Bishops sing as they begin the second day of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

After serving as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for the past three years, there was little surprise when Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville was elected this week to the conference’s top post.

Yet the nearly 250 churchmen would have been hard-pressed to find a better president to help them pivot toward the more pastoral path set out in recent months by Pope Francis.

Kurtz earned his stripes with the hierarchy’s conservative wing by heading the campaign against gay marriage, but he was also influenced by his early years as a pastor and his work in social justice — experiences he mentioned early and often when facing reporters after his election Tuesday.

“The challenge for us in welcoming people and most especially serving people who are voiceless and vulnerable, spans right across the board from our work in immigration, our work in serving people who are poor” and in advocating for the “pre-born as well as the very elderly,” Kurtz said.

That broad outlook reflects Francis’s own approach, one that Kurtz, 67, endorsed at every turn.

“One of the major challenges is what, really, our Holy Father has said over and over again: How can we warm hearts and heal wounds?” the archbishop said.

Kurtz is a polished public speaker who’s adept at deflecting thorny questions and signaling a possible shift in the bishops’ agenda. But those who have known him for years say such pastoral sentiments are genuine and not sound bites tailored for the moment.

“I do know he has very much been actively involved in a kind of ministry of presence, and going out to people on the margins,” the Rev. William Hammer, pastor of the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., told the Associated Press. “I do think he brings a pastoral approach rather than simply an intellectual approach.”

Friends say Kurtz’s orientation is rooted in his biography, forged in the hardscrabble mining town of Mahanoy City in eastern Pennsylvania. The grandson of Slovak immigrants, he was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of Allentown and served 12 years as a pastor at different parishes. He received a master’s degree in social work and led the diocese’s social services agency.

“Being a pastor in a parish is perhaps the best kind of preparation for any kind of leadership in our church,” Kurtz said this week, calling that period the “most important” time of his life.

Friends also note that Kurtz had a brother, Georgie, who was born with Down syndrome. Kurtz had his brother live with him in the parish rectory and, later, in the chancery, after Kurtz was named bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., in 1999.

“Georgie brought to the rectory an ease that became infectious,” Kurtz wrote in a moving 1990 column. “He became a co-worker.” Georgie Kurtz died in 2002, five years before his brother was named archbishop of Louisville.

“Decent” and “pastoral” and “genuine” were the adjectives that Tom Roberts, a longtime writer for National Catholic Reporter, used this week to describe Kurtz. He’s known Kurtz since his days in Allentown, and Roberts’s wife worked with Kurtz to open the diocese’s first soup kitchen.

None of that means that Kurtz hasn’t had his critics, or that he will now stop speaking out on some of the hot-button culture war issues that he also believes in and that have dominated the hierarchy’s agenda in past years.

Kurtz is a staunch opponent of abortion and has led prayer protests at abortion clinics. Critics say he’s an outspoken opponent of gay rights, while abuse victims’ advocates say Kurtz was not active enough in reaching out to victims in Knoxville and Louisville.

But he continues to win plaudits from those who say his personal style makes him easy to work with, and they say he is always eager to find common ground. Kurtz joked Tuesday about his middling Spanish — a work in progress — and he is one of the most active bishops on Twitter, with nearly 6,500 followers.

Kurtz seemed intent on striking a new, less confrontational tone at his Tuesday news conference, one perhaps more in keeping with the pope’s own wish that bishops would be more pastoral and less ideological.

When asked about the bishops’ long-standing disputes with the Obama administration over mandating birth control coverage and expanding gay rights, Kurtz made a point of saying that “there is a great desire on the part of the bishops’ conference to have a good and healthy relationship with the White House and Congress.”

“We always need to look for opportunities” to cooperate, he added.

Kurtz also embraced the pope’s call for the need for dialogue and collaboration inside the church — skills that Kurtz will need as he tries to direct a U.S. hierarchy that has been fragmented for years. The bishops have been further unsettled by the sudden change in direction heralded by Francis, and observers say they need someone like Kurtz to help navigate the coming years of transition.

For now, Catholic progressives — who have called the bishops’ priorities misplaced and partisan in recent years — seem ready to work with Kurtz.

“He’s a man who is clearly capable of moving the bishops’ conference forward in the vision laid out by Pope Francis,” said Christopher Hale, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

“During this time of great excitement and fanfare for the universal church, the bishops of the United States have a unique opportunity to renew the American church as a place of welcome for all God’s children and as a tireless protector of God’s gifts in the public sphere, particularly as a defender of the poor and the marginalized.”

— Religion News Service