WASHINGTON (CNS) — The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops urged unity in an address June 16, the first day of the prelates’ three-day spring plenary assembly, held virtually because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know we all hope this will be the last time we are forced to gather virtually,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez.

Recalling the chaos of the pandemic, including lockdowns that shut down churches, social unrest and division and “maybe the most polarized election our country has ever seen,” Archbishop Gomez turned attention to Pope Francis’ directive: “the importance of unity — not only among peoples, but also unity within the church.”

“Even with the lockdowns ending, our neighbors are still struggling,” he said in a prerecorded speech. “They’ve lost loved ones and livelihoods. Many have lost confidence in God and hope for the future. After being isolated for months, some have grown distrustful of our leaders and institutions.”

All the events of the past year or so, he said, will shape the vision of the church “for years to come.” That’s why unity is important, he added.

“In ‘Fratelli Tutti,’ the Holy Father sets out his program for rebuilding the world after this pandemic. He gives us a beautiful vision of the ‘unity and common destiny’ of the human family in God’s ‘providential plan,'” he said, speaking of the pope’s third encyclical on “Fraternity and Social Friendship,” released in October.

“It seems to me that in these times when society is so divided,” Archbishop Gomez said, “the church has a great duty to more fully reflect the unity that God wants for his creation and his people.”

That doesn’t mean the church and its members are exempt from worldly problems, such as division, he said, warning about the temptation to think about the church in political terms.

“The church is divine, she is the body of Christ. But we are all human in the church, after all. And we are living in a secular society where politics is becoming the substitute religion for a lot of people,” the archbishop said.

He recalled the pope’s Pentecost homily, in which the pontiff said that “if we listen to the Spirit, we will not be concerned with conservatives and progressives, traditionalists and innovators, right and left. … The Paraclete impels us to unity … the harmony of diversity. He makes us see ourselves as parts of the same body, brothers and sisters of one another.”

That doesn’t mean bishops will never disagree, he said, because even the apostles disagreed, “but never about the truth of the Gospel.”

The message was delivered after a spirited discussion by the body of bishops about a vote to come over the drafting of a Communion document.

A vote to approve the spring meeting’s agenda, usually a formality, prompted the introduction of an additional motion, which eventually failed, to add time to the June 17 debate so as many bishops’ voices could be heard over the “action item” on the drafting of a Communion document by the doctrine committee.

Given the challenges of the pandemic and surrounding events, it’s important to focus on unity to move ahead, Archbishop Gomez said.

“Only a church that is united can heal the brokenness and challenge the injustices that we see more clearly now in the wake of this pandemic,” Archbishop Gomez said.

The church has to defend the truth about God, the sanctity of the human person and the unity of the human family, he said.

“This is our mission, the urgent task of the whole church in this moment — after this pandemic, in the face of the chaos and confusion in our society,” he said.