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Change Urged by Pope Francis Is Rattling Hierarchy of Roman Catholic Church

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BALTIMORE » It was a hail and farewell moment at a tumultuous time for the Roman Catholic Church. More than 200 bishops rose to their feet Monday and gave a protracted standing ovation to Cardinal Francis George, a former president of the bishops’ conference, who will step down next week as the archbishop of Chicago.

Among those applauding in the conference room was the man who will soon be installed in the powerful Chicago seat, Bishop Blase Cupich. Pope Francis has never met him, but plucked him from the obscure diocese of Spokane, Wash., passing over archbishops considered rising stars under the two previous popes.

Change is rattling the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, and the bishops here say they now feel it even if they do not yet understand where Pope Francis is leading them. The change is reflected not only in appointments — with the Chicago seat the main indicator so far — but also in Francis’ call for the church to open discussion on sticky matters long considered settled, such as communion for the divorced and remarried, same-sex relationships, couples who live together without being married and even polygamists in Africa.

Some prelates, like Cupich, are exhilarated at the pontiff’s fresh message and the prospect of change, while others, like George, are more wary. A few have been downright resistant, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American in Rome who has publicly challenged Francis and was removed on Saturday from his position as head of the Vatican’s highest court.

"The pope is saying some very challenging things for people," Cupich said Tuesday. "He’s not saying, this is the law and you follow it and you get to heaven. He’s saying we have to do something about our world today that’s suffering, people are being excluded, neglected. We have a responsibility, and he’s calling people to task."

The bishops are gathered in Baltimore only weeks after a contentious Vatican meeting on marriage and family ended in Rome. That meeting — the first of two synods being held one year apart — has potentially resurfaced a split in the church between theological conservatives and liberals that had remained relatively dormant during the 20-month honeymoon with Francis. But now Francis’ pontificate has entered a more delicate phase, with some bishops asking whether he has a coherent vision of where he wants to take the church and a plan for how to get there.

"He says wonderful things," George said about Francis Sunday, "but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?"

George, who is 77 and being treated for cancer, remains a voting cardinal until age 80 and says he would like to travel to Rome to see Francis: "I’d like to sit down with him and say, Holy Father, first of all, thank you for letting me retire. And could I ask you a few questions about your intentions?"

Catholics worldwide are supposed to spend the next year leading to the next synod meeting in Rome in October 2015 discussing issues related to marriage and the family. Several bishops said in interviews that they were supposed to shepherd such a dialogue but are awaiting instructions from the Vatican about how to conduct it.

Their public meetings here have largely been taken up with the priorities they have had for years: opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, and the concern that government is infringing on the church’s religious freedom through provisions like the birth control mandate in President Barack Obama’s health care law.

On Tuesday afternoon, after some Catholic commentators took the bishops to task for saying nothing during the conference about the hot-button issue of immigration, the floor was briefly turned over to Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, an auxiliary bishop of Seattle. He called attention to a letter that the bishops’ conference sent in September urging Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, to take executive action to protect some illegal immigrants from deportation, including parents with children who are American citizens, and those who have been in the United States for 10 years or more.

In their regional meetings, the bishops were asked to identify which seven priorities the bishops’ conference should take up, in light of Francis’ pontificate, for the years 2017 to 2020, Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City said in an interview.

He said that among the priorities he suggested were the plight of illegal immigrants, and the poor — including working people who live paycheck to paycheck, and "those who are caught in our world financial structures and are getting squeezed." These are concerns and themes that Francis has sounded repeatedly.

However, Wester said, "I don’t think the old priorities are going to stop, particularly if they’re still relevant."

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, the chairman of the bishops’ committee on marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said in his report to the conference that it was possible to link these varied priorities: "The message of Pope Francis, with his concern for the poor, but also standing for marriage, I think they do go together."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter, a liberal, independent news outlet, said that this group of bishops was shaped by the popes who appointed them, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

"There is no bishop who is standing up and being the real leader of a Francis faction," Reese said. "They grew up in conservative families, went to conservative seminaries and have been told not to talk to theologians who are creative because they’ve been labeled heretical. Now Francis is saying, let’s go in a different direction and let’s have a discussion. The last two pontificates, there was no room for discussion, and this makes them nervous and confused."

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