Retired Archbishop of Louisville: Bishops can disagree, but must do so civilly

NEW YORK — When Bishop Joseph Kurtz arrived in Louisville more than 14 years ago, he began spending a Sunday-Tuesday each month at the Archdiocesan Monastery of Gethsemani to connect with his Trappist community, slow down, and reflect.

This routine has been discontinued in recent years. First by a cancer diagnosis in the summer of 2019 from which he has since recovered, then the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Now, with his retirement looming, Kurtz looks forward to the inevitable a change of pace that would allow him to restore this “spirit of prayer and reflection” on a regular basis.

In fact, it’s something that has started to settle in since he tendered his resignation to Pope Francis last August when he turned 75, as mandated by the Vatican.

“It was a process of liberation. It gave me a chance to see the goodness of what was happening and to support the person who would continue the work,” Kurtz said. “You’re doing a little trailblazing work, trying to make the lane smoother and that’s what I thought, and it’s actually been a very peaceful process.”

Pope Francis accepted Kurtz’s resignation on January 8 and named Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux as his successor. Kurtz has led the Archdiocese of Louisville since 2007, and prior to that, he served as Bishop of Knoxville from 1999 to 2007. During that time, he held concurrent positions on various committees and organizations, including vice -president of the American Episcopal Conference from 2010 to 2013, and president of the conference from 2013 to 2016.

Of his time in Louisville, Kurtz said he was most proud of the relationships he formed, the focus he placed on revitalizing parishes, and the efforts they made to expand the archdiocese” so we still think the archdiocese is made up of 110 parishes stretching from the Ohio River to the Tennessee border.

“It’s not just the city of Louisville. It’s the whole territory,” Kurtz said. “And that’s the nice part of being an archbishop. To be able to gently, with direction, with joy, in a way oversee the living grace and presence of Christ in our part of the world.

What follows is more of a conversation Node had with Kurtz about the state of the American Catholic Church, her journey in the Catholic faith, and what comes next.

Node: As society emerges from COVID-19, what should parishes and dioceses do to ensure people come back and fill the pews?

Kurt: We have to find creativity. There must be creative ways to fundamentally touch people’s hearts in new and fresh ways. And the courage to speak, to invite people. I think we need to be able to form those missionary disciples who don’t just limit their care to themselves but invite people to walk with them and I think that’s how 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 this theme of I want you to come with me is, I think, an important part of renewing faith. And besides, just as important, I have always said that faith enriches public life. This is when people have a real and authentic faith that will allow them to participate properly in a culture, never imposing, but helping to build the dignity of humanity in our culture. We will end up with a better world because we have people of better faith.

Much has been said, especially in the last year, of the division among the American bishops. How would you rate, or compare, where the bishops are now versus where they were when you led the USCCB?

I continue to approach the episcopal conference and any gathering of bishops, or of the faithful, with a notion of communion. We are in union with Christ, in union with our Holy Father and with each other in service to others. So the metaphor I start with is communion. I was grateful to have been invited to speak to begin the time of prayer and reflection before the Blessed Sacrament on Monday in November during the Episcopal Conference. I guess I was asked to be able to foster unity. My own feeling would be that I think there can be a false impression that when people express different opinions, they somehow don’t have permission to disagree.

I don’t know what the Last Supper or the first Council of Jerusalem was like, but it seems to me that the Holy Spirit sometimes worked through people who had to speak and even persuade with the strongest words which direction to go and I don’t think it shows a lack of unity. I don’t think it shows a lack of communion as long as what’s done is done with love, and it’s done with civility and, quite frankly, it’s done with good thought, with a willingness to dialogue, to listen and talk. So I think a lot more is being said, and I think a lot of it is being driven by the headlines.

What about the division we see nationally? What do you think and what is the role of the Church in bringing people together?

A lot of the debate that’s going on, especially on the internet, saddens me because there’s vitriol, an intensity that’s neither civil nor respectful and I think in many ways that’s the problem where people put people into very narrow categories and I think that’s very dangerous. So I think the best anecdote is that if you want to start a dialogue, be prepared. And I think we need to be more informed to read beyond the headlines. I think we also need listening skills. And listening does not mean that we will always agree with what we hear, but not interrupting people in the first sentence and simply repeating what we have proposed.

I will say that the lack of civility so often, I don’t think, is generated by the church itself. I think it’s generated by the fact that we’re in a nation and a culture right now that’s not as simple as it should be and I think the church can help bring civility to conversations.

What do you see as the pressing problems facing society today?

The most obvious is the one that 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 has called the throwaway culture where we look at what something will do for me. I don’t know if it’s new, but it seems to be particularly a problem here where we live in a time when we have more and more opportunities available to us, especially from a material point of view and when it comes product, we can activate ourselves.

I see that in many cases with some of our young people. They can become so involved in a virtual reality that it prevents them from what I would call fully developing and reaching out to others and discovering the ultimate meaning of their lives. I think it’s a big challenge. It is a great challenge that we always run the risk of being in a society without God and now we see it with a materialism in our own culture that can work against us.

That said, aren’t you excited that we had a second collection because we had tornado victims in Kentucky and without much fanfare, this second collection in 110 parishes across the Archdiocese is now reaching over half a million dollars? So I think we have to temper what we say with a really basic kindness in people that we have 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 advancing justice in race tensions . A lot has happened since. Has the country progressed during this period? What do you think needs to happen to improve race relations in the United States?

The painful realities are so obvious. The divisions, the big issues where there has been racial injustice and we see it on TV. We see it before our eyes. Having said that, I think that the Church has a very important role to play, patiently, in reclaiming the notion of the dignity of every human being. This challenge is present in all dioceses, and certainly in Louisville we have felt the painful effects of some of the divisions that have occurred, but I think the Church must continue to boldly proclaim both in what we say , but also in the way we treat people that racism is a great evil. It’s a sin. And that we ourselves must always search within our souls to ensure that we do not unwittingly become a victim of it.

I think we must continue, as Bishop Fabre said a year ago when he came here to speak, to have courage but also to trust that our efforts to treat people with dignity, always imperfectly. We can always improve, and these efforts will have an effect with the grace of God.

Switching gears, now that you are about to retire, when you look back, how would you sum up your journey in the Catholic faith so far?

The first thing I would say I’m so happy that when I was 10 days old my mom and dad had me baptized because to live the faith is to live Christ Jesus and I tried my best to discover God’s plan for me. In high school I felt drawn to the priesthood and told people that I never had a single day where I regretted being a priest and next month March 18 I will be celebrating my 50th birthday in as a priest and doing so, I guess I’m so thankful for the gift of faith. I am grateful that Jesus does not require us to be perfect.

I guess I’ll also say that I’ve always felt I’m happiest when there’s just the right mix of adventure and contentment. The adventure of doing new things, of having new challenges. I’ve always loved that. But also, the contentment of being able to sit down, reflect and enjoy. For me, the priesthood was that mix. Maybe maybe sometimes more adventure than contentment, but I think that mix has been there.

And at this stage, do you have retirement plans?

Someone asked me last night, I was visiting a deceased nun and as I was walking out someone said, ‘Archbishop, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to slow down. I will imitate [Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville], whom I succeeded 15 years ago. He left for a while and gave me a kind of freedom to move around the Archdiocese without him necessarily being present and I will do that too. I will give this time to Bishop Fabre.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

About Harold Fergus

Check Also

Metro Council President Calls For LMPD Policy Changes After VICE News Exposure

The president of the Louisville Metro Board says the Louisville Metro Police Department should change …