Kurtz: Synod an effort to restore confidence, walk with people

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., center, arrives for the afternoon session on the first working day of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family Monday at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)
This article appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

Vatican City — The American archbishop who represents U.S. Catholics at the Vatican's global meeting of bishops on family issues said he hopes the event can help support the institution of marriage and will convey "the beauty of the teachings of Jesus."

In an interview with NCR, U.S. bishops' conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said he came to the meeting, known as a synod, "with the deep desire to restore confidence for people."

"A lot of people have told me, 'We don't have confidence. We're reading these statistics, they're telling us that our chances are not good to have a fruitful marriage,' " said Kurtz, who heads the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese.

"And people do not want to be at the mercy of a statistic," he continued. "They don't want to be a statistic."

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.

Unlike in previous synods, the texts of prelates' talks are not being made public. Outlining some of the themes of the synod so far, Kurtz said the bishops are looking for "new ways to convey the time-honored doctrine" of the church.

Referring to the theme of "graduality" -- the concept that Catholics may sometimes grow toward adherence to church teaching throughout their lives, mentioned in press conferences as one theme several prelates have used in their talks -- Kurtz said some people "want to move away from what's destructive in their lives, but they need assistance and help and patience."

"We all agree on what is right or wrong," he continued. "The question becomes, As a good pastor, how do you accompany people as they embrace and make as a good habit that gift of gradualism?"

The archbishop also said to use that notion is "not to say, 'I'm OK; you're OK.'"

Saying that, he said, "really is a distortion of the call of Jesus, 'Repent and believe the good news.' "

"Every time I get ashes, I'm reminded of that call to repentance," Kurtz said. "But it's a call every one of us does together in the church. So there's a certain humility, isn't there, in this synod."

Among other themes Kurtz mentioned in his interview:

  • A desire among bishops to speak positively and to find "ways in which we don't demean people";
  • Helping people to "understand and appreciate the church's teachings";
  • Francis' attempt to "look at where God's grace, the grace of Christ, is already alive and moving hearts."

Kurtz spoke to NCR at the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. bishops' seminary in Rome. Following is the full 15-minute interview, edited lightly for context.

NCR: What's it feel like in the synod? What's going on?

Kurtz: This is my second synod. And so it's dangerous when I start to compare synods, when there's been so many of them. There have been 15 synods and this is my second, so I'm in my sophomore year.

However, I can say this much by way of complaint: My idea of air conditioning and that of the rest of the world is not always the same. So, I'm aware of that -- that it can get a little stuffy.

Once I got beyond that, the Holy Father is there early and greeting people. We begin with a beautiful prayer and end with prayer. They've put together something very interesting, I think you've been reading them: those particular witnesses of married couples. And that's powerful to be able to reflect and hear the witnesses of married couples. They have good translations, so I'm able to hear really in every language, and that makes it very good.

I think it has been very good. I worry [that] because we had three weeks last time, that it may take us forever to get into things, but I think it's progressing well. You read, I'm sure, the initial presentation from Cardinal [Péter] Erdő from which we're basing much of our conversation.

And I think Cardinal [Lorenzo] Baldisseri laid it out well, that these conversations this week will help Cardinal Erdő and that small group that assists him in coming up with a yet more refined document that we'll take to our small groups.

Last time, I loved the roll-up-the-sleeves small groups. I was in an English group. I was elected the relator that time, which means the secretary, and I enjoyed that. I don't think I'm going to run for office -- I didn't run that time, either -- but I'm looking forward to it.

Are there certain themes you're hearing about each day that prelates seem to be coming back to?

Of course, you tend to reflect things based on what you're looking for -- I'll be the first to admit that. I came with a couple of hopes. I came with the deep desire to restore confidence for people. A lot of people have told me, "We don't have confidence. We're reading these statistics, they're telling us that our chances are not good to have a fruitful marriage."

And people do not want to be at the mercy of a statistic. They don't want to be a statistic. I'm hearing confidence that people are talking about. I'm also hearing a lot about that the beauty of the teachings of Jesus need to be conveyed. And like every age, we always look for new ways to convey the time-honored doctrine, and that's going to be a task that is proposed.

I guess it's in the doing that we'll see how that unfolds. And we'll have a whole year to be able to look at that. But I think in some ways, hasn't the church done that? I think of St. Thomas Aquinas and scholastic philosophy, looking back in the Middle Ages, at new ways of being able to present the core teachings of Jesus and the teachings of our church.

That's what I'll be looking for. There's talk about -- in fact, I was one who gave one -- the talk about needing to propose positive words for the teachings of our Lord and to really begin with the beauty of the "yes" of creation and of God's plan for each person in their lives -- and the beauty of a man and a woman in marriage, the gift of friendships, the fact that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. These are core beliefs that there's no desire on anybody's part to change.

The indissolubility of marriage has been talked about a good deal. I would say the other word is a word that our Holy Father has used a lot, and it is "accompany," accompanying people. This is my word, but I did see it in Cardinal Erdő's presentation -- he talked about pilgrimage. And one of the delegates when he was giving the presentation said, "You know, we don't so much need to explain as to show."

I thought that's what parents do. Parents talk about showing people -- their children or their neighbors -- things, not just explaining in a rational way. I liked that idea. I think that gives way to the notion of being an authentic witness.

