NEW YORK – When Archbishop Joseph Kurtz arrived in Louisville more than 14 years ago he began a routine of spending a Sunday-Tuesday every month at the archdiocesan Gethsemani monastery to connect with its Trappist community, slow down, and reflect.
That routine was interrupted in recent years. First by a cancer diagnosis in summer 2019 from which he has since recovered, and then the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020. Now, with his retirement right around the corner, Kurtz looks forward to the inevitable change of pace that will allow him to restore that “prayerful, reflective spirit” on a regular basis.
In fact, it’s something that’s begun to set in ever since he submitted his resignation to Pope Francis this past August when he turned 75, as mandated by the Vatican.
“That was a freeing process. It gave me a chance to see the goodness of what was going on and to support the person who would continue the work,” Kurtz said. “You do a little work of precursing, of trying to make the pathway smooth and that’s what I’ve been thinking about, and it’s actually been a very peaceful process.”
Pope Francis accepted Kurtz’s resignation on Jan. 8, and appointed Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux as his successor. Kurtz has led the Archdiocese of Louisville since 2007, and before that was the bishop of Knoxville from 1999 to 2007. Over that span he has held simultaneous roles with different committees and organizations, including vice president of the U.S. Bishops Conference from 2010-2013, and president of the conference from 2013-2016.
Of his time in Louisville, Kurtz said he’s proudest of the relationships he made, the emphasis he placed on parish revitalization, and the effort they put into extending the archdiocese “so that we are always thinking that the archdiocese is 110 parishes stretching from the Ohio river all the way down to the Tennessee border.”
“It’s not just the city of Louisville. It’s the whole territory,” Kurtz said. “And that’s the beautiful part of being an archbishop. To be able to with gentleness, with direction, with joy, to kind of oversee Christ’s grace and presence alive in our part of the world.”
What follows is more from a conversation Crux had with Kurtz about the state of the U.S. Catholic Church, his journey in the Catholic faith, and what comes next.
Crux: As society moves out of COVID-19, what do parishes and dioceses need to do to make sure that people are coming back and filling the pews?
Kurtz: We need to find creativity. There needs to be creative means basically touching the hearts of people in a new and fresh way. And the courage to speak, to invite people. I think we need to be able to form those missionary disciples that are not just limiting their care for themselves but inviting people to walk with them and I think that’s the way in which people will come back.
Someone said to me recently, ‘I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go alone and I want you to come with me.’ And that theme of I want you to come with me is I think going to be a major part of renewal of faith. And by the way, equally important, I’ve always said that faith enriches public life. That when people have a genuine and authentic faith that will allow them to participate properly in a culture, never imposing, but to help build up the dignity of humanity in our culture. We’ll end up with a better world because we have people of better faith.
There’s been a lot said, especially in the last year, about division among the U.S. bishops. How would you assess, or compare, where the bishops are now compared to where they were when you were the head of the USCCB?
I continue to approach the bishops conference and any gathering of bishops, or faithful, with a notion of communion. We are in union with Christ, in union with our Holy Father and with one another in service to others. So, the metaphor I begin with is communion. I was grateful that I was asked to talk to begin the time of prayer and reflection before the Blessed Sacrament on the Monday in November at the bishops’ conference. I guess I was asked to be able to foster unity. My own sense would be that I think there can be a false sense that when people express different opinions that somehow they don’t have permission to disagree.
I don’t know what the Last Supper used to look like or the first Council of Jerusalem, but it seems to me the Holy Spirit has worked sometimes through people having to talk through and even persuade in the strongest words what direction to go and I don’t think that shows a lack of unity. I don’t think it shows a lack of communion as long as what is done is done with love, and it’s done civilly and, quite frankly, it’s done with good thinking, with a willingness to dialogue, to listen, and to speak. So, I think a lot more is said, and I think a lot of it is fostered by headlines.
What about the division we’re seeing nationwide? What do you make of it and what is the Church’s role in bringing people back together?
