BALTIMORE – Days after the US Supreme Court agreed to hear another challenge to the Affordable Care Act brought by several Catholic entities, the head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops told American prelates not to give up the fight against what he sees as infringements on religious freedom.

“What a great tragedy it will be if our ministries are slowly secularized or driven out of the public square because of shortsighted laws or regulations that limit our ability to witness and serve consistent with our faith,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville said Monday at the first full day of the bishops’ annual fall conference.

He blamed a “misguided secularization” that erodes the faith of people who unselfishly serve those in need, he said. And the narrowing of religious freedom is a major challenge to the Church today.

During Kurtz’ tenure as president of the conference, US bishops have clashed repeatedly with the Obama administration, especially over its contraception mandate. Bishops argue that Catholic schools, dioceses, and charitable agencies would be forced to violate their religious beliefs if forced to comply with the law.

Kurtz delivered the remarks during his presidential address at the opening session of the USCCB Fall General Assembly.

Quoting Pope Francis, Kurtz told bishops that they are called “to be pastors close to the people, pastors who are neighbors and servants,” and he advised them not to shy away from challenges facing Catholics today.

Those challenges, he said, include opposing abortion, helping immigrants, working to ease racial tensions, alleviating poverty, and fighting same-sex marriage.

He also included “the excessive consumption of material goods and destruction of natural resources,” as well as the persecution of Christians and religious minorities and terrorism.

Before Kurtz’ presentation, the pope’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, received a sustained standing ovation after his speech to the bishops. Vigano, who will submit his resignation to the pope when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75 in January, set up a brief meeting between Pope Francis and Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in September.

Davis is the controversial clerk whose refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples landed her in jail. She was released after she agreed to allow her deputy clerks issue the licenses instead. The Vatican said the pope’s meeting with her was not an endorsement of her position.

Vigano did not address the Davis issue Monday, but he sounded the alarm about societal changes, warning the bishops not “to fall prey to a secularized and increasingly pagan civilization.”

“We are at a critical point now in the challenges that are brought to family life in the western world,” he said.

Vigano used much of his speech to urge Catholic schools – Jesuit institutions in particular – to refocus their energy on promoting their Catholic identities.

Among his concerns, he said, is “the need to give particular attention and care to our Catholic education institutions so that they can regain the luster of their true identity that has shone forth from them in the past.”

During their four-day meeting, bishops will vote on changes to its Catholic voting guide, consider issuing a statement on pornography, decide on their priorities through 2020, and elect new leaders to some USCCB committees.