Kurtz: With discussions, synod 'doing what it's supposed to do'

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., talks with Jeff and Alice Heinzen of Menomonie, Wis., as they leave the Oct. 13 morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)
This article appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

Vatican City — Although the Synod of Bishops on the family has sparked frank discussions about the direction of the church, the American archbishop who represents U.S. Catholics at the event said Friday it is "doing what it's supposed to do."

In an interview with NCR, U.S. bishops' conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said the synod is starting a process of discernment among the church's prelates.

"It's not debate," said Kurtz, who heads the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese. "It's discernment."

Likening the process to a family discussion, he continued: "I really do believe that when a family comes together, a family comes together to discern."

"I hope we don't always define that as debate," Kurtz said. "Now, sad would that family be if they didn't have the freedom to express those differences so that they could come together in truth and charity."

The synod, one of two called by Pope Francis for 2014 and 2015 on family life issues, is being held Oct. 5-19 and includes about 190 prelates from around the world. Kurtz is one of four Americans in the group, joined by Cardinals Raymond Burke, Timothy Dolan and Donald Wuerl.

The synod made global headlines Monday when it released a working document summarizing its first week of discussions, known as a relatio post disceptationem, which called on the church to listen more and to apply mercy much more widely.

This week, the prelates met in 10 working groups, divided by language, to discuss that document and to submit possible revisions. Those revisions were submitted Thursday morning and are to be used in drafting a final document for the synod for submission to Pope Francis by Sunday.

On Friday, Kurtz said his group focused on conveying a message of openness from the church to people.

Kurtz said when he was a parish priest visiting the houses of his parishioners, he "would seek to acknowledge the good that I saw."

"I wouldn't begin by telling them how I would rearrange the furniture of their home, nor would I begin by telling them, 'Here's what you have to do,' " he said. "I would begin first by joining them."

"This is not in opposition to the beauty of the church's teachings," Kurtz continued. "No, this is in a sense an affirmation of the church's teachings. Let's begin by seeing people where they are, and let's accompany them to the light of Christ and the fullness of the light of Christ."

Kurtz spoke to NCR on Friday at the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. bishops' seminary in Rome. Following is the full 20-minute interview, edited lightly for context.

NCR: At our last interview, I asked you what the feeling of this synod was then. What's the feeling now?

Kurtz: I would say, of course, there's a certain culmination because last week when we spoke, we hadn't even begun the work of the small groups. And there's -- I'll call it a group dynamic -- that occurs, and it was a very healthy one.

It really worked out well because we had an initial organizing meeting -- we elected the moderator and the relator -- and then had a chance really to go around the room and let people introduce themselves, talk about where they come from, do they have hopes as they return.

That took an hour and a half. I would say it was rich, it ensured that everyone had a chance for their voice to be heard. And I think that prepared us well for the work that began on Monday.

So we had Monday afternoon, Tuesday both sessions, Wednesday morning, and then Thursday morning. We finished our work Wednesday morning. Thursday was the time in which our relator, Archbishop Stephen Brislin, had a chance to share his summary. We had actually done that before because he had shared a little earlier the points that he had captured.

So there was actually a double opportunity for the members, both the delegates and the other participants, to voice support or to raise any questions. And there was good conversation that went on so that I would say his initial thinking kept getting refined.

When he presented his presentation -- of course, we all think his was the most elegant -- we were very proud of the fact that he captured the tone, which was a very pastoral tone, and one in which I think there was great sense that we need to locate any pastoral activity that we're promoting -- any creative activity -- within the beauty of sacred Scripture, the call of our Lord Jesus, the grace of Christ, the gift of creation, the cross of Christ -- that all of these would be the groundwork that has been conveyed over the centuries within church teaching.

There was a real affirmation on Thursday morning that he was speaking for the group and, of course, he presented it well. And, he presented it in under 10 minutes!

Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica told us at the press briefing later Thursday that the morning session "was one of the most significant things I've seen on the synod floor" with deep reflections and discussion. Did you have that sense, too?

I did. I think there was a great sense that the interim or the midterm report that was given was meant to be a working document. And, actually, the 10 documents that were presented yesterday are also working documents. And there was, I think, a great sense of integrity and unanimity in people -- the delegates, especially -- saying, "That fits."

That fits the process. There's a process that's going forward that's transparent and that in a sense is a pilgrimage of the journey of the delegates as we really accompany one another in service to the church, in union with Pope Francis, of course.

I felt that it was a good expression. I think there seemed to be a number of sentiments. First of all, there were sentiments of integrity and unanimity. And the group itself felt positively about the accurate way in which Archbishop Brislin presented.

And then, I think, there was a sense of unanimity as reports were being presented by the response of those who were not in the group. And so, I think, as the 10 reports unfolded -- again, they're working documents -- there was a sense of unanimity within the room. And perhaps that's what Fr. Rosica is referring to.

Then there were conversations about whether these reports would be made public, or would they be made public in a brief summary. When the decision was made that they would be given as a whole, similar to the process of the midterm relatio, I think there was a great sense of support for that.

Some of the English language groups seemed to have fairly major concerns with the relatio, suggesting wide revisions, particularly to the notion of graduality, to the mention of "positive aspects" to cohabitation, to the question of divorce and remarriage. How do you think the final document is going to address those concerns?

Wow. You want me to work in Las Vegas!

The working group, we put great trust in the working committee as it takes up the amendments. Remember, the summary did not include the various amendments. And I got from my read of the various working groups that there will likely be on certain aspects more than one amendment being proposed.

