The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has reminded people that they shouldn’t be discouraged by statistics, as persons are more than numbers and deserve to have the fruitful marriages of which they are capable.
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT this week in the Vatican, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, a native of Pennsylvania who was appointed Bishop of Louisville under Pope Benedict, says how he is bringing the view of a pastor and a member of a family into the Synod hall. He also discusses his hopes and expectations for the synod as well as the crisis of the family in secularized nations, particularly his own.
Moreover, the prelate, who served as a social worker as well as parish priest in Lehigh Valley, PA, urges the faithful not to panic in the face of the challenges facing the family. He also discusses Pope Francis’ call to help others, and how he believes the Vatican is communicating the synod.
ZENIT: What are your hopes and expectations for the synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: Yes, Deborah, I am glad you asked that. I actually did a blog before I came here and mentioned my three hopes: one of them is to restore confidence that people in the United States can be be successful in having a fruitful marriage and having a wonderful family, and not be, in a sense, at the mercy of statistics. So often people give dire statistics, and many of them are true, although statistics, as you know, can be twisted here and there. However, people are more than a statistic. And people, I think, yearn for that sense of hope.
I’ll be disappointed if, after the synod process, which, I think, begins now—in other words, we don’t have to wait a year from now to have some of the positive effects happening, but I’ll be disappointed if there’s not that capacity for renewed confidence … It’s a sign that the grace of Christ is alive. And I would say, you know, Jesus, had talked about from the beginning. So it’s not just for Catholics but for people throughout the World. Human beings. So that would be my first one.
My second one was … my hope is that the beauty of the teachings of Christ, as conveyed over the centuries by the Church, will be given a new hearing. So one of the synod fathers said in his presentation, he said, “It’s not so much we want to explain. We want to show. And people, they don’t want long explanations, but they want to be shown especially by example, and so whether it is in art and architecture or newspaper counts or the beauty of the sacraments, people want to be inspired. Don’t they? By the beauty of the Church and the beauty of love, really, of love and marriage, and in the family, and love in friendships.
And then my third would be something that I know is very dear to the heart of Pope Francis and that is we accompany people, who are struggling. And you know what I am learning, every one of us is in a family that struggles. It would be wrong for us to say, ‘Well, these are the struggling families and these are the ones that have it together.’ No, in a sense, everyone needs that sense of accompanying them and helping them in what I would call the process of conversion. So those are my three hopes. I think just with that interview we’re starting to get that moving. What do you think …?
ZENIT: Because you said people want to be shown, I’m just curious how you feel, based on your being present in the synod hall and hearing all the discussion, about the way the information from the synod is being communicated to journalists via Vatican communications briefings and publications. Do you believe that the reality of what is being discussed is being communicated to the press?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well. Good question. I think we are going to go home and find out … We’re doing our best with giving interviews, with yourself. We’re grateful for all that you do. We have some videos that are being circulated throughout the United States. And I’ve gotten some good feedback. So we’re doing our best to get the word out. You know, in a sense, the work of the synod is not simply what’s happening within that room, because there was reading going on, of the first documents. There were conversations going on. I had listening sessions. I am going to have them again when I go back, between the two synods.
Like any good thing, the work of the Church means everybody becoming involved in this. And also reaching out maybe to that neighbor who lives next door who hasn’t been going to Mass, and maybe hasn’t been active in his or her faith, and, maybe, with a little encouragement says ‘Maybe, I’ll give it another chance.’ So that’s my hope. I am a big one on building on the hope that’s already present, which I think is really Catholic theology. The theology of the sacraments is to take what is already present in humanity. And Christ, in a sense, uses that as a channel for his grace. I like to begin in that sense. It’s a sacramental mindset with what’s already there.
Do you want me to tell you the two things I said in the synod? Yes I think I can tell you these.
One of them is: I said I’ve read that sacrificial love will lead us away from a kind of turning in on ourselves, a kind of individualism. So, I said, ‘guess what,’ as a family counselor, for years, I would ask people: ‘Who loves you the most’ and I would get these beautiful stories of people who had great sacrificial love. So don’t tell me people don’t understand what sacrificial love is. Now a lot get’s in our way. We get too busy and our priorities get twisted. But the first thing is: Let’s acknowledge that the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ is able to be understood by people. And through his grace they are able to do it. That’s going to be the first.
