Archbishop Kurtz on Priestly Vocations, the Rosary, Traditional Marriage

Vice president of the U.S. bishops’ conference places heavy responsibility for defense of marriage on Christian couples.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (photo: Archdiocese of Louisville)

As a young man, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was inspired by a book his sister gave him on St. Dominic and the Rosary. It described Dominic as an “athlete for Christ.” This life appealed to him more than merely devoting his life to a career, so he decided to enter the seminary.

Today, he has a lot to say about priestly formation — and the importance of the Rosary in the life of the Church. He suggests that priests can and should be doing much more to encourage the vocations they sense some of their young parishioners may have. And he has an innovative way to pray the Rosary that, he says, can help Christians hear the voice of Christ.

As archbishop of Louisville, Ky., and as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and former chairman of its Committee on Marriage and Family Life, he also has a lot to say about traditional marriage, which he shared with Register correspondent Jim Graves.

The 65-year-old archbishop was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., in 1972. In 1999, he was named Bishop of Knoxville, Tenn. He came to Louisville in 2007.

You have personally been a leader in the Church’s opposition to same-sex “marriage.”

Bishops, the Church and society in general need to understand the public nature of marriage. Aspects of marriage are personal and private, but it is also public, because it affects society as a whole.

Many people assume that marriage is a right that the state can simply create. That is a dangerous direction in which to go. The majority of voters cannot create whatever rights they want. Marriage is a gift given to us by God and defined by him. We as Catholics must not be afraid to say so publicly.

We need to be forthright in speaking about the importance of defending and protecting marriage within our Church and society. Our respect for the individual should not be at the expense of marriage itself.

Next May, North Carolina residents will vote on whether to adopt a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. So far, voter majorities have always opposed same-sex “marriage.” In states where it has been legalized, it has been through courts and legislators. However, polls show many Americans’ attitudes are changing. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that 53% favored legalization of same-sex “marriage.” Does this concern you?

Virtually every time the issue is put to a vote, the majority of voters support the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman. That said, I always add that Church teaching is not developed by referendum. But what it does say is that when people are asked, especially when it is explained to them how important the traditional definition of marriage is, most people support it. But the very fact that traditional marriage is being put to a vote is troubling, because it shows that the public nature of traditional marriage is not firmly in place in our society.

When I speak on marriage, I spend most of my time not speaking on its legal ramifications, but on the need for renewal of sacrificial love in our culture, especially within family life. In general, that’s the greatest need. Too many people place their emphasis on individual satisfaction, a turning in on oneself and one’s perceived needs. Sacrificial love, in contrast, tends to lead people to happy lives. We need more examples of marriages based on sacrificial love. I would not be a priest had it not been for the chance to read the lives of the saints and be motivated by the great adventure of following Christ and with Christ’s grace of living a sacrificial life.

How else can we support traditional marriage?

The community needs to be involved in the preparation of couples who are getting married, and we must support couples who choose not to live together before marriage. Once a couple is married, we must find ways to enrich marriages, helping couples to be faithful in their married love.

We can also stress that Church teaching is being supported by the findings of social scientists. Dr. Scott Stanley is a personal friend and a research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. He noted that people are tempted to believe in a variety of myths regarding marriage. The secular world, for example, believes that living together before marriage is a great way to determine compatibility and results in a more successful marriage down the road. But we know from the data and experience that the opposite is true.

In my lifetime, I’ve noticed an increased emphasis on the immediate gratification of the individual and less emphasis on the common good: We want what we want and we want it now, and delaying gratification for a greater good is less and less a part of our psychology. This has the subtle effect of eroding the very essence of the gift of love, the capacity for one to sacrifice for the good of another. It is harder for us to follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his life for his friends.

We must not look at marriage as a way of satisfying or fulfilling ourselves. Many people believe in the idea of a “soul mate,” that there’s someone out there who they can find who will be ready to answer to their every need. Heroic persons, in contrast, who follow the example of Jesus, are the ones who sacrifice for others.

Who is your best friend? Who loves you the most? I suspect that you won’t say that person with whom you like to play golf or watch TV, but the one who has sacrificed for you. This is the kind of unselfish living that was more a part of my life when I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s.

How can we encourage more young people to pursue religious vocations?

First, we can have confidence that Christ is calling and help others to hear and respond to this call. When we survey our newly ordained priests, 90% say they entered the seminary because of a conversation they had with a senior priest. But when we survey our priests, only 30% report that they have invited a young man to consider the priesthood. If I were in sales, I’d say we have a great opportunity here.

I encourage pastors to identify those who may have a calling to the priesthood and to make an invitation. That is a way we can let Christ act through us.

The support of family is also important. Many priests and seminarians will tell you that the support of their own families often grew as they went through the seminary. That happened with me. My mom was happy I entered the seminary, but my dad was not. But, over time, he became my biggest supporter. I encourage families to see priesthood and religious life as a great gift and support their members who are answering the call.

What are some of your favorite devotions?

I encourage people to follow the lectio divina [“divine reading,” prayer with the Scriptures]. If you want to be renewed at Mass, you should come prepared. It doesn’t take long. You can purchase a book from a Catholic bookstore or go online for the readings of the day. Read them in a reflective way. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, is promoting that in his book Jesus of Nazareth.

I am also a big proponent of the holy Rosary. When I say it, I also have a copy of the priest’s pictorial directory open and pray for each of our priests. Even if I say only one decade, I have a chance to pray for 10 priests.

Anyone can do that with a family album or their parish pictorial directory, as I encourage our priests to do. Bring the pictures of real people with you when you pray. It’s amazing how Christ can speak to us about what we should be doing in our relationship with them and how we should be grateful to them.

In addition to setting time aside each day to pray, I like to take one day a month in which I go to pray at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist abbey in New Haven, Ky. I go down on a Sunday afternoon for evening prayer, and then spend all of Monday there.

People need to make time for a period of prayer and reflection. It could be a Holy Hour in a church or time at a retreat center. It’s a great way to open ourselves up to Christ and let him speak to us.

You were elected vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with Archbishop Timothy Dolan as president. What is the role of the USCCB?

Pope John Paul’s 1998 apostolic letter Apostolos Suos tells us that episcopal conferences have a threefold purpose. First, they promote unity among the bishops with the Holy Father. At each meeting, for example, the bishops make a Holy Hour and have confessions. To me, that is one of the most important things we do. It fosters unity. It is based on the call to holiness that each of us should embrace, especially the bishops in our leadership role. We must support each other in our mission to follow Christ on a path of holiness.

Second, episcopal conferences help diocesan bishops in their pastoral care of the local Church. In my work over the past six years on the “Initiative on Marriage,” for example, much of what I’ve tried to do is to provide material to the local Church which can be used in catechetical programs and our Catholic schools.

Third, and most familiar to people, episcopal conferences provide a vehicle for addressing the vital issues of our day. These include respect for human life: advocating for the common good in legislation and regulation to protect the human person from conception to natural death.

Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.


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