Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville
President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Address to the USCCB General Assembly on November 16, 2015
Archbishop Vigano, brother bishops, friends all,
In less than a month, Pope Francis
will open the Door of Mercy at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and we bishops will
be opening doors throughout America. As we walk through these doors of
mercy ourselves, we will lead the faithful in a jubilee year of mercy.
Just as the merciful encounters in the pages of the Gospels began with Jesus
being present, so our mission of mercy begins with a presence. Reflect with me on three facets of that
presence of Jesus today:
our humble encounters as pastors of souls;
our faithful witness and service within our society;
in the faithful witness of Catholic families, whom we want to honor, call forth
Two months ago Pope Francis at St.
Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., called us to "…be pastors close to the
people, pastors who are neighbors and servants." During his visit, he came with
that kind of pastor's presence - touching the hearts of the most influential,
the forgotten, and all of us in between. His actions radiated the presence
of Christ and people responded! National
polls tell us his visit has spiked interest in the faith and there are signs of
renewed fervor. We who were at the World Meeting of Families' vigil
service and final Mass saw this joyful response before our eyes.
I remember his words when he urged us
to bear witness to the essential things in the manner of "…a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and
women through the attractive light and warmth of love." Our hearts respond to that call to be pastors
who are present, welcoming, and eager to walk with our people. Yet, this call is
not new. When I was ordained a priest in 1972, the priests I identified as
those best to imitate knew instinctively the art of accompaniment. Where the greatest need was, there was that
priest. Not waiting for people to come
to him, he went out to them.
Some of my best early memories as a
priest were those summer days visiting families in their homes, walking through
the neighborhood, or the Sunday morning practice of standing in front of church
before and after Mass often for encounters of one or two minutes. Even those
humorous encounters when invariably a parishioner would say, "Father, it is
about time you have such and such in the bulletin," only to have me search for
the right pastoral reply when it has been in the bulletin the last five weeks!
We also know that the desire of the
laity for their pastor's presence is not new.
In the listening sessions leading up to the 2009 Pastoral Letter: Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,
we heard from couples who felt like they were considered a "completed project"
after their wedding. Those hurting often said that, while they knew we are not
marriage counselors, they want us to be present in their lives – showing
concern and love.
Presence means making time and never
letting administration come between me and the person. It's seeing the person
first. At last month's Synod closing Mass, Pope Francis forcefully hit
this theme when he reflected on Jesus' healing of the blind Bartimaeus. He
spoke of avoiding "scheduled ministry," whereby we walk with God's
people but follow our own agenda for the journey, expecting others to "respect
our rhythm," and being bothered by every problem.
There are so many who desire and need
our presence. Whether as pastors in our
dioceses or together in plenary meetings, we address vital issues of pastoral
care. The list is long: protecting the human person at the very
beginning and end of life, welcoming and safeguarding the newly arrived
neighbor to our country, healing racial tensions and seeking a harmony based on
the dignity of each person, reaching out to the poor. Our schedule must be their
needs and our example must be the Lord Jesus Himself, whose presence daily
guides us and strengthens us for this work.
The mercy of Jesus always begins with
His presence. He is present every time
we visit a parish, a family, or a priest at his work. In a similar way, we as a Conference in our
public actions seek to be a presence in the public square – always seeking the
common good and making room for faith to act – never imposing but always
inviting, serving. We as a Church are at our best when we serve others in
the name of Jesus. Just think of our
extensive presence in virtually every corner of society – in our Catholic
Charities, St. Vincent De Paul network, Project Rachel, the work of many
religious orders, our ministry to refugees and migrants, Catholic schools, the
individual service of local parishes, our Catholic health care ministries, and
Make no mistake. The challenges are
real! Our works of mercy are responding
to the heartbreaking crises and challenges in our world. The draft introductory note to Faithful
Citizenship, which we will consider tomorrow, sums up these challenges: we face
the ongoing destruction of over one million innocent human lives each
year by abortion; the redefinition of marriage; the excessive consumption of
material goods and destruction of natural resources; the deadly attacks on
fellow Christians and religious minorities throughout the world; the narrowing
of religious freedom, which threatens both individual conscience and the
freedom of the Church to serve; economic policies that fail to
prioritize the poor; a broken immigration system and a worldwide
refugee crisis; wars, terror, and violence that
threaten every aspect of
human life and dignity.
Our calling is to be present in this world, in the very
places where people are hurting the most. Our ministries are designed to give
people hope, to walk alongside them, to provide practical help, but also to
show them the way to Jesus and the transformative power of His love and grace. This
is accompaniment at its best. What a great tragedy it will be if our ministries
are slowly secularized or driven out of the public square because of short-sighted
laws or regulations that limit our ability to witness and serve consistent with
our faith. Pope Francis testified eloquently while in Philadelphia this fall.
"Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and
in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature,
transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and
families. Because religion itself, the religious dimension, is not a
subculture; it is part of the culture of every people and every nation."
Our greatest witness as representatives of Jesus will always
be humble, clear and courageous – offered with words that match lives well
lived – coming from a freedom that flows from our dignity and responsibility.
This is not a freedom of special privilege but a freedom that makes room for
witness and service in a manner consistent with our faith and mission. At the end of the Holy Eucharist each Sunday,
all are bid to "go forth, the Mass is ended." Perhaps a better way to think of
it is: "Go forth. You are sent." Let us pray we don't lose our presence in the
public square to a misguided secularization that reduces faith to the least
common denominator and erodes the very richness of belief that impels people of
faith to serve unselfishly those most in need.
A special arena where our presence is
desperately needed is in the homes and hearts of families. The Synods this year
and last brought into the forefront the need for us to accompany in gentle
mercy those who are struggling as well as the need to inspire all to joy and
strength in the vocation to which Christ has called them.
One of the greatest insights I brought home from the Synod last month is the
recognition of families as ministers of the Gospel. Families are not simply
objects, receiving from us who serve. Families
are subjects, those who give and share, inspiring others through their heroic
lives often lived in very ordinary circumstances but lived in extraordinarily
faithful ways. At the Synod, I was asked several times about my own
family – I'd be the first to say we were not perfect, but we loved and we
tried! One special part of our family was my brother Georgie who had Down
Syndrome. Georgie was a glue in our family, drawing out love and service,
forcing us to slow down, ask for help, and focus on time together. In fact,
when he lived with me, he brought those same gifts to my rectory life and drew
the other priests and me together into a make-shift family. He gave each of them
nicknames, and brought us together with times of joy – and frustration – but
helped bond us together through the ordinary moments of any family. These
experiences, plus the families whose lives I have come to know and love as a
bishop continue to enrich me. They testify to Christ's work and love by simply
being faithful to each other, loving their children, welcoming others into
their homes, teaching the faith, praying together. Simple things, but a
profound witness to their vocation.
Media coverage of the Synod dutifully reported the debates surrounding true and
lasting pastoral care for those families distant from the Church. What was under-reported was the wide agreement
on the priority of calling forth, properly forming, and supporting families who
faithfully and often heroically witness to their family life, inspiring others
in the Church and society. Families who accompany other families – who
serve as mentors – may be the greatest fruit of the Synod process. Important in calling forth such witness is our
efforts to promote the beautiful vision of self-giving love in marriage. As we as a body take up the formal statement
on the destructive effects of pornography in our age, we have the great
opportunity to lift up the beauty of God's plan for human sexuality.
Brothers in the episcopacy, we join
together in this assembly united to each other in Christ with a humble
confidence that Jesus' presence will show us the way forward in each of these
callings – to be present as pastors, to renew public life in our nation, and to
call forth families to witness. Our
strength and direction lies in our closeness to Him. In Christ Jesus, we draw strength from our
unity with each other and with the Holy Father and the entire church.
I want to close with the touching
words of our Holy Father when he was with us at St. Matthew's in Washington,
D.C. He said, "Whenever a hand
reaches out to do good or to show the love of Christ, to dry a tear or bring
comfort to the lonely, to show the way to one who is lost or to console a
broken heart, to help the fallen or to teach those thirsting for truth, to
forgive or to offer a new start in God… know that the Pope is at your side, the
Pope supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but
by God's grace still able to support and encourage."
United with Pope Francis and with each other, we begin this
week and take confidence in the presence and power of Jesus, who gives us the
strength to take heart and to rise up. As we open Doors of Mercy in our
dioceses next month, let us walk through them together and so lead the faithful
in a joyful jubilee year of mercy.