This editorial appeared online Nov. 15 on the website of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. It was written by Daniel Conway, a member of the paper’s editorial board.

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The American bishops met in Baltimore Nov. 11-13 for their annual fall general assembly. The official agenda for this meeting included the election of new leaders for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and six standing committees, approving a short letter and five video scripts to supplement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (the official teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics), and some ongoing business on the accountability of bishops in cases involving sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable people. As one news service noted, “U.S. bishops have their plates full” during this year’s fall meeting.

In addition to the “official business” the bishops had to deal with, there is what might be called the unofficial agenda: Unity among themselves, with Catholics throughout the U.S., and with the universal church in communion with Pope Francis. Unity is arguably the most important — and challenging — issue the American bishops had to confront as they gathered in Baltimore this year.

Ours is a divided nation and, increasingly, a divided church. One of the roles of a bishop is to maintain unity in his diocese and with other local churches in communion with the successor of St. Peter, the pope.

This is never an easy task because the forces of sin and evil are constantly at work sowing seeds of chaos and division among families, faith communities, and political groupings at the local, national and international levels. The bishop is called to be a powerful witness to the peace and unity of Christ wherever he finds himself and in whatever circumstances he faces that cause tension and disunity among the people he serves.

It’s not easy being a bishop today. As the chief teacher in his diocese, he must balance his responsibility to preserve the truths of the Catholic faith with the need to make church teaching accessible to all. As the chief pastor, the bishop must demonstrate a loving care for, and an openness to, all people without ever diminishing or devaluing the requirements of Christian morality. As the chief steward, the bishop must be grateful, accountable, generous and willing to give back to the Lord with increase. And all of this must be done in solidarity with other bishops throughout the world and, most importantly, with the bishop of Rome.

Seattle Archbishop Paul D. Etienne said recently, “Of the many duties of a bishop, maintaining unity with the Holy Father — Pope Francis — and thus with the universal church is one of our gravest. … This was the primary ‘gift’ Pope Francis encouraged us to pray for as he sent us all on retreat last January — unity.”

When they are together — on retreat or in USCCB meetings — the bishops pray for unity and strive to speak with one voice whenever possible. But when they are apart, the witness of unity is harder to maintain. Social media provides everyone today with a platform for discussion and debate that too often degenerates into finger pointing and name calling.

Bishops are not immune from this temptation, but many — including Pope Francis and Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson — use social media not to engage in controversy, but to proclaim the Gospel (evangelization) and call attention to the pastoral needs of the people they serve.

The importance of unity among bishops is itself a good reason for the American bishops to gather at least twice a year. As Archbishop Thompson recently observed, “I find that the bishops are very gracious in their support and encouragement for one another. The challenges that we have been facing weigh heavily on each of us and on the body of bishops as a whole. We must keep in mind that our struggles pale in comparison to the religious liberty issues being faced by Christians in other parts of the world.”

Diversity in the church should serve to unite us, not divide us. That’s why our bishops should express themselves fully and freely — but always in unity with each other and with Rome — as successors of the apostles in service to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

“In the great diversity of gifts and cultures within the church is a beauty that reflects the infinite nature of God. Let not this great diversity be a source of division,” Archbishop Etienne says. “As we find Christ in the midst of the church so, too, may we find him, love him and serve him in one another. Perhaps we can spend less time in sidebar conversations that serve to separate, and more time in search of a proper orientation to our foundation and cornerstone of the church, Jesus Christ.”

Let’s pray for our pope and for our bishops. May they be one in Christ.

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The views or positions presented in this or any guest editorial are those of the individual publication and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicPhilly.com, Catholic News Service or of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.