By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor
Though Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz has downplayed the significance of his new role as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), his schedule of media interviews and a representative of the USCCB tell another story.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Sister of Mercy Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the USCCB. “And the bishops place a lot of confidence in him and a lot of gratitude in him for accepting” the role of president.
The archbishop has made a point to say that his new role is not one of authority over the bishops or their dioceses — that responsibility lies at the Vatican. Rather, he represents and speaks for the U.S. bishops, according to Sister Walsh. He also is a key part of the conference’s administration and decision-making body.
Sister Walsh explained in a phone interview Nov. 22 from the USCCB offices in Washington, D.C., that the president is expected to preside at all of the administrative and plenary meetings of the conference.
Administrative meetings occur in March, September and, briefly, prior to the bishops’ fall General Assembly. The bishops also have a spring plenary meeting.
“Those are heavy responsibilities,” Sister Walsh said. “The administrative board is basically in charge when the full body of bishops isn’t together. And he’s part of the executive committee (which makes decisions) when the administrative committee can’t get together.”
The executive committee includes the officers of the USCCB.
“When the bishops act together as one, they do so through the conference,” Sister Walsh explained. “Every bishop is not going to be able to go to the White House to offer his opinion. So (the president) represents the bishops when they speak together as one.”
The U.S. bishops often speak on matters of public policy. Recently they asked Congress not to cut food assistance provided in the Farm Bill; they’ve been vocal about the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage; and they’ve spoken against a mandate from the Health and Human Services department related to health insurance coverage of reproductive services, including artificial contraception and abortion.
In addition to the archbishop’s domestic duties, he also will be expected to visit the Vatican a couple of times a year to update Pope Francis on the church in the United States, Sister Walsh said. Archbishop Kurtz also will take part in the Synod of Bishops in Rome next fall.
Some ceremonial obligations may also arise during his three-year term, Sister Walsh added.
Archbishop Kurtz said he has carefully prioritized his new duties.
“The bread and butter of representing the bishops is when we meet. My priority is going to be the administrative and the plenary (meetings) of the bishops,” he said during an interview Nov. 22. “I need to be present to the bishops. I also need to be present, whenever I can, to our region (which includes the provinces of Louisville, New Orleans and Mobile) and attend installations (of bishops) throughout the United States.”
The archbishop said he’s been asked by a number of groups to speak or give keynote addresses. “I’ll give priority to them, too,” he said.
At the bottom of his priority list, he said, are events where he has “no active role of participation.”
“Obviously, I can’t be in two places at once, but that would be my pecking order,” he said. “To emphasize first those areas in which the core of the conference is so important — the gatherings of bishops.”
The archbishop’s national profile has risen quickly since his Nov. 12 election. He appeared on the CBS morning show the day after his election. And since then, he’s had more than a dozen interviews scheduled with local, national and international news media, including The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and BBC Radio.
“The media seem to have taken to him very well. And he takes to them,” said Sister Walsh, who has served with other USCCB presidents in the past. She noted that the story of his late brother Georgie, who had Down syndrome and lived with the archbishop before his death, has touched people.
Archbishop Kurtz also brings “wonderful talents” to his new position, including his background as a social worker and time spent as a parish priest, she said.
“That is vital — a real on-the-ground response, knowing first-hand the role of our priests and what they’re facing every day,” she said, noting that the U.S. has about 39,000 priests. “That’s an important cadre and it helps if the leader of the bishops’ conference knows their world inside and out.”
Sister Walsh also said Archbishop Kurtz brings “a wonderful human touch” to his new work.
She noted that a woman on staff of the USCCB mentioned to the archbishop that she and her baby received the Blessing of the Child in the Womb, a special blessing developed under Archbishop Kurtz’s guidance.
“He stopped right there and asked about the baby,” Sister Walsh said. “A real genuine interest, that means a lot to people.”