By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
When the late Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly introduced his successor during a press conference on June 14, 2007, he pointed out that Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz is a runner and called him “a man of energy, strength, conviction and brains.”
Next Tuesday, Aug. 15, will mark the 10th anniversary of Archbishop Kurtz’s installation as the ninth ordinary of the Archdiocese of Louisville. He’ll celebrate a special Mass next Tuesday, Aug. 15, at the Cathedral of the Assumption at noon.
In this intervening decade he has, indeed, proved to be a man of energy, who runs both for leisure and in his duties as a leader of the U.S. church.
Like a sprint, sometimes his work requires a quick-surefooted leader, and at other times, his work is more akin to a marathon, but at all times, he appears to be on an adventure. And he likes it that way.
“I like the adventure of being able to be involved in so many things,” said the archbishop in an interview with The Record. “I like also to find the right rhythm — balancing adventure and new ministries with time to collect myself and not be frantic.”
For eight of the archbishop’s 10 years here, he served as an officer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That service culminated with a three-year presidency that ended in the fall of 2016. The job took him around the world and plunged him into the national spotlight, often acting as the defacto spokesperson for the church in the United States, while also shepherding his Kentucky diocese.
He met with President Barack Obama at the Whitehouse during Christmastime in 2014 and shared the west terrace balcony of the U.S. Capitol with top lawmakers and Pope Francis in 2015.
He also visited impoverished survivors of a typhoon in the Philippines and walked with Ukrainian Catholics in their troubled homeland. Africa, Asia and Latin America have also been on his itinerary, thanks in part to his service on the board of Catholic Relief Services.
Before he was thrust into leadership roles and while he was still new to the archdiocese, Archbishop Kurtz concelebrated Mass with Pope Benedict XVI, now retired pope emeritus, at Yankee Stadium in honor of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s bicentennial in 2008. The Mass also celebrated the bicentennials of the New York, Boston and Philadelphia archdioceses — the first dioceses established from the see of Baltimore in the U.S.
He has also taken part in three synods — major meetings of bishops from around the world — at the Vatican.
His travels and the synods, he said, “broadened my view.”
“The synods had a huge effect on me,” he noted. “Where else can you sit in a meeting with people from countries all around the world?”
Archbishop Kurtz participated in a synod on the new evangelization in 2012, and in 2014 and 2015 he participated in synods on the family.
Archbishop Kurtz brought these experiences and messages home to Kentucky, especially what he gleaned during the synods on family, a subject that has long been close to his heart.
The archbishop comes from a close-knit family of coal miners rooted in Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy City. His elder brother, George Kurtz, had Down syndrome. After their parents died, George Kurtz and the archbishop lived together until George’s death in January of 2002. They even lived together in Knoxville, Tenn., where Archbishop Kurtz first served as a bishop.
“I was very influenced by my family,” he noted. “No more than by my brother George. I keep thinking about the influence of my brother, Georgie. There was a humanizing quality for me with my brother.”
On the day of his installation as an archbishop, he told the 5,000 people gathered for the Mass at The Gardens in Louisville, “I am pleased to be part of a new family.”
During the interview about his time as archbishop, he also touched on the sexual abuse crisis that affected the archdiocese and churches around the country. The Archdiocese of Louisville had reached a settlement in most cases in 2005. But its effects lingered, the archbishop noted.
“It had a dampening effect on the spirit of the archdiocese,” he said. “As we appropriately faced the realities of the sins of the past, and focused on creating an atmosphere that would be safe, we needed a sense of renewal.
“If we think of the archdiocese as a family, when a family has a problem, you have to face the truth of it and you have to address it,” he said. “But you also have to have a renewal.”
That renewal has come in many forms. In 2008, the local church began the Building a Future of Hope, a capital campaign that raised more than $42 million for the archdiocese and its parishes by the time the last pledges were fulfilled in 2015.
When the archbishop arrived in the archdiocese, there were just a handful of seminarians in formation for diocesan priesthood here. An effort to increase that number had already begun and the archbishop gave it his full support as another form of renewal, he said.
The number of seminarians has steadily climbed in the last 10 years and this fall there will be 20 men in formation for the priesthood. Five of them are expected to be ordained priests in the spring.
Archbishop Kurtz also shepherded the creation of a new plan for Catholic schools, which was announced in 2014. The plan has led to an increase in tuition assistance and a growing access to Catholic schools among Hispanic and Latino children and other minorities.
In the midst of these large-scale efforts, the archbishop has worked steadily to protect human dignity — “the right to life from conception to natural death,” as he puts it — with particular attention to ending abortion. And in the public arena, he has advocated for religious liberty protections for people of faith and urged his fellow Catholics to be good and faithful citizens.
Perhaps his largest undertaking to date is the parish discernment process, an effort that is still in its infancy. The effort aims to facilitate a process of renewal and growth for the archdiocese’s 110 parishes, an opportunity for parishes to take a close look at their vision for the future. It springs from the archbishop’s first solo pastoral letter, published in January, called “Your Parish: The Body of Christ Alive in Our Midst.”
“What I’m eager to see is how we can tailor support to the parishes based on what their needs are at the particular moment,” he said. “We need to celebrate what’s already present. But there are needs.
“Young people are not going to church as much. How can we give people a life of faith?” he asked. “It’s an exciting time, but it’s not without challenges.”
Archbishop Kurtz noted that he will turn 71 on Aug. 18 and that he has begun to look at the future. Bishops are required to submit a letter of resignation when they turn 75, though the resignation doesn’t take effect immediately.
“Having this process with our parishes, will serve as a guide post as we move into these next five years,” he said.