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U.S. bishops told to refocus on simplicity

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 6:36 p.m.

BALTIMORE — The Vatican ambassador to the United States, addressing American bishops at their first national meeting since Pope Francis was elected, said on Monday they should not “follow a particular ideology” and should make Roman Catholics feel more welcome in church.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano noted the challenges from broader society to Christian teaching. He cautioned that the bishops' witness to faith would be undermined if they failed to live simply. Francis, in office for eight months, has captured attention for eschewing some of the pomp of the papacy, including his decision to live in the Vatican hotel and his use of an economy car.

“There has to be a noticeable lifestyle characterized by simplicity and holiness of life. This is a sure way to bring our people to an awareness of the truth of our message,” said Vigano, the apostolic nuncio based in Washington.

In a September interview, Francis said Catholic leaders should give greater emphasis to compassion and mercy, arguing the church's focus on abortion, marriage and contraception has been too narrow and alienating. For the last several years, the public sessions of the fall bishops' assembly have centered on those hot-button social issues. This year's meeting gave the first glimpse of how that message is resonating among American leaders.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dedicated his speech to persecuted Christians overseas, asking the bishops to make international religious freedom a top priority. He made only a passing reference to the bishops' own religious freedom campaign, and then only to say that their struggles “pale in comparison” to the plight of Christians and others overseas.

Dozens of Catholic charities and dioceses, along with evangelical colleges and others, are suing the Obama administration over a requirement that employers provide health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage. The bishops say the religious exemption to the rule violates the religious freedom of nonprofit and for-profit employers. The issue is expected to reach the Supreme Court.

Dolan said in a news conference his speech was not a shift from that fight — but an expansion of it. “It's almost raised our consciousness to say we can't stop here.”

But Mathew Schmalz, religious studies professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said highlighting the fight with the Obama administration would be seen as out of step with Francis' message, especially at a time when the Vatican is moving away from a European focus. Francis is the first pope from Latin America.

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