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Friday, January 17, 2014

Seeing the Person Before the Rule: My Conversation with Archbishop Kurtz

Last October Bellarmine Magazine asked me to sit down with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville, to discuss the impact of Pope Francis on the Catholic church in the months since his election.  We talked for a little over an hour, and there was a great deal more from our conversation that could have been included in my write-up.  But I think I covered the main points below.

Bellarmine University sent a photographer, Bill Luster, to take pictures during our visit, and some of these I've provided below if only because they document something very rarely seen - me wearing a tie.  The article below was published in the Winter 2014 edition of the Bellarmine Magazine.  Archbishop Kurtz also reprinted the conversation this week in the archdiocesan newspaper in English and Spanish.  

Since our conversation in October, Archbishop Kurtz was elected President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


When Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio emerged as Pope Francis onto the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica without the papal mozzetta – the red cape traditionally worn by popes – and greeted the crowd with a simple, “Buona sera,” the tone changed in Rome and throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Over the months since his election, his gentle and pastoral personality has resonated with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and his message of generous love for each person challenges and compels us all.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville and member of Bellarmine University’s Board of Trustees, met with Pope Francis in October 2013 alongside Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. I recently sat down with the archbishop to discuss the pope and his message, as well as reaction to the pope worldwide and particularly in the archdiocese. I began by asking him about his recent audience with Pope Francis.

Archbishop Kurtz describes Pope Francis as being “warm and engaging,” and the archbishop came away deeply impressed by his pastoral demeanor: “If I had to choose a parish based on the pastor, I think I’d go to (Pope Francis’) church.” They discussed a wide range of topics of serious import, but the archbishop drew attention as well to the lighthearted good humor of the pontiff. At the conclusion of the audience, Pope Francis offered to walk his guests to the door, to which Cardinal Dolan responded that it wasn’t necessary for him to do so. Francis jokingly replied, “No, I want to make sure you leave.” “There’s something very endearing about that, isn’t there?” the archbishop said.

Even more endearing has been the message and example of the new pope. Francis’ “primary word is mercy,” said the archbishop, and this emphasis on mercy comes from a deep awareness of his own shortcomings and imperfections. His humility is also the fruit of this awareness, and Archbishop Kurtz identified the pope’s genuine humility as being key to his widespread popularity: “It’s holy and it’s very beautiful. But it’s also very engaging … He seems to remind people of Jesus.”

Throughout our conversation, Archbishop Kurtz kept returning to one particular facet of Pope Francis’ message that appears to have resonated deeply within him: the importance of “accompanying the person.” Pope Francis does not call us to ignore sin entirely. Indeed, the archbishop pointed to one section in an interview with the pope published in America magazine last September in which Francis said that we cannot in the church simply be lax when it comes to sin, as if sin doesn’t exist.

At the same time, and it is this point to which the archbishop drew special attention, “we are not called to be the rigorist that does not see the person but sees only the rule.” We are rather to “reach out and accompany, (and) see the person before the rule.”

Archbishop Kurtz pointed out that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI actually talked in a similar way in his encyclical, Deus caritas est (“God is love”), in which Benedict emphasized that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person,” the person of Jesus. But “in some ways,” the archbishop said, “the Holy Spirit is working through the personality of Pope Francis” such that this message is coming through loud and clear. The pope’s “great charism is to do powerfully symbolic things that call forth actions from you and me.” His actions bring “people to tears because he really is seeing the person that is before him.”

I asked Archbishop Kurtz about what this message of accom-panying and seeing the person could mean practically for the archdiocese of Louisville and for his own ministry as archbishop. He responded by talking about the importance of efforts in the archdiocese to serve the poor, particularly through the Catholic Services Appeal, but he recognizes that we’re being called to something more, that Pope Francis has created a “new impetus” for generosity. The archbishop admitted that what this will look like more concretely on an archdiocesan-wide level requires planning, though he stressed that “it cannot be an antiseptic, sterile planning.”

When it comes to the implications of Pope Francis’ message for himself, Archbishop Kurtz hears the pope saying to him and to all clergy: “Don’t become distant from the people you serve. Find ways to hear people, to visit people… The Holy Father is not asking us to see the person from a distance. He’s asking us to be close up.” And indeed, the archbishop said, it is this accompanying of the person genuinely and lovingly that has to come before all else, because “if there is not that attempt to seek to accompany, then there will be no credibility.”

Archbishop Kurtz acknowledged that there are some in the church who feel uncertain about Pope Francis and his message. The pope himself said during their meeting that he knows he has critics. But the response in the archdiocese has been, according to the archbishop, “extremely positive.”
Pope Francis is “so engaging when he talks about how we need to heal wounds and warm hearts,” the archbishop said. “I think that just strikes a chord in people, even people who are themselves not Catholic. I think that (message) resonates in their hearts.”

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