Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the church should follow the example Pope Francis has set on how to effectively reach out to people.
"We need to reach out, not, as the Holy Father said so well, (first) with rules and regulations – which are appropriate if you're going to present a child for baptism – but it should not be the first step. We should be reaching out as the first step," Archbishop Kurtz, 67, said in an interview with Catholic News Service following his election on Tuesday.
He was born in in Mahanoy City, Pa., and brought up in the coal regions of northeastern Pennsylvania, and has spent most of his priesthood as a social worker. He served as a bishop in Knoxville, Tenn., from 1999 to 2007, after which he was appointed archbishop of Louisville.
"I grew up in a coal town. Family was very important to me. Neighbors were very important. I think we took an interest in our neighbors. That means a lot. I don't care how big the city is, I still say hello to the person I pass on the street," he said.
Looking forward to the next three years as USCCB president, Kurtz cited Pope Francis as a model for outreach, listening and collegiality.
"He's asking us to go beyond what we've been doing. If it was a car, I guess we're moving in to high gear," the archbishop said.
"I think no matter what culture a person comes from, we can learn (about them) from their sense of family, their sense of devotion," he added.
Kurtz replaces Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as USCCB president, who made his final address in that role on Monday, calling on the church to focus on tackling religious freedom concerns around the world.
"Brother bishops, our legitimate and ongoing struggles to protect our 'first and most cherished freedom' in the United States pale in comparison to the Via Crucis currently being walked by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, who are experiencing lethal persecution on a scale that defies belief," Dolan said at the General Assembly in Baltimore.
"If our common membership in the mystical body of Christ is to mean anything, then their suffering must be ours as well."
At the conclusion of the General Assembly on Wednesday, USCCB issued a message pointing out several social issues that bishops around the country will be engaged with, including help for those suffering from Typhoon Haiyan, which caused great damage to the Philippines last weekend. The Catholic bishops also recalled Pope Francis' words:
"In the context of society, there is only one thing which the Church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide."
The bishops added that they stand together as pastors charged with the mission of proclaiming the Gospel.
"That Gospel calls us to feed the poor, heal the sick, and educate the young, and in so doing witness to our faith in its fullness," the statement read.