LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On a seasonably warm, drizzly Nov. 3 evening,
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz drove his white Toyota Avalon up a driveway that
leads to the stately Louisville home of Steve and Kathy Ford.
The couple graciously agreed to hold a fundraising event for
Catholic Extension, a national organization that supports programs for mission
dioceses across the U.S. and one the 70-year-old archbishop strongly backs.
He was visibly moved when he heard one of the speakers talk about
a prison ministry made possible by Catholic Extension, an outreach Archbishop
Kurtz sees as essential in Catholic social teaching.
Events like this one — conducted in the Archdiocese of
Louisville, which he has shepherded for the past decade — bolstered his
positive outlook for the future of the Catholic Church.
It also offered him an opportunity to reflect on the remaining
days of his three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops, which will conclude at the end of the bishops' fall general assembly
in Baltimore Nov. 14-16.
Archbishop Kurtz was elected USCCB president in November 2013,
eight months after the election of Pope Francis.
His term has been a busy one that saw a flurry of activity at the
Vatican, pastoral trips to typhoon-ravaged Philippines and battle-scarred
Ukraine, the Catholic Church's struggle over religious liberty issues, a
resurgence of U.S. racial struggles, growing societal polarization, a refugee
crisis and the 2015 U.S. visit of the profoundly popular Pope Francis.
It would go against Archbishop Kurtz's affable style to call his
tenure an exhausting exercise in maintaining a dual role as prelate of an
archdiocese and his nation's representative of the Catholic Church.
Instead, he told Catholic News Service that three years is the
right amount of time to serve as conference president.
"Come the end of this plenary meeting, I'll be passing on
the baton ... figuratively to whoever is elected as the next president, I will
do so gladly, I will say this, because I think three years is a good portion of
time," Archbishop Kurtz said during a Nov. 4 interview in the chapel at
his archdiocesan chancery. "And I mean that."
Once the archbishop passes that metaphorical baton, he will leave
behind six years of leadership with the conference — including a three-year
stint as vice president — though, like other past presidents, he will remain on
conference's Administrative Board for a year.
"It's a wind-down role," he said. "Be available in
case you are needed. But really it's a gracious role of saying, 'I support who
is the new president.'"
During his term, Archbishop Kurtz said he witnessed an exciting
period for the American Catholic Church, with generous giving from U.S.
Catholics in response to the devastating 2013 typhoon in the Philippines,
numerous natural disasters throughout the U.S. and an openness by many to
welcome the stranger in response to the refugee crisis, even when it wasn't a
popular decision to do so.
The bighearted spirit of American Catholics — to give their time,
money and resources — offers him faith in the future of the church and where it
needs to be.
The highlight of his presidency, however, has to be the pope's
apostolic journey to the U.S. in September 2015, Archbishop Kurtz said.
Not only did that papal visit give Americans an opportunity to
forge a closeness with the celebrated Pope Francis, it allowed the pontiff to
witness the faithfulness of the U.S. people, he said.
More than a year after that trip, Archbishop Kurtz met with Pope
Francis at the Vatican and reiterated the positive impact it had on the
American people and was gratified when the pontiff said it was fruitful for him
Other highlights of his presidency include pastoral visits to the
Philippines, Haiti, Ukraine, Bogota, as well as his involvement in the Synods
of Bishops on the family and the Jubilee Year of Mercy, he said.
"I don't know how many highlights you can have,"
Archbishop Kurtz said, "but there were so many opportunities I had to
interact with, not only our Holy Father, but with bishop leadership conferences
throughout the world and with average people who I met, often in very difficult
circumstances, who gave great hope."
It's in the archbishop's nature to project optimism, a quality
that didn't elude him even when asked to respond to difficult topics such as
racism, violence, polarization, economic devastation, religious persecution and
the displacement of people fleeing their war-ravaged homelands.
"It's very difficult to be able to embrace a comprehensive
plan that the world — in a sense — can come together and embrace,"
Archbishop Kurtz said. "Obviously the church has always said we have to in
some way begin with one person at a time — the person in front of us.
"With our bishops' conference, we're very, very conscious of
the need for us to support peaceful alternatives right within the devastated
areas," he said. "Whether we're talking about Syria and Iraq, or
other parts of the world. It's very important for us to work with the local
episcopal conferences, because they're on the scene. They know what can
In an effort to welcome the stranger, offer them assistance and
provide them with opportunities for a better life, Archbishop Kurtz points to
the church urging the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform
with laws that will not be punitive, but will cultivate the common good.
When it comes to religious liberty issues, he said the focus has
to be primarily on regions in the world where there is "in-your-face
persecution, where people really don't have the right to exercise their freedom
of religion and — in a sense — take their own lives in their hands when they
He said the church and the human community has not done enough to
address these abominations and must collectively tackle these issues in a
The archbishop did say Americans probably have taken their own
religious freedom for granted and that legitimate attempts to promote it in
this nation are sometimes unfairly seen as an effort to discriminate.
In some cases, the church has not effectively articulated its
message when it comes to issues in society that don't align with church
teaching, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, Archbishop Kurtz said.
When the bishops reiterate the church's teaching that marriage is
the union between one man and one woman and a union that must be open to new
life, often he said it's interpreted as discriminatory toward people with
"They don't necessarily hear the need for us to respect the
dignity of every person and call forth that dignity," Archbishop Kurtz
said. "We have challenges in being able to present it in a new way."
The violence and racial division that's occurred in cities such
as St. Louis, Chicago and Baltimore during his presidency prompted the
archbishop to establish the USCCB Task Force to Promote Peace in Our
Communities — chaired by Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
"There are examples in which people are being judged not by,
as Martin Luther King Jr. had said, the content of their character, but rather
by the color of their skin," Archbishop Kurtz said. "So, I thought it
was important for us to join with people of goodwill in saying that the church
needs to be part of a solution of creating opportunities."
The bishops' plan to write a pastoral letter on racism, and the
church will actively go into communities and invite people of all ethnic
backgrounds to come together in prayer and solidarity to build harmony and
Though the archbishop acknowledged these actions are not the only
solution to such divisive issues, he believes it is a start.
The humanitarian example of Pope Francis guided Archbishop Kurtz
as he confronted each challenge throughout his presidency, which includes societal
polarization, in which people vilify those with philosophical differences.
The church needs to model the mind and heart of Christ,
"which is to see in the person next to you as a child of God, to be able
to listen to people in a civil way, even to listen to people who may not agree
with you," he said. "To do it in a way that is thoughtful and
The archbishop said the church must emphasize that while everyone
should be men and women of conviction, they should also have the conviction to
see the goodness in the person sitting next to them.
Though Archbishop Kurtz said he looks forward to a more relaxed
pace that his post-presidency should offer, he said the experience has enriched
"One of the benefits of being president is that you see a
lot," he said. "I've had a chance truly to see the richness ... of
the local churches. Whether I go to St. Cloud, Minnesota, or to Cincinnati, or
to many different parts of our country, invited to be a part of their local
church celebration, it gives me great insights into, not only the struggles ...
but also the great signs of hope."