Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, addresses journalists at the annual Catholic Media Conference June 18. (CNS photo/Jim Stipe, courtesy Catholic Relief Services)
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
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
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.
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,
observersincluding non-Catholics and married couplesand 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
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
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
pastand I expect this practice to continuefor 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.