Now, to me, there's a richness to that. Because within our own working group that was a process in which there was often more than one alternate wording proposed and through the process of conversation we were able to reach some support. And, as you know, the group has a vote of the delegates for each of the amendments.

On specific areas, let me not speak for the group in this case, because I think I'll respect the integrity of the synod process. But in general, what were they ones you mentioned?

The first I saw was graduality.

Let me say something about graduality. I thought it was important enough to express what I would call a deepening in the understanding of gradualness that I included that in a blog that I gave yesterday.

I think the concern was, of course, that any principle in theology would be used as accurately as possible. To me, that just makes common sense. And what was the second one?

I saw your group wrote, "We felt it necessary to carefully define the meaning of the law of gradualness." But after that -- the next paragraph -- it expressed a hope that the final document be welcoming. You said, "We were conscious that we may well be losing sight of the necessity for the document to express the welcome, acceptance and the love."

My view is that when we talk about people who are in irregular situations -- I think we mentioned cohabiting couples -- I would approach it the same way I did when I was a pastor doing parish visitations.

I would enter into the home of someone, I would seek to acknowledge the good that I saw -- the good in those people -- and then invite them to accompany me to Christ and to a fuller understanding of the church. Even to the point at that point of conversion. And I would always say, "Hey, we are all in the process of conversion." I come as an imperfect pastor.

I wouldn't begin by telling them how I would rearrange the furniture of their home, nor would I begin by telling them, "Here's what you have to do." I would begin first by joining them.

I think when I was ordained a priest, every pastor, every priest that I admired had those qualities. They're not hard to understand -- when people in parishes say, "Boy, I really love Father So-and-so," it's usually that capacity of that priest to enter into the life of that family or individual to see the positive things in that person.

Now, as I think our summary said, this is not in opposition to the beauty of the church's teachings. No, this is in a sense an affirmation of the church's teachings. Let's begin by seeing people where they are, and let's accompany them to the light of Christ and the fullness of the light of Christ.

That gets away from debates about which is the positive quality, which is the negative. No, better to say, "How am I joining people so that visit or encounter they have somehow encountered the Lord Jesus and they see me as an emissary to lead them to Christ?"

May I say one other thing?

Of course.

At the press conference, I mentioned that I sometimes think people see those married couples who are to be authentic witnesses as a very small, select group. That's a mistake because it's not just a pastor who enters the home.

In my analogy, I talked about parish visitation. And I mean it -- because, I mean, I did it, if you add it all together, for about 20 years. And I loved it. I got tired at the end of the day, but I loved it. I loved entering into the lives of the families.

But in some ways, as we have discovered over the last 30 years -- like to like ministry. I've discovered that probably the best people to touch and reach the hearts of married couples are other married couples. We've learned that with marriage preparation, haven't we?

Obviously, after release of Monday's document, there was a lot of discussion. Frankly, it's gotten a little polarized. Some people are worried that certain teachings of the church might get confused. Other people are happy at the tone of openness. But then we see that certain cardinals are very frank that they didn't like Monday's document. Cardinal Raymond Burke even said that it was "not of the church." How does it go forward from here?

Easy. Easy. There's no question in my mind. Our eyes should be on tomorrow.

I said at the press conference it would be demeaning to the small groups and me if we looked on Monday's document as a finished product. Well, why do you need small groups, then? Why did we meet and throw our hearts into the work at hand if you didn't need what we had to say?

Really, that would be a terrible slam on the process of small groups and the dynamic that is required. There's a great sense of discernment in this process of synodality that especially involves the small groups. It's in the small group that everyone has a better chance of expressing themselves and listening.

It can be done in the larger group, but you know -- I'll give an analogy. At our national meetings, when our bishops come together, not everybody speaks when there are 300 bishops in a room. But when we have the regional meetings, at which we have maybe 25, there's much more interaction.

And I think that's very fruitful. To me, there's a certain analogy between that and the process we've gone through over the past two weeks.

So I have less difficulty maybe than you do right now because my focus is on a sense of unanimity that I felt within the room yesterday as we prepare for tomorrow receiving the final draft of actually the document that we'll be asked to vote upon.

People have now the benefit of the working documents, and there's a number of them. I think in my blog, I mentioned that synodality is discernment and sometimes debate. It's not debate, my gosh. It's discernment.

I really do believe that when a family comes together, a family comes together to discern. Gosh, I hope we don't always define that as debate. Now, sad would that family be if they didn't have the freedom to express those differences so that they could come together in truth and charity.

I guess I'm still hopeful. I feel that the process is doing what it's supposed to do.

Obviously, we're ending this up. This synod is ending; you're going to go back to Louisville. For Americans looking at this who weren't here and are looking forward to this year between the synods, what should they most know? What should they learn about this?

Well, I hope they are following the press coverage. And I'm not the only one that blogs. I hope people are following that.

The understanding I have is that -- this is from Cardinal [Lorenzo] Baldisseri -- the [final] synod relatio will be put in the hands of the episcopal conferences, so that they would in turn go to each bishop to invite consultation. That's what was done with the document that was in the form of a questionnaire.

Now, what we don't know is what form it will be in. And I think that that is in the hands of the synod council. My understanding is that the same synod council will stay the same. I'm so glad for that because we need that continuity.

Then my assumption would be that we would proceed in the same fashion as we've done for most general synods except we will have had the benefit of people having already commented.

And I hope that the refined document that will be put in their hands will allow us to receive greater consultation, just as last year each bishop approached it differently based on how he best receives information and really what are the unique structures and circumstances within each specific diocese.

But I would think they would be collated so that they would be presented again to the synod council as it prepares for the next synod.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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