WASHINGTON -- The Roman Catholic Church runs the risk of alienating thousands of hurting believers and nonbelievers if its priests and bishops can not offer a message of hope in turbulent times, the nation's Catholic bishops were told Monday (Nov. 12).

Gathered here for their annual fall meeting, nearly 300 Catholic bishops were told they must "make known the gospel of hope" to a spiritually broken nation that is searching for God in the wreckage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"If we are not bearers of a message that speaks to the real needs of people during these times of anxiety, we risk the religious fervor that emerged after Sept. 11 not perduring," said Galveston-Houston Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "People will then seek elsewhere what they believe they need."

In his last address as spokesman for the country's 60 million Catholics, Fiorenza praised the rank-and-file priests who ministered to their flocks in the wake of the attacks.

"As inadequate as any of us feel in the face of such sorrow ... people who turned to the ministers of the church did not find them wanting," he said.

Fiorenza said the period of spiritual openness that has followed the attacks is a defining moment for the church. "If people do not find in the leaders of the church reasons for the hope that the world needs, we will have failed them in a time of great need," he said.

The pastoral call to action came as an American Airlines jet crashed near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, once again straining the nerves of a jittery nation. Fiorenza asked the bishops to pray for "strength and consolation for the victims and their families," and dispatched Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily to meet with the FBI.

Bishops also heard reports on upcoming business, including a statement on solidarity with Africa, a pastoral letter on the terrorist attacks and a beefed-up plan to tackle abortion and the death penalty.

On Tuesday, the bishops are expected to elect the first African-American as president of the bishops conference -- Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the current vice president.

Arriving at their Capitol Hill hotel, the bishops found crowds of peaceful protestors gathered on the sidewalk. Pro-gay protestors plan a weeklong silent vigil outside the hotel to contest the Catholic church's prohibitions on homosexuality. Another group of several dozen protested the military strikes in Afghanistan and called for an end to 11-year-old sanctions against Iraq.

The bishops plan to speak against the sanctions in a pastoral statement on the Sept. 11 attacks. That statement, which was distributed to the bishops today, laments the "morally intolerable situation" caused by the U.N.-imposed sanctions.

"After Sept. 11, we serve a wounded people," a draft of the statement says. "We share their loss and pain, their anger and fear, their shock and determination in the face of these attacks on our nation and all humanity."

In their statement, likely to be approved on Thursday (Nov. 15), the bishops speak strongly in defense of U.S. military action but caution that it must be undertaken with "deep regret." The statement also defends pacifism as a "valid Christian response."

In addition, the bishops highlight global crises which "terrorists seek to exploit for their own ends," including the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, civil war in Sudan, the Iraqi sanctions and human rights abuses.

"Each situation must be addressed on its own merits," the statement said.

"No injustice legitimizes the horror we have experienced," the draft statement says. "But a more just world will be a more peaceful world. There will still be people of hate and violence, but they will have fewer allies, supporters and resources to commit their heinous acts."

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