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U.S. Bishops Approve Strategic Plan and Other Actions

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BALTIMORE (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI's call for a new evangelization will guide the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for the next four years under a strategic plan adopted during the bishops' annual fall general assembly in Baltimore.

Operating under the theme "Journey with Christ: Faith/Worship/Witness," the plan offers a "road map" for the conference to shape programs and activities to strengthen the faith of Catholics and position them to be active witnesses to their faith in all aspects of life.

Covering the period from 2013 through 2016, the plan was overwhelmingly approved with 233 votes. Four bishops abstained.

The plan reaffirms the mission and structure of the USCCB, focuses on priority issues of the bishops and reiterates the collaborative work necessary across the conference to build the community of faith, explained Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chairman of the Committee on Priorities and Plans.

The strategic plan includes a series of actions, or what Bishop Murry called a "road map," that suggests ways in which conference projects can be aligned with a possible approach that dioceses or parishes may want to adapt.

During the plan's first year, the focus will be on faith and activities closely tied to the Year of Faith, which began in October and runs through November 2013. Programs will be aimed at helping Catholics deepen their relationship with Jesus and increase their knowledge of church teaching.

A special emphasis will be placed on the sacraments, particularly by strengthening the understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation as the foundation of the new evangelization so that it leads Catholics to greater participation in the sacrament of reconciliation, Bishop Murry told the assembly.

In 2014 and 2015, the plan supports initiatives that strengthen parish life and worship, creating greater awareness of the need to develop communities of faith that are evangelizing and increasing the understanding of the Mass and boosting Mass attendance.

The final year of the plan calls for Catholics to be witnesses to the wider world. Specific aims identify the need to promote church teaching on the life and dignity of the human person; increasing the encouragement of youths and young adults to consider a religious vocation; and continuing to foster and support married couples and families as Christian witnesses.

In other action:

The Bishops agreed to add a national collection for the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services. The collection will be taken voluntarily in parishes every three years. The Archdiocese serves 1.8 million people, including Catholics serving in the armed services, their families, students enrolled in the military academies and patients in Veterans Administration medical centers.

"The archdiocese is not funded by the federal government and is severely limited in how it can seek contributions at military services attended by the faithful," said Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio. "With our country at war for more than 10 years, the men and women of the military have experienced very heavy burdens and hardships," he added. "This collection would allow Catholics to express support for military personnel and help support the archdiocese."

The Bishops approved their first new document in 30 years on preaching. The document, "Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily," encourages preachers to connect the Sunday homily with people's daily lives. The document adds, "The homilist of today must realize that he is addressing a congregation that is more culturally diverse than previously, one that is profoundly affected by the surrounding secular context and, in many instances, inadequately catechized. The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith."

The U.S. Bishops overwhelmingly approved an exhortation encouraging Catholics to take advantage of the Sacrament of Penance. The exhortation says, Jesus was "proclaiming that all the suffering he had just endured was in order to make available the gifts of salvation and forgiveness." It adds, "In the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, we meet the Lord, who wants to grant forgiveness and the grace to live a renewed life in him. In this sacrament, he prepares us to receive him with a lively faith, earnest hope, and sacrificial love in the Eucharist. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we repent, let go of any pattern of sin, grow in the life of virtue and witness to a joyful conversion."

In an effort to strengthen its communications and public relations efforts, the bishops approved the hiring of a director of public affairs as efforts begin to reorganize the conference's Communications Department. The position would work to unify messages on the activities and stances of the USCCB -- not individual dioceses or bishops -- and better carry out church campaigns related to new evangelization, said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, USCCB president.

(Compiled from stories by Dennis Sadlowski)

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