Secondly, those families that are blessed with children. Parents love their children and want what’s best for their children. We have to build on that. So there’s very positive things already out there. I hope people get that message and say ‘Wow, of course I want that.’ The Church is not something that I put on top of all the things I need to do in life. No, that is my vocation. My vocation in life and my life in the Church is this gift of family
ZENIT: Thank you. In terms of your role as President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and your different experiences, what do you feel you bring to this synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, you know, I am with all these giants, a lot of people who come with great, great credentials. Deborah, I grew up in a family [laughs]. That’s always a good starting point. And a very beautiful family. And I am thinking and praying more about my family, to be very honest. And I’ve written a bit about that. I won’t bore you with all the details of my family life. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful family. I had the privilege after being ordained a priest of being asked to get a degree in social work. So I was a social worker and a family counselor for, O Gosh, 25 years. And, boy, are the experiences coming back to me. Some of the things that we actually talked about in this interview, I think, I recall from that. And I was a pastor back in the Lehigh Valley which you know very well. And my role as a pastor comes back to me. Well, a good pastor enters into the life of the family he serves. And, you know, some people say: ‘A priest is celibate. What does he know about family?’ In some ways, it’s true. We have a lot to learn. But a good priest enters into the life of the family and in some ways, Gosh when I was at Notre Dame in Bethlehem which wasn’t too far from where you [went to university], I was in the lives of 2,200 families. But it was very beautiful. On a Sunday, when you really go to know people and you really got to be part of their lives. That’s what I think I bring. I think I try to bring a pastor’s outlook to the work of the synod.
ZENIT: So many refer to the family being in a crisis, and the secularized, and, unfortunately, citing the United States among them. As being president of the bishops conference for the country, do you believe this is right? Do you believe something will be done to address this? Do you feel a change is needed?
Archbishop Kurtz: Ok, good question. Let me say this: In a crisis, what is the first thing you are told to do? Don’t panic. Isn’t it true? When a ship is sinking or there’s an earthquake. What do they say? They say don’t panic
The state of the family is serious. There is a lot of unhappiness going and a lot of lack of hope. There’s, I mean, I am saddened to beat the band when I see young people taking their lives — suicide. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before. But there’s a lot of unhappiness. There’s a lot of isolation, isn’t there. In that sense, I think a lot of the synod fathers, the delegates, they talked about what they call this kind of individualism and kind of turning in on yourself.
But remember … We started off. I said: “Nobody wants to be a statistic.”
So how what did Jesus talk about. He talked about you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are the leaven. You know, you put a little bit of yeast in dough and the dough rises. That whole thing.
So I guess my view is that when Jesus began the Church, he started with twelve. And look what’s happened. My gosh. So, I think in many ways … Do we need renewal in the family? Yes. And I hope you read Cardinal Erdo’s presentation because he says at one point that the renewal of the family … ‘the restoration of the family will lead to the renewal of civilization’ and that’s what Pope, Saint John Paul II did in Familius Consortium , when he said the future of society and the future of the Church passes through the family. So ‘crisis’ is probably not too strong of a word. But I was told, in a crisis, don’t panic. And so begin by looking at what is necessary to move forward and we need some good first responders, don’t we?
ZENIT: Do you think there will be a response from this synod?
Archbishop Kurtz: Well, I think the synod response will be some of the things I already mentioned to you: Uncovering all the good things that are already present. It’s kind of naive and almost arrogant to say, well, somehow the synod is going to now start something and everybody’s waiting until that happens, [as] there lots of good going on out there. My task, and I’ve learned this through the listening sessions, is to acknowledge and fortify the good that is already happening. Because … you know this yourself, going to college, peer pressure. If you get a good group of young people on a college campus, they can be leaven to create a whole different atmosphere, can’t they, on a college campus. It amazes me the leadership capacity. We need to call forth those leaders and I see that happening at the synod, not in the sense that we have to wait until the synod ends, I think it’s happening now. And I hope your report will be an occasion for people to say: ‘Well, Gosh, I am one of those leaders.’