(RNS) President Bush has named Jim Towey, an attorney who has worked on end-of-life issues and served as legal counsel to Mother Teresa, as the new director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

In an announcement Friday attended by dignitaries from religious groups, Bush praised Towey for working with both Republicans and Democrats as well as the famous nun.

"He understands there are things more important than political parties," the president said. "And one of those things more important than political parties is to help heal the nation's soul."

Bush said Towey will work with Congress to pass legislation to enhance governmental aid for faith-based and other community organizations. Towey will serve on a new Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, chaired by USA Freedom Corps Director John Bridgeland and involving five Cabinet secretaries and the chairman for the Corporation of National and Community Service.

Towey, founder of the Florida-based Aging With Dignity, ran the state of Florida's health and social service agency during a Democratic administration and earlier worked as legal counsel for former Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore.

"I'm deeply grateful to God and to you, sir, for entrusting me with this honor to serve my country, particularly those Americans who are hurting and in need," Towey said after the president's introduction.

"Mother Teresa introduced me to this joy that comes from befriending those in need, and discovering their tremendous dignity."

While groups like the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations welcomed Towey's appointment, critics such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State continue to question aspects of Bush's initiative.

"The faith-based initiative is stalled on the tracks," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It will take more than a new conductor to get it rolling again."

Towey succeeds John DiIulio, a prominent University of Pennsylvania professor who became the center of controversy as groups with concerns about church-state separation questioned aspects of the initiative.

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