Patrick Semansky, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks at the conference's annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Cardinal Timothy Dolan has called the church's U.S. bishops to repentance, saying they must renew themselves before they can effectively engage the world around them on issues important to the church.

His call for personal reform Monday came on the opening day of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore and a week after an election where the church's hierarchy lost on same-sex marriage and several other fronts the church saw as violations of religious freedom.

But Dolan, president of the conference, didn't revisit the election year, during which the bishops aggressively spoke out against Obamacare's contraception mandate. Instead, he asked the bishops to renew themselves.

“The premier answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming … none of these, as significant as they are,” Dolan said, citing many of the issues that have become favorite targets of the hierarchy, according to Religion News Service.

Instead, Dolan said, quoting English writer and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton, the answer is contained in two words: “I am.”

Much of Dolan's address focused on reviving the church's sacrament of penance, which he said has nearly disappeared since the Second Vatican Council called for its renewal 50 years ago.

"The work of our conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession," Dolan said.

The archbishop of New York said he anticipates criticism of his remarks.

"I can hear it now: 'With all the controversies and urgent matters for the church, Dolan spoke of conversion of heart through the Sacrament of Penance. Can you believe it?'

"To which I reply, 'You better believe it!' First things first!"

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, papal nuncio to the United States, echoed Cardinal Dolan's call for reconciliation, the Catholic News Service reported.

Noting that there have been some clergy who "out of weaknesses have brought great pain to others," Archbishop Vigano reminded the bishops, "We must continually undergo conversion ourselves … so people have faith and confidence in us."

The RNS reported Dolan's remarks were "a striking change of tone from the assertive and even aggressive rhetoric that the hierarchy deployed during the campaign season."

The report cited activists after the election urging the church's hierarchy to change its tone and strategy moving forward.

"In light of Obama’s re-election, a change in tone and style would be both gracious and shrewd," stated an editorial in Commonweal, a liberal lay Catholic journal of opinion. "The bishops might even try modeling what a more civil political discourse should look like. As for the president, victory should bring magnanimity."

The bishops did review the results of the past elections, including three states that legalized same-sex marriage and another state where a ban on gay marriage was defeated.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco warned that if the Supreme Court takes up California's ban on same-sex marriage and rules it unconstitutional, it will do to marriage and family laws in the United States what Roe v. Wade did to bans on abortion 40 years earlier, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

He said many Catholics don't grasp the church's understanding of the nature of marriage.

"Marriage is not a matter of two consenting adults simply coming together for the state to ratify their romantic relationship. Rather, marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union. It's child-centered, and its meaning is written in our nature," Cordileone said.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said the church will continue its legal battle with the government over the Afordable Care Act's contraception mandate.

"The political landscape is the same, but so is our resolve to eliminate the HHS mandate," he said.