In reflecting on the synod of bishops underway in Rome, the president of the US episcopal conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, says the synod fathers are emphasizing that “we as the body of Christ can have a great effect on families, but families can have a great effect on the life of the Church.”
Still, he says, changes won’t come overnight.
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT in Rome’s Pontifical North American College on Thursday, Archbishop Kurtz, a native of Pennsylvania, who was appointed bishop of Louisville by Pope Benedict, gives his view on the message that families in the United States might most need to hear.
The prelate, who served as a social worker as well as parish priest in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, also responds to what he believes is the best way to develop pastoral approaches to welcome the divorced and remarried, as well as those with homosexual tendencies, but in a way that in no way compromises Church doctrine.
In the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last month, the archbishop also spoke on what impact he believes Francis’ trip is having on the synod.
Moreover, he addresses the synod’s discussions about how to best engage Catholics in actively living their faith, and how families can help other families.
ZENIT: First of all, what effect do you think the Pope’s visit to the United States has had going into this synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, Deborah, how can I not think back to the final meeting of the World Meeting of Families. Were you there? [Yes.] Our Holy Father’s presence at the Vigil on Saturday and then at the Closing Mass was, first of all, a moving experience for me, and I think not only for all the bishops, but for all the faithful who were there. And I think the Holy Father was moved.
He has said on multiple occasions the people of the United States are so warm. They are so welcoming. And I think he was deeply moved also, but for sure we were. And I think that put a wonderful presence on making sure that the Synod on the Family is focused very much, well, on the mission and vocation of real families, on what it means to allow the warmth and love of Jesus Christ to enter into the lives of families, and what does it mean for us to be inspired by families and by their witness. I think we can use the words heroic and ordinary life in the same sentence. It’s heroic, but in a way that is part of the ordinary lives that many of us, my own family, perhaps your family, can identify with.
ZENIT: What do you believe are the biggest issues facing the families in the United States?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, I think I mentioned one, and I had used the word “inspired,” but I think it’s a sense of people needing to be encouraged and to have hope. People struggle and we live in a very fast-paced life. People often say, “Well, we’re stressed,” or “We’re stressed out.” I hear this from parishioners when I go from parish to parish. And people, I think, really deserve and are yearning for this idea of saying: “You know, actually, you’re not doing a bad job…You love your family. You’re seeking to provide for them. No family is perfect, and continue to do that.” And then that call to make it our priority because we in the United States have so many options, that sometimes [we are] tempted not to think, “Well, what’s the most important thing?” And I think the people throughout the United States, I believe, are looking for that encouragement to say, “Do you have my family in mind?”
ZENIT: Media are focusing often on issues linked to the divorced and remarried and homosexuals, more so than certain fundamentals like going to Mass and having a solid family prayer life. Do you think the Synod is adequately addressing these fundamental, but less controversial subjects?
Archbishop Kurtz: I would say one of the foundational pillars of the Synod is going to be seeing the family as an active participant. I will use a philosophical term, as a subject, rather than an object. An object receives. A subject gives and shares. This notion that the family has the great capacity to influence others, to influence other families. I think we know that. We can look back in our lives and say, “Well, gosh, I was very impressed and influenced by my family, by that family, the family who lived next door … or somebody who reached out to us when we had a death in our family that we always remember.” Those little acts of reaching out family to family. And those efforts, I think, are the efforts that need to grow.
I’ll give you an example, too, we have a little group in Louisville and … I just saw on twitter … there’s a group called the Pax Christi collaborative. And there’s a young woman who is now in the parish and I believe she’s engaged to be married, by the way. … And she said, “I’ve just been looking for a parish like this.” A young adult, I think, wants to belong. And there’s a great intimacy and connectedness between the Church and family, and much has been said in the synod about that, very beautifully, about the fact that the Church: We as the body of Christ can have a great effect on families, but families can have a great effect on the life of the Church.
ZENIT: Regarding the idea of whether it would be effective to look at certain items more locally and regionally, rather than universally, what do you think?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, I think it depends on the issue. Obviously, if there is a substantial issue of pastoral practice that affects our belief and our teaching, then to try to do something on a diocesan level, or even a regional level, it is going to fracture that unity.
ZENIT: Could you explain further which issues you are referring to?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, let’s see, of the things that have been talked about — and I am glad you are asking about this — I would think, for example, the practice of the way in which there is the practice of Holy Communion. I think that that is something that has a universal basis to it.
I think there are other situations such as the implementation of our Holy Father’s new work on the ‘gentle judge’ [new annulment procedures], in which there is more emphasis being given to the local bishop, having an opportunity to judge those areas of annulment, that might be very clear and very certain. I think that would be an example of where it’s been given to the local level. And we’re going to study that and I think it is going to be fruitful.
ZENIT: What is your view on the best way to develop pastoral approaches to welcome the divorced and remarried, and for homosexuals, but in a way that in no way compromises Church doctrine?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, I think, first of all, that one of the things that at least my small group spoke about and that’s in my report, is best practices, and somebody used the term “Vademecum.” It means “to carry with me” or “to lead with me.” It is usually like a list, or a handbook would be a good word for it. It is a handbook that has a list of helpful things [for example] that were often given to confessors when you’re hearing confession. And they say, “Well, here are some helpful things to keep in mind so that the mercy and love of Jesus flows through your life.” And they are very concrete
It seems to me that we may have to begin to gather those helpful pastoral ways of reaching out to people. They are often done with the help of those who are being helped. And they are often done in ways — because it’s one thing for me to say. “Yes, I am going to help you and here’s what I am going to do.” It’s another for that person or family to say, “Thanks, but this may be another way to do it.”
So in a sense, the Church, also, when w
e deal with pastoral issues, we need to listen and hear what effect a particular approach is going to have.
In many ways, I think we Americans want to have everything done rather quickly and we’d like to have it all solved. I think that in some ways that the results of the synod will be, of course, given to the Holy Father and he’ll be the one, who through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, will determine the next steps of the Universal Church, but I think all of us will be going home eager to start a process that may take literally years.
Look at the Second Vatican Council. We’re just now looking 50 years back and seeing the gains we’ve made. So I think we will be going forward. We’ll be looking back and saying these things we have tried and these things have been very effective. Obviously, the new annulment steps that have been put forward [is an example]. We hope they will be a great help, especially to those who find themselves divorced and in a second marriage.
ZENIT: From your point of view, how do you think the media is doing with its interpretation of the synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well you know, I go in bits and pieces. You’ve probably seen that most of my time, my waking hours, is at the synod. Being a relator, I think that gives me some extra hours to spend there. I haven’t had an awful lot of time to look at it. But I was at one of the public sessions, we had the press conference last week. I think it’s been a fair portrayal as I see it. We certainly want to make sure that we have these kinds of meetings where we are focusing on, “What’s the direction ahead that we are looking at?”
And as long as we’re moving forward and looking and seeing well, this is meant to serve people, how am I making sure I am giving the best advice I can along with the other delegates to the Holy Father. And how are we praying that he can really read the signs of the times as he said, “Be very true to the teachings of the Church.” So I hope these kinds of gatherings will help the press in doing that.
ZENIT: Your Excellency, Is there anything about this synod or in general you would like to add?
Archbishop Kurtz: The synod is progressing very well. It’s three weeks and one of the best things is that we moved very quickly into small groups … Remember in a room of 25 people, we have people from every continent. So we are interacting. I am learning about the richness of cultures and I hope that the bringing together of the richness of experiences is something that’s going to, in a sense, make sure that the synod is for the Universal Church, not just focusing on the Western Church, or Europe, and also, takes into account the realities on the ground in different parts of the world.