Newly elected USCCB president says he is rooted in simple values

Categories: Nation/World

Nov. 22, 2013, edition
By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

The newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a bishop for nearly 14 years, but it’s as priest, family member and social worker that he describes himself.

kurtzBy way of introduction to American Catholics, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., talked about his upbringing in the coal regions of northeastern Pennsylvania, of spending most of his priesthood as a social worker, and of caring for his older brother, George, who had Down syndrome, for 12 years after their mother died. George Kurtz died in 2002.

He takes obvious pride in his identity as both a coal-town native and a transplanted southerner, after serving as bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., from 1999 to 2007, when he became archbishop of Louisville.

Archbishop Kurtz, 67, was elected by his fellow bishops to serve a three-year term as president of the conference, succeeding New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan in the post. He has been vice president of the USCCB for the past three years and was elected amid a slate of 10 bishops with a 125-vote win on the first ballot Nov. 12.

In an interview with Catholic News Service shortly after his election, Archbishop Kurtz spoke of seeing the example of Pope Francis as a model for outreach, listening and collegiality. “He’s asking us to go beyond what we’ve been doing,” he said. “If it was a car, I guess we’re moving in to high gear.”

He demurred about specific issues he might like to take up as president. “It’s too early for me to comment too much about that.”

But he suggested there might be a thread to consider in his intervention in October 2012 at the world Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization.

There, he used his allotted five minutes to focus on parish observances, particularly the Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb.

The ceremony is a “pastoral moment of first evangelization of the child and new evangelization of the family,” Archbishop Kurtz told the synod.

He told CNS Nov. 12 that he sees the rite as a way of “reaching out to people on the margins, especially a woman who is pregnant, especially if they’re distant from Christ, distant from the church.”

Picking up on themes of Pope Francis, Archbishop Kurtz said “we need to reach out, not, as the Holy Father said so well, (first) with rules and regulations — which are appropriate if you’re going to present a child for baptism — but it should not be the first step. We should be reaching out as the first step.”

Being an officer of the USCCB is a ministry of service and unity, he said — service to the U.S. bishops and the people of God, and unity with those groups, with the pope and with episcopal conferences around the world.

Archbishop Kurtz isn’t likely a familiar name or face to U.S. Catholics outside the dioceses where he’s served, although during his term as USCCB vice president he has had a busy agenda away from his archdiocese.

As vice president, he served on the USCCB’s Executive and Administrative committees. He also is the vice chancellor of the board of Catholic Extension, episcopal adviser to the Catholic Social Workers National Association, and on the board of trustees of The Catholic University of America and on the board of directors of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Born Aug. 18, 1946, in Mahanoy City, Pa., he was one of four children of the late George and Stella Kurtz. He earned bachelor’s and master’s of divinity degrees from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and a master’s degree in social work from Marywood School of Social Work in Scranton, Pa. He was ordained for the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., March 18, 1972.

His 27 years in the Allentown Diocese included positions as associate director and director of the diocesan social services agencies and coordinator of health affairs; as pastor of two parishes, totaling 12 years; and as an instructor at Mary Immaculate and St. Pius X seminaries.

Archbishop Kurtz still identifies strongly with his roots. “I grew up in a coal town. Family was very important to me. Neighbors were very important. I think we took an interest in our neighbors. That means a lot. I don’t care how big the city is, I still say hello to the person I pass on the street.”