By Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE – In his final address as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago criticized those who define the Church’s usefulness by whether it provides “foot soldiers for a political commitment, whether of the left or the right.”

In his talk opening the Nov. 15-18 fall general assembly of the USCCB, the cardinal devoted much of his time to reviewing the debate over health care reform earlier this year and the “wound to the Church’s unity” caused by differences over the final legislation. {{more}}

The first day of the meeting included the introduction of items to be voted on the next day, including an agreement on the mutual recognition of baptism from the Reformed-Catholic dialogue, guidelines for the provision of sustenance to retired bishops, and some proposed revisions to regulations regarding USCCB statements and publications.

The bishops heard reports on donations by U.S. Catholics for reconstruction in Haiti; preparations for World Youth Day in Spain in August 2011; the need for the bishops to embrace social media to effectively evangelize the “digital continent”; and the work of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, which has been upgraded to a subcommittee of the marriage and family life committee.

On Nov. 16 the bishops elected new conference leaders, including New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan as successor to Cardinal George as president and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., as vice president.

In discussing health reform in his address, Cardinal George said “developments since the passage of the legislation” have confirmed that “our analysis of what the law itself says was correct and our moral judgments are secure.” He did not specify what those developments were.

The USCCB opposed passage of the final health reform legislation, saying it would permit federal funding of abortion, inadequately protect the conscience rights of health care providers and leave out immigrants. Some Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association and many orders of women religious, said the final bill and an executive order signed by President Barack Obama would exclude any possibility of federal money going to pay for abortions under the health plan.

Cardinal George said the debate also raised the question of “who speaks for the Catholic Church.”

“The bishops … speak for the Church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them,” he said. “All the rest is opinion, often well-considered opinion and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion.”

The cardinal addressed several other issues in his outgoing speech, among them concern for Christians in the Middle East. He said Christians were “uniquely … without protection in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq.”

Cardinal George’s voice caught as he told the story – recounted by a U.S. Dominican nun in Iraq who is a friend of a friend – of a 3-year-old boy named Adam, who “witnessed the horror of dozens of deaths, including that of his own parents,” during the Oct. 31 massacre at the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad. Two hours later, the boy was murdered.

“As bishops, as Americans, we cannot turn from this scene or allow the world to overlook it,” Cardinal George said.

His comments paralleled the message he sent to Obama in a Nov. 9 letter, in which he urged the U.S. government to “redouble its efforts to assist Iraqis” in providing safety for its citizens, especially religious minorities.

The assembly also heard from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, who set the stage for next year’s synod of bishops on evangelization, announced by Pope Benedict XVI at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October.

Referencing the Gospel of St. John, he commented that “despite all our limitations, I am deeply convinced that what we do in the name of the Lord, in his Spirit, for his Church, will ‘bear fruit, fruit that will last.'”

He noted that he recently received as a gift a painting of the small Chapel of the Sacred Heart in Bowie, Md., where the 1789 appointment of the first American bishop, John Carroll, was announced.

“After 221 years, the dioceses now number 194, and the living bishops number 454,” he said. “The same can be said of the growth of the faithful, of the priests, of the religious.”

This past “should be for each of us a stimulus to build the future,” Archbishop Sambi said.

Bishop Kevin J. Farrell of Dallas, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on National Collections, commended American Catholics for the generosity they showed to the people of Haiti in contributing millions of dollars for earthquake relief.

He said in a report to the assembly that U.S. Catholics contributed $82.3 million as part of a special collection taken up in parishes with 60 percent going for humanitarian aid and 40 percent for Church reconstruction.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, who chairs the Haiti Advisory Group of the bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America, explained to the bishops how the reconstruction effort, being overseen by a joint committee of Haitian and worldwide Catholic officials, will meet current accepted standards.

The reconstruction effort, known in English as Program for the Reconstruction of the Church in Haiti, or PROCHE – which means “close by” in French, Haiti’s official language – includes guidelines approved by the Haitian bishops on existing and future partnering arrangements between the Church in Haiti and Church groups around the world, Archbishop Wenski explained.

The assembly heard a brief update on the importance of using social media to evangelize. Bishop Ronald P. Herzog of Alexandria, La., a member of the bishops’ Committee on Communications, said the communications habits of young people make it imperative for the bishops to deliver Church teachings in new ways.

Social media is not only here to stay but should be recognized and used as a “new form of pastoral ministry,” he said.

“(It) is proving itself to be a force with which to be reckoned. If not, the Church may be facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation.”

Bishop Herzog noted that although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it is “causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago.”

Bishop Herzog used Pope Benedict XVI’s description of a “digital continent” to describe the multiple media platforms used today and compared it to new mission territory.