Archbishop Kurtz: Synod can be “a catalyst” for renewal
August 04, 2014
USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz will represent the US at the upcoming Synod of Bishops. The urgent challenges facing families—and how the Church can serve families better—will be the synod’s top priorities, he says.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 67, of Louisville, Kentucky, is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). From October 5-19, 2014, he will be in Rome to participate in the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
Born in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, he is the son of a coal miner and the youngest of five children. Growing up, he was close to his brother George, now deceased, who had Down syndrome. As a young man, while in prayer in a chapel, Kurtz began to believe he was called to the priesthood. Like one of his favorite saints, St. Dominic, the thought of becoming an “athlete for Christ” appealed to him more than having a career. He entered the seminary.
He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1972. In 1999, he was named bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee. He came to Louisville in 2007. He has been active with the USCCB, serving as its chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life, and has been a prominent defender of Church teaching on traditional marriage and the family.
He recently spoke with CWR about the upcoming synod.
CWR: What is a synod and why is there a need for this one?
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz: The word “synod” means gathering; in this instance, a gathering of bishops. Flowing from the Second Vatican Council, every four years or so we have an ordinary synod. This one is an extraordinary synod, which will include bishops who serve as delegates, heads of religious communities, observers—including non-Catholics and married couples—and periti [Latin for “experts,” theologians who advise bishops].
For this particular synod, the Holy Father did something unique, calling for a synod with two parts. The first will be an extraordinary synod this October. The second will be an ordinary synod in October 2015, like the synod on evangelization held in 2012. Ordinary synods have a larger group of delegates; this one is extraordinary because the format is different and it is made up of presidents of episcopal conferences throughout the world.
The Holy Father called this synod because he sees a special urgency to discuss the challenges to the family. We will gather for a prayerful conversation and make recommendations to the Holy Father to use in his governance of the Church.
In the past, the pope has issued apostolic exhortations as a result of the synods, prompted by its propositions. In 2013, for example, Pope Francis issued Evangelii Gaudium, which flowed from the synod on evangelization held in 2012.
CWR: How is a synod’s agenda developed?
Archbishop Kurtz: First off, the synod begins with the Holy Father announcing its theme. That’s the beginning, and the resulting apostolic exhortation is the end of the formal process. With its end begins the pastoral work. A 1990 synod on the formation of priests, for example, led to Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I give you Shepherds”), which led to a great renewal and reform of our formation of men in the seminary.
Once the Holy Father announces the topic of a synod, a framework has been given for conversation. Bishops throughout the world are invited to make recommendations for topics of discussion. In the case of the upcoming synod, a consultation was made in December and early January. Input was gathered to form an 85-page working document, which was a result of that consultation.
CWR: What topics do you believe should be discussed?
Archbishop Kurtz: First, we need to reflect on the beauty and gift of marriage and family. We have many pastoral challenges to marriage in our age, including lack of fidelity, lack of proper catechetical formation of married persons, young people who choose to cohabit rather than marry, or those who have experienced a divorce. We also have those who wish to change the definition of marriage.
It would be a mistake if we were to gather and not focus on the gift of the family to our Church and society. As Pope John Paul II observed, humanity passes through the family. With better catechesis, people will come to a better understanding of this great gift. The feedback I’ve received on marriage from the faithful tells me of a desire to learn more about the Church’s teaching: what the Church teaches and why.
We also need to discuss how the Church serves the family, and how to care for those who have been wounded in family relationships. And, we need to consider the great untapped resource of attractive, authentic witnesses to marriage and family we have around us today. We have many modern day examples of what it means to follow Christ.
I recently gave the keynote address at a pro-life conference. I asked one man, “What led to your commitment to the pro-life cause?” He showed me a photo of his wife and children. That’s the kind of witness of which we need more.
CWR: You also had a positive family experience of your own to draw on.
Archbishop Kurtz: Yes. Mine wasn’t a perfect family, but a faithful one. My older brother, George, with Down syndrome, had a wonderful presence and really brought us together.