Nearly 300 bishops from across the nation will determine the coming year's agenda for the American Roman Catholic church when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops begins its annual fall meeting Monday in Baltimore.
The bishops will spend four days at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Harbor East, where they will hammer out organizational positions and courses of action on matters ranging from schooling and medical care to liturgy and exorcism.
The Baltimore archdiocese, the oldest in the United States, is marking its 225th anniversary this year, a milestone the conference will celebrate with a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption Monday evening.
To Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, it will be a highlight of the conference.
"The practice of bishops gathering together to discuss important matters in the life of the church began at the Basilica many, many years ago," Lori said. "It's a wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary, but also to celebrate our efforts to work together as a conference. It will be a homecoming."
Most items on the agenda will be more than symbolic. The prelates will weigh several possible changes in liturgy, including new ways of welcoming worshippers with disabilities and a new English translation of the traditional rites of exorcism.
The bishops also will consider guidelines for partnerships between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals and look at ways to make it easier for disadvantaged children to attend Catholic schools.
"Across the country and right here in Baltimore, it's a real struggle to help young people from economically challenged neighborhoods access Catholic education," Lori said. "Our committee on Catholic education has been collecting this kind of information for the past year, and we'll be hearing what some of the best practices are across the U.S."
Important as the issues are, some observers are calling this year's agenda items strikingly traditional, especially given the kinds of headline-grabbing statements Pope Francis made about church doctrine at a synod of bishops meeting on the family last month.
Pope Francis rocked Catholics worldwide by suggesting the church should welcome the "gifts and qualities" of gay Catholics and calling on pastors to "avoid any language or behavior" that could be seen as discriminatory against divorced Catholics.
Though he stopped well short of suggesting church doctrine should condone homosexuality or divorce, the pope's words triggered heated debate that has yet to subside.
"He opened up a river of discussion that had been dammed. People are finding it startling, because these issues had been locked up for 30 or 35 years, other than among 'dissident' theologians," said Terrence W. Tilley, a professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University.
Lori said bishops who attended the synod will report their experiences this week, but he described the hot-button issues in family-values terms.
"All of us are concerned about building up families, assisting the ones in difficulty. ... While there was a certain amount of controversy [at the synod], those are very important concerns for all of us," he said.
Such language didn't surprise Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
American bishops, he said, have generally spent the last decade or so establishing their bona fides as conservative cultural warriors, and they've long been known to favor "unity, coherence and message" at the fall conference.
"I do think they'll try to emphasize outreach to disaffected Catholics, but they won't be inclined to rethink the rules for accepting communion if you're divorced," he said. "They appear to have charted out a very traditional agenda."
If they do discuss the Pope's recent words, Tilley said, it will probably be in closed sessions.
Father James Bretzke, a professor at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, agreed that even if they did, the assembly would smooth off any rough edges.
"By and large, I believe any discussion will be 'coded' and couched in non-polemical language," he said.
Few observers were ready to say that meant the conference would be uninteresting.
Schmalz said the return of exorcism to the public debate reflects a growing interest in the subject within the church, a trend he said began during the reign of Pope John Paul II, who sought to revive "Catholic tradition at the grassroots."
He also agreed with Lori that the 225th anniversary is important, though he saw it as both historical landmark and a measuring stick of change.
"Baltimore has always been the cradle of American Catholicism, and this is a great way of celebrating that," he said. "But one issue being debated today, at least implicitly, is how 'American' have Catholics actually become? They have been willing, after all, to embrace things the church hierarchy tends to criticize."
Some said it will be interesting to look for subtle signs that the times may be changing.
Bretzke pointed out that a "center-left moderate," Bishop Blaise Cupich of Spokane, Wash., will be installed as the new Archbishop of Chicago next week, which he called an indication of "which way the ecclesial winds are blowing."
If the bishops elect a new officer or two with a less traditional approach, he said, it could suggest the U.S. Conference of Bishops is on the cusp of evolving.
To Lori, it "remains to be seen" what tone the conference will take. By the time it ends Thursday afternoon, though, he said "everyone will be ready to enjoy a little bit" of the atmosphere of his adopted hometown, which hosts the assembly every fall.
That alone, he said, is significant.
"The main thing, I think, is that it's very good everyone is here," he said. "It's a great source of support for all of us when we gather like this. I just want to say to the bishops of the United States, 'Welcome to Baltimore.'"