Many of the debates that go on, especially on the internet, saddens me because there’s vitriol, an intensity that’s not civil and not respectful and I think in many ways it’s the problem where people are fitting people into very narrow categories and I think that’s very dangerous. So I think the best anecdote is that if you’re going to enter into a dialogue, prepare yourself well for it. And I think we need to be more knowledgeable to read beyond the headlines. I think we also need the capacity to listen. And listening doesn’t mean we’ll always agree with what we hear, but not to cut people off in the first sentence and simply repeat what we came with.
I will say, the lack of civility so often I don’t think is generated from the church itself. I think it’s generated from the fact that we happen to be in a nation and in a culture right now that is not as simple as it should be and I think the church can help in bringing about civility to conversations.
What do you consider the pressing issues in society today?
The most obvious one is the one Jesus always talked about and that is to see beyond yourself. To see God’s love for you and tell you to love others. Unfortunately, I think we run the risk of what Pope Francis called the throwaway culture where we’re looking at what something is going to do for me. I don’t know if that is new, but it seems to be especially a problem here where we live in such an age in which we have more and more opportunities at our disposal especially from a material viewpoint and when that happens we can turn on ourselves.
I see this in many cases with some of our young people. They can get so much involved in a virtual reality that it stops them from what I would call fully developing themselves and reaching out to others and uncovering the ultimate meaning of their lives. I think that’s a big challenge. It’s a big challenge that we always run the risk of being in a godless society and now we’re seeing it with a materialism in our own culture that can work against us.
Having said that, are you not taken up by the fact that we had a second collection because we had tornado victims in Kentucky and without any fanfare, that second collection in 110 parishes in the archdiocese is now reaching over half a million dollars? So, I think we have to temper what we say with really a basic goodness in people that we need to make sure doesn’t go unnoticed.
At the 2015 USCCB spring general assembly you delivered a statement on race relations suggesting ways the Catholic Church can be at the forefront of promoting justice in racial tensions. A lot has happened since. Has the country progressed over that time? What do you think needs to happen to improve race relations in the U.S.?
The painful realities are just so obvious. The divisions, the big issues in which there has been racial injustice and we see it on TV. We see it right before our eyes. Having said that, I think the church has a very important role to take, patiently, to reclaim the notion of the dignity of every human being. This challenge is in every and every diocese, and certainly in Louisville we have felt the painful effects of some of the division that has occurred, but I think the church needs boldly to continue to proclaim both in what we say but also in the way in which we treat people that racism is a great evil. It’s a sin. And that we ourselves need to always search our souls to make sure that we’re not unwittingly becoming a victim of that.
I think we need to continue, as Archbishop Fabre said a year ago when he came here to speak, to have courage but also to have confidence that our efforts to treat people with dignity, always imperfectly. We always can improve, and those efforts will have an effect with God’s grace.
Switching gears, now that you’re getting ready to enter retirement, when you look back how would you sum up what your journey in the Catholic faith has been like to this point?
The first thing I would say, I am so glad that when I was 10 days old that my mom and dad had me baptized because living the faith is about living Christ Jesus and I have sought my best to uncover God’s plan for me. I felt attracted in high school to the priesthood and I’ve told people that I’ve never had a day in which I regretted being a priest and next month, on March 18, I will celebrate my 50th anniversary as a priest and in doing so, I guess I’m just so very grateful for the gift of faith. I’m grateful that Jesus doesn’t require us to be perfect.
I guess I will also say that I’ve always felt that I’m happiest when there is just the right blend of adventure and contentment. The adventure of doing new things, having new challenges. I’ve always loved that. But also, the contentment of being able to sit back and reflect and enjoy. To me, the priesthood has been that blend. Perhaps maybe at times more adventure than contentment, but I think that blend has been there.
And at this point, do you have plans for retirement?
Somebody asked me last night, I was at a visitation, a viewing, of a women religious who had died and as I was coming out somebody said, ‘archbishop what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to slow down. I’m going to imitate [Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville], who I succeeded 15 years ago. He left for a time and gave me kind of the freedom to move around the archdiocese without him necessarily being present and I’m going to do that too. I’m going to give Bishop Fabre that time.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg