Archbishop Joseph Kurtz

U.S. Catholic bishops elected Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 67, from Kentucky to head their leadership conference during their meeting in Baltimore Tuesday. (Baltimore Sun / November 12, 2013)

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops took a step Tuesday toward aligning themselves with Pope Francis, selecting as their next president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky. — a man who built a career on a foundation of personal faith and service to the poor.

Kurtz, 67, was the overwhelming choice of the nearly 300 prelates on hand for the annual fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Waterfront Marriott Hotel in Baltimore.

The Pennsylvania native received 125 of the 236 votes cast to easily outpoll the second-place finisher, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, for a first-ballot victory.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, one of 10 candidates for the position, finished tied for a distant fourth place with 15 votes. DiNardo was elected vice president.

Kurtz and DiNardo, who take office at the close of the conference Thursday, are to serve through 2016.

The choice of Kurtz comes as the Catholic church has been struggling to define its collective stance on a variety of contentious issues within the United States.

The bishops have made clear their opposition to provisions in President Barack Obama's health care law that call for some Catholic-based institutions to pay for contraceptive services. They've also asked Congress to hasten changes to the nation's immigration laws.

But when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis last March, he made clear his desire that the worldwide church begin to focus less on secular politics and more on faith and charity.

The pontiff's representative to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, used a speech to the bishops Monday to emphasize the point.

"The Holy Father wants bishops in tune with their people," said Vigano, the apostolic nuncio in Washington. "When this past June I met with him in his humble apartment … he made a special point of saying that he wants 'pastoral' bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology."

In Kurtz, observers say, the bishops found a man in keeping with those views.

One of only four active American bishops with a master's degree in social work, he first made his name as the head of Catholic Charities in Allentown, Pa., where he was ordained a priest in 1972. He went on to become the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., a position he held from 1999 through 2007 before being chosen archbishop of Louisville.

"He knows firsthand about service to the poor," said the Rev. John J. Conley, a professor of theology and philosophy at Loyola University Maryland.

Friends and parishioners, who know him as "Bishop Joe," say he has built much of his reputation on the sort of acts of charity Pope Francis favors.

He served as principal caretaker for an adult brother with Down syndrome, according to Rocco Palmo, the author of the widely read church insiders' blog Whispers in the Loggia.

Lori said he was "delighted" at the outcome and praised Kurtz as an administrator, consensus builder and leader on issues of family and abortion.

Lori said Kurtz's quiet generosity of spirit guides his actions.

Lori's parents live in Louisville. When his father fell ill, Lori said, he called the hospital room.

"I can't talk now," his mother told him. "The archbishop is here."

Kurtz had stopped in for a stealth visit.