America's Roman Catholic bishops came to Baltimore at least 10 times in the 19th century to discuss issues they shared and make decisions that affected their far-flung flock. The bishops' meeting did not return again until 1989 -- for the bicentennial of the diocese, the first established in the United States.
This week, they have retraced their steps to the country's "premier see" for the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with issues on the agenda including ministry to gays and clarifying the church's stance on contraception.
About 250 clerics opened the meeting yesterday evening with pageantry and a Mass at the restored Basilica of the Assumption -- and against a backdrop outside the historic cathedral of demonstrators protesting the church stance against the ordination of women and its handling of sexual abuse by priests.
"Being together again in this basilica -- newly returned to an ancient glory -- we are mindful of the responsibilities facing us as we, too, chart a course for the future of our church," Cardinal William H. Keeler said during his homily.
Wearing miters, the bishops proceeded across Cathedral Street from the central Enoch Pratt Free Library to the basilica -- through an aisle formed by a color corps of the Knights of Columbus.
Congregants applauded Keeler -- still recovering from an automobile crash in Italy -- as he used a walker to approach the altar.
Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, the main celebrant of the Mass, is a Baltimore native and a former auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, and he was acting as special envoy of Pope Benedict XVI. He offered an apostolic blessing for those inside the church, including many invited guests, as well as those watching the service on the Internet or on television.
Stafford carried the pastoral staff that Baltimore's third archbishop, Ambrose Marechal, used when he dedicated the cathedral in 1821. During the service, the envoy blessed wine that had been poured into a chalice given to Marechal by Pope Pius VII, and also used by Pope John Paul II at his 1995 Mass at Oriole Park.
Outside the church, a small group of protesters tried to share their views with the bishops and cardinals. Victims of clergy sex abuse and advocates for the ordination of women waved signs at Cathedral and Mulberry streets.
Others held signs a block to the north at Cathedral and Franklin streets calling for bishops to withhold the Eucharist from political leaders -- including U.S. Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Patrick J. Leahy and Edward M. Kennedy, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to become speaker of the House of Representatives -- for their pro-abortion rights stance.
The clerics, who will hold their fall meeting in Baltimore for the next five years, are expected to vote on pressing issues today and tomorrow in public sessions. The meeting will continue through Thursday for meetings in executive session or prayer and reflection that will be closed to the news media, according to a spokesman for the conference.
Among the key action items on their agenda are the approval of guidelines for pastoral care of "persons with a homosexual inclination." The guidelines state that people must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity, according to a news release.
There is a difference between engaging in homosexual acts and having a homosexual inclination, the guidelines state. "While the former is always sinful, the latter is not," according to an excerpt.
People may have a homosexual inclination and still hold roles in the church if they live in accord with its teaching. Although some have found therapy helpful, "there is, however, no moral obligation to attempt it," the guidelines state. And while the church does not support marriage of gay people or adoption of children by them, their children may be baptized in the Catholic Church.
The bishops are also expected to vote on a statement about how Catholics should prepare to receive Holy Communion. It reminds Catholics to pray regularly, read Scripture, and dress modestly and tastefully for Mass, and to confess their sins.
The statement adds that Catholics should refrain from receiving the Eucharist when they are not following church teachings on faith and morals or are publicly known to have committed serious sin, according to a news release.
Some Catholic bishops have stated they would not offer Holy Communion to politicians who supported abortion rights.
The conference will also consider a Directory for Music and the Liturgy, approving what songs can be used during services, as well as a statement offering pastoral guidance on the church's stance on contraception.
In addition, the conference will vote on a proposal to spend about a third of the $1 million the bishops reserved last year for a study on the causes and context of sexual abuse by clergy.