BALTIMORE -- They're scattered in dioceses from New Jersey to Alaska, but their roots go back decades to when they were young priests in Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik recalls crossing the state to baptize a relative at a cathedral in Allentown, where the host pastor, Joseph Kurtz, graciously welcomed him. Bernard Hebda recalls studying in seminary under Daniel DiNardo, an expert on the early church fathers whose scholarly comments on student papers could get longer than the papers themselves.
Four Keystone State clerics, now bishops, were elected to leadership posts by their colleagues Tuesday as the American Roman Catholic hierarchy strives to align itself with new Pope Francis' dramatic call -- in the words of the papal ambassador to them on Monday -- for pastoral rather than ideological bishops.
Archbishop Kurtz, now archbishop of Louisville, Ky., overwhelmingly was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while now-Cardinal DiNardo, a native and one-time priest of Pittsburgh who is now archbishop of Galveston-Houston, was elected vice president. Archbishop Hebda was elected chair of a church governance committee.
"It's great to see that some of the zeal we possess is being acknowledged and shared on the national level," said Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska, yet another former Pittsburgh Diocese priest, who was elected to chair the Committee on Child and Youth Protection. Bishop Burns said he recently visited Pittsburgh for convocation of priests and was reminded of their dedication.
"In Pittsburgh, we're doers," he said. "We're hard workers and we love what we do."
But he acknowledged bishops have to prove themselves by following Pope Francis' injunction to spend so much time with their flocks "that we as shepherds begin to smell like sheep."
Much of the bishops' most high-profile stances in recent years have been against abortion, encroachments on religious liberty, same-sex marriage and a mandate under the Affordable Care Act requiring many employers to provide health insurance that includes contraception coverage even if the employer is morally opposed to the practice.
But Archbishop Kurtz, Cardinal DiNardo and other leaders also spoke of the advocacy for the poor and immigration reform.
"We are very much in solidarity with Pope Francis" in his call for a church for the poor, Archbishop Kurtz said in a news conference after his election.
Cardinal DiNardo agreed: "We'll never stand down from the defense of the human person, especially at the beginning of life and at the end."
Archbishop Kurtz was elected on the first ballot as president of the conference Tuesday morning, gaining 125 votes, with Cardinal DiNardo second at 25 votes among nine other nominees.
Cardinal DiNardo -- who was raised in Castle Shannon in suburban Pittsburgh, graduated from Duquesne University and later served as a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh -- was elected vice president over Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput on the third ballot, 147-87.
Archbishop Hebda, a former Pittsburgh priest now coadjutor bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., was elected chair of the bishops' Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance by a 167-70 margin over Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago.
And Bishop Burns was elected chair of the Committee on Child and Youth Protection in a 118-114 vote over Syracuse Bishop Robert Cunningham.
The conference officers do not wield hierarchical authority over bishops, who answer directly to the Vatican, but they speak for the bishops on sometimes-controversial public policy positions.
Archbishop Kurtz, 67, is a native of Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, was ordained a priest in 1972 and served for 27 years in the Diocese of Allentown. He earned a master's in social work and headed the diocese's social services agency. He was bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., from 1999 to 2007 before being appointed to Louisville.
Archbishop Kurtz formerly chaired the bishops' committee on marriage, which made him a point man in speaking out against the spread of legalized same-sex marriage.
That track record, plus Archbishop Kurtz's vocal protests against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, brought criticism from some liberal Catholic activists.
They cited Pope Francis' call for dialogue with estranged Catholics and the pontiff's much-publicized comment that if a gay person sincerely sought God and to do good, "Who am I to judge?"
"Francis is a game-changer," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a national group advocating for gay and lesbian Catholics, one of several liberal advocates who spoke with reporters outside the bishops' meeting area at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott. "The U.S. bishops seem to be playing by yesterday's playbook."
Archbishop Kurtz has said he adopts the pope's approach as his own -- to support church traditions as a "son of the church" while responding to people sensitively and pastorally.
But he is "more complicated than that," Father Reese said. He cited Archbishop Kurtz's relatively simple lifestyle -- residing in a walkup apartment next to the Louisville cathedral -- and his experience working with the poor and taking care of a brother with Down syndrome.
Bishop Zubik called Archbishop Kurtz "a fine man."
He said the prominence of so many Pennsylvanians in the hierarchy shows "we have a pretty strong state in the ways of the faith, and we have a lot of gifted priests and bishops coming from our area."
Of the four Pennsylvania natives elected to leadership, Bishop Zubik said: "They are pastors at heart. That's exactly the kind of leadership" called for by Pope Francis.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published November 12, 2013 10:41 AM