Thursday I returned from the annual November gathering of the US bishops in Baltimore. The meeting went very well and we had the opportunity to discuss, both in general session and with the New York region bishops, many pastoral issues of the day. A new General Secretary was elected to a five-year term. He is Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield of Philadelphia, to date Associate General Secretary. I know him well. He is a fine theologian and a very accomplished priest. Archbishop Dennis Schnurr was elected to return to the post of Treasurer. Six committees received new chairs-elect, each of whom will serve a three-year term beginning in November 2016.

About ten years ago the United States Conference of Bishops (USCCB) adopted a new approach to how we address pastoral issues. We set up a process in which the bishops as a whole approve a four-year plan of four or five priorities. These priorities then shape the work of the individual committees as well as the pastoral vision and practice of the body as a whole.

This has made the Conference much better focused and thus much more effective. For example, this approach places two upcoming national meetings into a clearer focus. The first, currently scheduled for Orlando in 2017, may well have to be re-thought and even put aside unless the organizers are able to make its goal and its content more attractive in light of today’s pastoral concerns coming both from Pope Francis and from our own pastoral experience. The second is the V Encuentro, in which our own Bishop Perez is a major force, which will seek to rejuvenate and guide our pastoral care for Latinos in our parishes and dioceses.

Two important documents were approved at the national meeting with a wide consensus. The first is a pastoral letter to the whole Church in our country on pornography. Called, “Create in Me a New Heart,” it offers moral guidance and pastoral support in a nationwide endeavor to attack the evils of pornography and help those addicted to it to move beyond its debilitating allurements. (See related articles here.)

The second is a renewed and updated document to shape consciences as we enter into a presidential election year. Our task is to inform you as Catholics of the Church’s teaching on a number of issues but, first and foremost, to help you to have informed consciences that will guide and shape the choices you make in the upcoming elections.

The bishops also discussed and expressed their concern for the immigrants and refugees in the Middle East with a special emphasis on Christians who are suffering persecution. The New York bishops met together twice to discuss local issues and to reinforce the fraternal solidarity we share both in prayer and action. The meeting ended with a morning of prayer and reflection before the Blessed Sacrament. Shortly, the Office of the USCCB will publish the documents mentioned above. In the meantime we ask your continued prayers for us bishops as we try to serve you as good shepherds of the faithful entrusted to our care.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.