Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., prays the Rosary on the sidewalk in front of the E.M.W. Women's Surgical Center, an abortion clinic in Louisville, in November 2007. (CNS photo/Mary Ann Wyand, The Criterion)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
and most familiar to people, episcopal conferences provide a vehicle for
addressing the vital issues of our day. These include respect for human lifeadvocating
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 marriagefor 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.
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.
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
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 popularityand she’s
not the only onerestores my hope for the future.
Who are some other religious figures you
Archbishop Kurtz: During most of
my time as a priest, John Paul II was pope. Both he and Pope Benedict have heavily
the Scriptures, I certainly admire our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. In fact,
I was named for Joseph.
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.
St. Dominic has greatly influenced me. He was a dedicated and unselfish
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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