In Louisville, we're continuing to try to develop mentor programs for couples, not only as they prepare for marriage but to accompany them along their way. And I like the fact that Cardinal Erdő used the word "pilgrimage"; that's something that people are attracted to.

One theme that was mentioned both by Cardinal Vincent Nichols and then by Archbishop Victor Fernández was "graduality." What does that mean for you?

Well, my understanding of it comes from Familiaris Consortio. Pope John Paul II, when he reaffirmed obviously the teachings of the church, he said, "Like a good pastor, we accompany people." He also had this notion.

He said like the good pastor, there are people who desire to convert. They want to move away from what's destructive in their lives, but they need assistance and help and patience.

And I think that's my understanding, that the principle, if you will, or the direction of gradualness, is to say that there's no gradualness in terms of the doctrine or the moral principle.

We all agree on what is right or wrong. The question becomes, As a good pastor, how do you accompany people as they embrace, and make as a good habit that gift of gradualism?

You know where else that appears? I was reminded of this: There's a vadevacum -- it's kind of like a handbook -- in 1997, there was a handbook for priests who were confessors, and the law was in there again. It was mentioned that when someone comes to you, especially who has a habit that is very difficult to change, that you lead that person in the process of conversion to a deeper understanding of the light of Christ -- and in a sense, to a greater confidence.

I've been told that we live in a very addictive society, and addiction, by its very nature, it means habit-forming. And when you form that habit, it's hard to unform that habit.

I think the other part of it is that conversion is part of the pilgrimage on which we ask people to accompany us. When I would talk as a pastor during the sacrament of reconciliation, I would always tell them, "I just went to confession." That notion that I would accompany is a major part of what we're talking about. We're not standing at a distance pointing a finger at someone, but we're saying, "Walk with us."

Is that not what Jesus did in the Gospels?

Reports from the spokesmen who are in the synod have said that one thing that bishops have talked about is refraining from using harsh language. In particular, they mentioned the phrases "living in sin" and "intrinsically disordered."

What's interesting is I think Familiaris Consortio did not use the term "living in sin." I think there are positive ways in which we don't demean people. I don't want to be demeaned. In other words, if I go to confession, I want someone to welcome me.

In doing so, that doesn't deny the reality of sin and the destructiveness of sin. Most people -- let's go back to the example we used with addictions. People who are addicted already know. But in many ways, I think the positive language is a way to allow someone to walk the road to conversion.

Not to say, "I'm OK; you're OK." In other words, "I don't have to change; you don't have to change," which really is a distortion of the call of Jesus, "Repent and believe the good news."

My gosh. Every time I get ashes, I'm reminded of that call to repentance. But it's a call every one of us does together in the church. So there's a certain humility, isn't there, in this synod.

I'm curious, particularly on that subject: How do you bring that back to the U.S. church?

Is it so absent already? I'll tell you a little story. We have a priests' council that meets every month. And the best priests' council meeting that I ever had happened right after the last synod. I came back and I said to the priests, "What does it mean to have a pastoral heart?"

And I was blown away by the examples that the priests started to give one another. We don't do that enough. We don't call forth people to talk about their pastoral heart and how they're already reaching out to others.

So "bringing back" is a little too strong a term. I think it's going back and maybe acknowledging and celebrating those things that are already happening. Two weeks ago, I met with a group of mentor couples -- these are couple who meet with people who are getting married, and they try to stay with the couples -- and what amazed me was there were some who were doing it for 20 years.

They are the kinds of ministries that are in the church that we need to acknowledge and highlight, and we need to prepare people who are in those ministries to understand the fullness of the church's teachings and what it means to have a pastoral heart.

It's allowing them to understand and appreciate the church's teachings so that as they show others, they're leading them to the fullness of the truth of Christ.

If I am recalling the schedule correctly, toward the end of this week at the synod, you're going to move to small working groups. As you go forward, what are you looking for? How do you get ink on paper?

Well, the ink is already on paper. The document that was presented by Cardinal Erdő is the foundational document from which we work. And that document will be revised this week, and it will be that revised document that then will become the work of the small groups.

At the end of those small groups, there will be a further revision, as I understand it. And then some act of collegiality among the delegates to support this document going forward as, in a sense, the initial document, or the lineamenta, for the next synod.

My understanding is whereas in the past, we would have propositions we would vote on, this time, we won't. It'll be that lineamenta; it will go forward. There will be levels of consultation. I'm kind of excited about it.

Obviously, we're looking at not just this week but another year of preparations for the next synod, too. At this point, what are you hoping for most from this whole process?

Well, remember Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message." In some ways, if this is a pilgrimage, then the work of the synod has already begun. The fruitfulness of the synod can already take place.

Just the fact that you and I talked about highlighting what is already going on in the United States. There are some wonderful things. I gave a talk just before I came here in Cincinnati to some 650 people who are involved in the theology of the body, and these are young people who were alive and on fire.

I'm not discounting the fact that there's a lot more young people than 650 in the world, but by the same token, I think the message of the synod is a good social work principle: Build on the good you already have and look at what is already going on.

Look at where God's grace, the grace of Christ, is already alive and moving hearts. And increase that. And I think that's the message of Pope Francis, don't you?

To increase the good that we have?


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

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