Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 67, of Louisville, Kentucky, is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). From October 5-19, 2014, he will be in Rome to participate in the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
Born in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, he is the son of a coal miner and the youngest of five children. Growing up, he was close to his brother George, now deceased, who had Down syndrome. As a young man, while in prayer in a chapel, Kurtz began to believe he was called to the priesthood. Like one of his favorite saints, St. Dominic, the thought of becoming an “athlete for Christ” appealed to him more than having a career. He entered the seminary.
He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1972. In 1999, he was named bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee. He came to Louisville in 2007. He has been active with the USCCB, serving as its chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life, and has been a prominent defender of Church teaching on traditional marriage and the family.
He recently spoke with CWR about the upcoming synod.
CWR: What is a synod and why is there a need for this one?
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz: The word “synod” means gathering; in this instance, a gathering of bishops. Flowing from the Second Vatican Council, every four years or so we have an ordinary synod. This one is an extraordinary synod, which will include bishops who serve as delegates, heads of religious communities, observers—including non-Catholics and married couples—and periti [Latin for “experts,” theologians who advise bishops].
For this particular synod, the Holy Father did something unique, calling for a synod with two parts. The first will be an extraordinary synod this October. The second will be an ordinary synod in October 2015, like the synod on evangelization held in 2012. Ordinary synods have a larger group of delegates; this one is extraordinary because the format is different and it is made up of presidents of episcopal conferences throughout the world.
The Holy Father called this synod because he sees a special urgency to discuss the challenges to the family. We will gather for a prayerful conversation and make recommendations to the Holy Father to use in his governance of the Church.
In the past, the pope has issued apostolic exhortations as a result of the synods, prompted by its propositions. In 2013, for example, Pope Francis issued Evangelii Gaudium, which flowed from the synod on evangelization held in 2012.
CWR: How is a synod’s agenda developed?
Archbishop Kurtz: First off, the synod begins with the Holy Father announcing its theme. That’s the beginning, and the resulting apostolic exhortation is the end of the formal process. With its end begins the pastoral work. A 1990 synod on the formation of priests, for example, led to Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I give you Shepherds”), which led to a great renewal and reform of our formation of men in the seminary.
Once the Holy Father announces the topic of a synod, a framework has been given for conversation. Bishops throughout the world are invited to make recommendations for topics of discussion. In the case of the upcoming synod, a consultation was made in December and early January. Input was gathered to form an 85-page working document, which was a result of that consultation.
CWR: What topics do you believe should be discussed?
Archbishop Kurtz: First, we need to reflect on the beauty and gift of marriage and family. We have many pastoral challenges to marriage in our age, including lack of fidelity, lack of proper catechetical formation of married persons, young people who choose to cohabit rather than marry, or those who have experienced a divorce. We also have those who wish to change the definition of marriage.
It would be a mistake if we were to gather and not focus on the gift of the family to our Church and society. As Pope John Paul II observed, humanity passes through the family. With better catechesis, people will come to a better understanding of this great gift. The feedback I’ve received on marriage from the faithful tells me of a desire to learn more about the Church’s teaching: what the Church teaches and why.
We also need to discuss how the Church serves the family, and how to care for those who have been wounded in family relationships. And, we need to consider the great untapped resource of attractive, authentic witnesses to marriage and family we have around us today. We have many modern day examples of what it means to follow Christ.
I recently gave the keynote address at a pro-life conference. I asked one man, “What led to your commitment to the pro-life cause?” He showed me a photo of his wife and children. That’s the kind of witness of which we need more.
CWR: You also had a positive family experience of your own to draw on.
Archbishop Kurtz: Yes. Mine wasn’t a perfect family, but a faithful one. My older brother, George, with Down syndrome, had a wonderful presence and really brought us together.
CWR: How will the topics be selected for the synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: As delegates, we will have complete freedom to decide which areas we believe are important for us to address. There will be two levels of conversation. The first will be with everyone present, the second in small groups. In 2012, we had about 400 delegates and observers, and about 11 or 12 small groups. In the small groups proposals are made, with the delegates voting on the proposals.
It has been the practice in the past—and I expect this practice to continue—for the pope himself to come to the sessions. Pope Francis has indicated that he wants greater collaboration and consultation among the bishops.
CWR: When you read mainstream media reports on the synod, what misconceptions or inaccuracies do you see?
Archbishop Kurtz: People tend to gravitate to the sensational. Reports imply that there will be a change in doctrine. There is no basis from which to draw this conclusion. The pope himself has indicated that the focus will be on pastoral care, not a change in doctrine. The synod is not a vehicle to change Church teaching, but a search for a fresh and creative way pastorally to have an effect on peoples’ lives.
CWR: What will your role be in the synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: I will be one delegate, as head of the episcopal conference in the United States. There are 120 or 130 episcopal conferences worldwide, the head of which will be invited to participate as a delegate. There will be 180 delegates in all, about two-thirds of whom will be presidents of episcopal conferences.
CWR: You participated in the 2012 synod. What was it like?
Archbishop Kurtz: That year, four delegates came from the United States. Cardinal Donald Wuerl served as recording secretary of the conference; Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles also participated.
There was a great richness to the experience, rubbing elbows with people from all over the world. You really get a snapshot of the worldwide Church in the presence of the Holy Father.
We used headphones and translators when we met in the big group. The small groups were grouped by language. You really get a sense of other peoples’ perspectives in the world.
In the small group setting, it gave me the opportunity for my own intervention when I spoke about the Rite for Blessing of the Child in the Womb. The rite is intended as one way we can defend the child in the womb, a lifting up and promoting the gift of a child. We will have the opportunity to talk about that again at the upcoming synod when we talk about the gift of children.
CWR: In what ways do perspectives of people in other parts of the world differ from those of us here in the United States?
Archbishop Kurtz: In the United States, people talk about challenges and scandals, and fewer people going to Mass. In Africa, for example, people are talking about the great growth of the Catholic Church and how to accommodate it. I also recall there was rapid growth of the Church in Korea.
CWR: What benefits have you seen from the 2012 synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: I believe it renewed our commitment to reach out to people not going to church. There was a burst of energy flowing from the synod. I have seen it in Louisville in the outreach efforts of many of our parishes.
We’ve also seen archdiocesan-wide efforts flourish. Three years ago we held our first men’s conference, which drew 300. Last year, we drew 800. In 2015, we’re starting a women’s conference.
These are not initiatives that started with the archdiocese, but are grassroots efforts to reach out to people. There is a thirst among many people, a great interest in the Faith. When I get on an airplane, people are always coming up to me to talk about the Faith, the Church, and Pope Francis.
It was right after the 2012 synod, incidentally, that Pope Benedict stepped down. Pope Francis put a new face on evangelization. He became the poster child for the New Evangelization. I call it the Francis Effect. I believe Pope Francis is encouraging people to discover the beauty of an encounter with Christ.
I believe that the upcoming synod, too, can bring renewed interest and appreciation of the gift of marriage of one man and one woman open to life, whose fruitful union typically results in children. Marriage needs to be restored in our culture, and this synod can be a catalyst to that renewal on the grassroots level. I’m certainly looking forward to it.