ROME — Bishops must be models of confident trust in the Lord, constantly reaching out with the good news of the Gospel and avoiding all temptation to despair or to cling to vestiges of worldly power, Pope Francis wrote to the bishops of Italy.

The pope opened the annual general assembly of the Italian bishops’ conference May 22 at the Vatican. But rather than reading the speech he prepared, he had it distributed to them.

Instead, as “servant of the servants of God,” he said he was ready to answer their questions, listen to their experiences and even to their criticisms. “When one presides and does not permit dialogue, gossip reigns.”

Francis thanked the journalists present for their interest in covering the bishops’ conference, but said, “extra omnes,” the formal Latin phrase for “everyone out.” The phrase is pronounced at the beginning of a conclave when only cardinals are allowed to remain in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope.

According to the Vatican press office, the pope and bishops spent about two hours speaking behind closed doors.

In the text, Francis wrote and handed to the bishops, he urged them “not to fear moments of disagreement. Entrust yourselves to the Spirit, who is open to diversity and reconciles differences in fraternal charity.”

In renewing the pastoral outreach of the church and “adapting it to the mission of the church in the world today,” he said, bishops must examine their consciences and scrutinize the ways they may have been resisting the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

“Our infidelities are a heavy lien on the credibility of our witness to the deposit of faith, a threat that is much worse than that which comes from the world with its persecutions,” the pope wrote.

A lack of “love, freshness and enthusiasm” blocks efforts to share the Gospel, he said, as do tiredness and fear, including the fear of taking initiatives that so-called “religious men and women” find strange.

“Let us safeguard trust in the surprising initiative of God,” Francis wrote.

He asked the bishops to struggle against “spiritual worldliness,” including the adoption of “logics of power and success,” even when those initially seem to improve the church’s standing in the world.

“Let us return to the things that truly count: faith, love for the Lord, service freely rendered with joy,” he said. Such a focus resists “the temptation to reduce Christianity to a series of principles deprived of concreteness” and to judge people without listening to them.

The Catholic Church, the pope said, is called “to throw itself into reality without being timid,” to step through every door the Lord opens and to see every encounter with another person as an opportunity to make a friend.

“By itself even the best yeast is inedible,” but a little bit can make a lot of dough rise, he said. “Let’s mix in with the city of men and women, collaborate effectively to encounter different cultural riches and commit ourselves to working together for the common good of each person and everyone.”

Although the pope, who is the primate of Italy, had asked the bishops to move to a direct election of the conference president, rather than having a president appointed by the pope, the conference members decided to elect a slate of three candidates and ask the pope to choose from among them.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, appointed president in 2007 by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, is stepping down. The three bishops who received the most votes the morning of May 23 were, in order: Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia-Citta della Pieve, Bishop Franco Giulio Brambilla of Novara and Cardinal Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento.