Archbishop Kurtz GeneralAssembly Address - November 14, 2016
"What you did for one of my least."
Archbishop Pierre, brother bishops, friends all,
Jesus spoke and acted in very concrete ways. His ways of touching hearts were not just
beautiful ideas but concrete actions.
We're told that Hebrew thought – unlike the abstract path we inherit
from the Greeks - takes hold of the imagination and touches the whole
person. It's why Jesus' parables and miracles are ever-new, and it's why
Pope Francis, who speaks to the concrete, gains such appeal.
Serving Christ is not simply a beautiful idea. It shows
itself in concrete actions. The Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to a conclusion
this Sunday. The 100th year of this plenary gathering of US
Bishops begins this month. No words of Jesus are more concrete in capturing
God's mercy at work in our Bishops' Conference than His call in Matthew
Chapter 25: "What you did for one of my least, you did for Me." These words came alive in five encounters
I had over these three years, each with a lesson learned:
1. The first scene: Tacloban, Philippines in
January 2014 shortly after typhoon Yolanda hit the shores. Devastation was everywhere.
No one would've blamed the people we met for turning completely selfish
amid the destruction. That's why one encounter stands out. I spoke with a
woman who was a leader in a small district on the edges of the shore in
Tacloban. I can still hear her voice explaining the needs for the school
and church to be rebuilt and her neighbors to have decent running water and
a roof over their heads. There was no hint in her voice of seeking her own
good. She wanted to organize so that all might survive and thrive –
she was seeking the common good.
The lesson: bishops are called always to seek the
common good – an environment in which all might thrive with dignity. For 99
years we bishops have addressed vital issues on a national level – seeking that
common good and mindful of those without a voice. Whether it is protecting
the child in the womb and her mother or a family seeking a better life as
they migrate from another country, it is our task to think not of our own
interests but of the common good. We embrace that task with enthusiasm and
enter respectful dialogue with President Donald Trump and with both houses
2. My second stop is Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, near all the
fighting. In June of last year, I was part of a whirlwind five days in war
torn and economically ravaged Ukraine. We met with church and civic leaders,
the US ambassador and so many others. But the event that sticks in my mind
was a visit with a refugee family in their small two room home. There was a
mother with three children, one of whom was a young child of eight who was
born with Down Syndrome. (We all know the plight today of families in which
the mother conceives a child with Down Syndrome. Sadly too often she receives
little encouragement from the medical community. There's an astronomically high
rate of Downs children in the womb who never are given a chance to live.
The servant of God Dr. Jerome Lejeune, who not only discovered the genetic
cause of Downs but spent his life standing up for these special
individuals, looms as a model to be imitated.) Well - I entered that small home and to my surprise
when I bent down to shake the hand of the little boy with Down Syndrome, he
instinctively jumped into my arms, gave me a big smile and said in a
language that my heart understood: "I love you." That encounter, though brief, kept coming
back to me as I reflected on the pastoral visit to Ukraine. The lesson is
obvious: we bishops and all who serve the Lord need also to open our hearts
to the joy that others will give to us. Joy and love are not only to be
given but also to be received.
Jumping into my arms was a trusting child of God
deserving a chance. So many youths in our nation need a chance – an
opportunity. I think of the gathering on September 9th in Louisville for
the National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities. An overflowing
church prayed for peace and harmony in our nation. I am grateful for the
work of Archbishop Gregory's task force to help us bring civility and
dialogue based on the inherent dignity of every person in our nation. Each
of us has the responsibility to do our part to build trust in our
neighborhoods. I suspect we will find signs of hope from unexpected places
– in the new Dr. Jerome Lejeune or the new Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
being born today.
3. The third stop: El Paso. The scene is this February
when Pope Francis visited Mexico. I
joined 600 faithful on the United States side of the Rio Grande for the Papal
to the Mass, I met with about 2 dozen unaccompanied minors, young men and
women who were in our nation under the protective custody of the government. I asked them what
their dreams were. To a person, they spoke words that would have made me proud coming
from a Catholic high school senior: they wanted only to work, study and
join their family. Quickly I asked: "not also to pray" and without a pause,
they said, "yes, to pray to God for help."
Our nation is on thin ice when refugee families are
spoke of in the abstract. After I met the unaccompanied youth seeking
reunion with their families, the issue became very clear. Surely the situations are complex but the
voiceless remain anonymous unless there is a face to the voice.
Whether the young child with Down syndrome from Kharkiv
in my arms or the dozens of youth with dreams in their hearts, we bishops
need those flashes of inspiration and encouragement from God.
4. The fourth stop: Louisville,
St. Joseph Home for aging persons in need of care. This lesson comes from watching
the courageous acts of those who seek only to serve - to serve with integrity of faith. The
Little Sisters of the Poor have been embroiled in lawsuits and publicity
that they never did seek out. They simply want to serve people who as
they grow old become frail and often poor. The prominence of the
Little Sisters of the Poor on a national level has reminded me of the precious
gift of religious freedom. This freedom
is at the very core of the practice of our faith and at the very foundation
of the greatness of our nation. The
lesson learned: don't allow government to define what integrity of faith
means. It is our duty to protect those who wish simply to live their faith
and to serve God and one another with integrity of faith. The lesson
learned about religious freedom is one that we as a conference must carry
5 The fifth encounter was a phone message: Three years ago after you
elected me as president, I returned home to a voice message from my good
friend and mentor, Bishop David B. Thompson. + Dave had turned
90 that June but never lost his capacity to reach out in support. At our June
meeting in St. Louis on the feast of St. Barnabas, I mentioned the example
of Bishop Thompson whose call of support showed me what he had consistently
been for 90 years: a son of encouragement, a "Barnabas." We bishops need a "Barnabas"
in our lives, and we need to be "Barnabas" to one another. How deeply we will
fail in our mission to live Amoris
Laetitia if we do not begin with our attention to one another. Sometimes at these
plenary meetings, I look across the room filled with bishops and think of
the thousands of ways in which individuals are helped through you. The quality of your
service will be free of "burn out" and full of enthusiasm to the degree
that we live as church, as communio,
with one another. In my
meeting with Pope Francis on October 6th, he praised this unity that is ours as bishops. He called it a gift - a
gift that Jesus gives to each of us, brother bishop to brother bishop - a
gift essential to maintaining service to others. On November 24,
2013, about a week after + Dave made the congratulatory call to me, he was
called to his eternal reward.
Thank you, +David B Thompson, for reminding me of
that priority to support brother bishops - to be "Barnabas" to another.
Five images - five lessons about who we bishops are. The plenary meeting is not simply a gathering
– we are a family, a communio of pastors. Just as a family seeks to serve each
other as a prerequisite for authentic service beyond, so we do too. If not, our pastoral hearts will be shallow
and short lived with others. In the
midst of the busy schedules that you bishops find as your daily routine,
thank God for those moments of lifting up one another.
For sure there are many challenges on our doorstep:
- Challenges that threatens our global community,
especially as we stand up for those persecuted for their religion,
- Challenges within our nation as we tirelessly
promote the dignity of every person;
- Challenges to unity in truth and charity within
our church as we tirelessly announce the good news of Jesus Christ, to draw
all to Christ and to walk with all toward conversion.
There's been unprecedented lack of civility and even
rancor in the national elections just completed. Now we are required to move forward with a
respect for those in public office as we seek the common good based on
truth and charity, without imposing but strongly proposing as we have done
now for 99 years. We enter dialogue
with the Trump administration
and leadership in both houses of congress – seeking as in the past concrete
Jesus spoke and acted in very concrete ways. Empowered
by His grace, so do we, reaching out to:
- the mother carrying a child in her womb,
- the man at the last breath of his life,
- the family fleeing for a better life for their
- the young family living in the inner city, seeking
opportunities and not racial profiling,
- the legions of people throughout the United States
who wish only to serve others with integrity of faith and
- the bishop who receives support from his brother
sitting next to him right now.
My episcopal motto, "Hope in the Lord," comes from the
final verse of Psalm 31: "be strong and take courage, all you who hope
in the Lord." This is not a pie-in-the-sky hope but a hope
grounded in the reality of God's grace in the midst of challenges. I leave
office grateful for you, my brother bishops, staff and all the others – too
many to name – who have worked alongside me these past three years.
United with Pope Francis, we are confident
and hopeful, as we hear once again the echo of the words of Jesus:
"What we did for one of my least…you
did for Me."