, vocations, and religious freedom.

None dealt specifically with the environment, a subject some hoped the conference would address in the wake of the pope's encyclical "Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home."

The 2015 encyclical unambiguously accepted the premise that changes in the climate are largely man-made and called for attempts to mitigate the resulting damage to the environment.

Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, chair of the committee on priorities and plans, said the subject is covered as a portion of the church's decision to focus on human life and dignity.

The plan defines that priority as "uphold[ing] the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death with special concern for the poor and vulnerable."

The meetings continue through Thursday afternoon at the Waterfront Marriott Hotel.

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