Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 64, was born in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of five children; his father was a coal miner. His three older sisters had married and moved out of the house when he was still young; hence, his closest sibling companion in his youth was his brother, George, who had Down syndrome.
As a young man, Kurtz first thought about becoming a priest after praying one day in a chapel. He was also inspired around this time by a book his sister gave him on St. Dominic and the Rosary, which is still in his possession today. The book described Dominic as an “athlete for Christ.” This life appealed to him more than devoting himself to a career, so he decided to enter the seminary.
Kurtz was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1972. In 1999, he was named bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, and he became archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky in 2007. In addition to his work on the diocesan level, Archbishop Kurtz serves as chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Last fall, he was elected vice president of the USCCB. Archbishop Kurtz recently spoke with CWR.
What do you believe is the proper role for the USCCB?
Archbishop Kurtz: Pope John Paul’s 1998 apostolic letter Apostolos Suos tells us that episcopal conferences have a three-fold role. First, they promote unity among the bishops with the Holy Father. This role is important, and underestimated.
At each meeting, for example, the bishops make a Holy Hour and have confessions. To me, that is one of the most important things we do. It fosters unity. It is based on the call to holiness that each of us is called to embrace, especially the bishops in our leadership role. We must support each other in our mission to follow Christ on a path of holiness.
Second, episcopal conferences help diocesan bishops in their pastoral care of the local church. In my work over the past six years on the Initiative on Marriage, for example, much of what I’ve tried to do is to provide material to the local church that can be used in catechetical programs and our Catholic schools.
Third, and most familiar to people, episcopal conferences provide a vehicle for addressing the vital issues of our day. These include respect for human life—advocating for the common good in legislation and regulation to protect the human person from conception to natural death.
You’ve personally been a leader in opposition to same-sex marriage.
Archbishop Kurtz: Bishops, the Church, and society in general need to understand the public nature of marriage. Aspects of marriage are personal and private, but it is also public, because it affects society as a whole.
Many people assume that marriage is a right that the state can simply create. That is a dangerous direction in which to go. The majority of voters cannot create whatever rights they want. Marriage is a gift given to us by God and defined by him. We, as Catholics, must not be afraid to say so publicly.
We need to be forthright in speaking about the importance of defending and protecting the gift of marriage within our Church and society. We need to be able to speak forthrightly to our people on the importance of marriage, and make it clear that our respect for the individual should not be at the expense of marriage itself.
Referendums to legalize same-sex marriage have failed in many states, but polls show many Americans support same-sex marriage. Does this concern you?
Archbishop Kurtz: Virtually every time the issue is put to a vote, the majority of voters support the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman. That said, I always add that Church teaching is not developed by referendum. But what it does say is that when people are asked, especially when it is explained to them how important the traditional definition of marriage is, most people support it. But the very fact that traditional marriage is being put to a vote is troubling, because it shows that the public nature of traditional marriage is not firmly in place in our society.
When I speak on marriage, I spend most of my time not speaking on its legal ramifications, but on the need for renewal of sacrificial love in our culture, especially within family life. In general, that’s the greatest need. Too many people place their emphasis on individual satisfaction, a turning in on oneself and one’s perceived needs. Sacrificial love, in contrast, tends to lead people to happy lives. We need more examples of marriages based on sacrificial love.
What advice do you offer those who worry about the decline of marriage in our society?
Archbishop Kurtz: First, that we can make a difference. One of the first recipes for success in any venture is the commitment that somehow, by our faithful witness and work, we can help shape positive things in our lives and within the lives of others. That is empowered by the grace of Christ.
If we don’t have that conviction, then we become victims of what I call self-fulfilling prophecies of doom. There are some who throw up their hands and say that a deterioration of laws that protect marriage is inevitable. They will be inevitable if we ourselves do not have faithful witness. And that faithful witness needs to reach out in love to every human person. God has a plan for everyone. And ultimately we need to be helping everyone recognize that plan. In the case of a married couple, that plan is intimately linked with their sacrificial and generous love for each other and overflowing to their children.
And you encourage your priests to speak up on this subject?
Archbishop Kurtz: Yes, when we preach about it, we must not be afraid to be ambassadors of that witness. Sometimes we don’t tell the stories of faithful love that have always shaped and inspired us. I would not be a priest had it not been for the chance [I had] to read the lives of the saints and be motivated by the great adventure of following Christ and with Christ’s grace of living a sacrificial life.
Everyone knows someone who has been an inspiration. At confirmations, I talk with young people about who they choose as their sponsors and why. It’s enlightening to the sponsors to see how much these young people have noticed their faithful witness.
The community needs to be involved in the preparation of couples who are getting married. This includes supporting couples who choose not to live together before their marriages, and to help them prepare, which might include having them make an engaged encounter weekend.
Once a couple is married, we must look for ways to enrich them. Many married couples have said that once they were married, their parishes treated them like completed projects. But that’s obviously not true. In many professions, people look for continuing education opportunities to enrich their careers. We must find ways to enrich marriages, helping couples to be faithful in their married love.
Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico recently released a pastoral letter on the “Pastoral Care of Couples Who are Cohabitating.” Among other things, he says that Catholics who are living together as husband and wife and have not been married in the Church are guilty of grave sin and should not receive Holy Communion. I can imagine you are a supporter of this viewpoint.
Archbishop Kurtz: Although I have not yet read this particular letter, I can say I have great admiration for Archbishop Sheehan and his work. In fact, during our conferences, he was one of the bishops who would remark on the urgency of a pastoral letter on marriage.
I also can say that our Church teaching on issues related to marriage is being supported by what social scientists are finding. Dr. Scott Stanley is a research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. He and I have spoken on panels together in the past, and have become friends.
Dr. Stanley notes that when surveyed, young people say that their parents are often the most influential people in their lives. He adds that parents in their 40s or 50s, who have adult children, are tempted to believe in a variety of myths regarding marriage—for example, the opinion you hear in the secular world that living together before marriage is a great way to determine compatibility and therefore will lead to a more successful marriage down the road. But we know from the data and experience that the opposite is the case. Parents can help their adult children recognize this.
In my own lifetime, I’ve noticed an increased emphasis on the immediate gratification of the individual, and less emphasis on the common good. We want what we want and we want it now, and delaying gratification for a greater good is less and less a part of our psychology. This has the subtle effect of eroding the very essence of the gift of love, the capacity for one to sacrifice for the good of another. It is harder for us to follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his life for his friends.
We must not look at marriage as a way of satisfying or fulfilling ourselves. Many people believe in the idea of a “soul mate”—that there’s someone out there they can find who will be ready to meet their every need. Heroic persons, in contrast, who follow the example of Jesus, are the ones who sacrifice for others.
Who is your best friend? Who loves you the most? I suspect that you won’t say that person with whom you like to play golf or watch TV, but the one who has sacrificed for you. This is the kind of unselfish living that was more a part of my life when I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s.
Society would benefit from more positive role models in the media who live lives of sacrificial love.
Archbishop Kurtz: You’re right. Many public figures are not living lives we should emulate. We need some good alternatives. That’s why I often refer to the lives of the saints. Mother Teresa, for example, captured the minds and hearts of many people. Why was that? Because she is the picture of sacrificial love. Her popularity—and she’s not the only one—restores my hope for the future.
Who are some other religious figures you admire?
Archbishop Kurtz: During most of my time as a priest, John Paul II was pope. Both he and Pope Benedict have heavily influenced me.
In the Scriptures, I certainly admire our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. In fact, I was named for Joseph.
And, I’ve always liked St. Peter. He seemed to have such a full personality in the Gospels. He was outspoken prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, and unselfish and spirit-filled in his leadership after.
And, St. Dominic has greatly influenced me. He was a dedicated and unselfish preacher.
How can we encourage more young people to pursue to vocations to the priesthood and religious life?
Archbishop Kurtz: First, we can have confidence that Christ is calling, and help others to hear and respond to this call. When we survey our newly ordained priests, 90 percent say they entered the seminary because of a conversation they had with a senior priest. When we survey our priests, however, only 30 percent report that they have ever invited a young man to consider the priesthood. If I were in sales, I’d say we have a great opportunity here.
I encourage pastors to identify those who may have a calling to the priesthood and to make an invitation. That is a way we can let Christ act through us.
The support of family is also important. Many priests and seminarians will tell you that the support of their own families often grew as they went through the seminary. That happened with me. My mom was happy I entered the seminary, but my dad was not. But, over time, he became my biggest supporter. I encourage families to see priesthood and religious life as a great gift, and support their members who are answering the call.
We’re on an upswing for vocations in the Archdiocese of Louisville. This year, I’ll ordain two priests. And, God willing, three next year. For our size [200,000 Catholics], we’re headed in a good direction.
We’ll also accept five or six into the seminary this year. When I was young, I was told that when I prayed, I should be specific. I’m asking Christ to give us 25 to 30 seminarians. This September, we should have more than 20.
What devotions do you like?
Archbishop Kurtz: I encourage people to follow the Lectio Divina [“divine reading,” praying with the Scriptures]. If you want to be renewed at Mass, you should come prepared. It doesn’t take long. You can purchase a book from a Catholic bookstore, or go online for the readings of the day. Read them in a reflective way. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, is promoting that in his book Jesus of Nazareth.
I am also a big proponent of the Holy Rosary. When I say it, I also have a copy of the priest’s pictorial directory open and pray for each of our priests. Even if I say only one decade, I have a chance to pray for 10 priests.
Anyone can do that with a family album or their parish pictorial directory, as I encourage our priests to do. Bring the pictures of real people with you when you pray. It’s amazing how Christ can speak to us about what we should be doing in our relationship with them, and how we should be grateful to them.
In addition to setting time aside each day to pray, I like to take one day a month in which I go to pray at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist abbey in New Haven, Kentucky. I go down on a Sunday afternoon for evening prayer, and then spend all of Monday there.
People need to make time for a period of prayer and reflection. It could be a Holy Hour in a church or time at a retreat center. It’s a great way to open ourselves up to Christ and let him speak to us.