published Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Cooper: Catholic bishops leader knows area

The new president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will gladden the hearts of those who believe he’ll follow in the footsteps of Pope Francis.

But for those who fell for the spin by Big Media that the new pope desires big changes in the church’s stances on abortion and gay marriage, they’ll be disappointed in Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz. Because his views — as they should — most definitely fall in line with those of the church.

If Kurtz’s name sounds familiar to Chattanooga area residents, it should.

In 1999, he was named the second bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, an area that includes Chattanooga, by former Pope John Paul II. In 2007, he was appointed archbishop of the Archdiocese of Louisville by Pope Benedict.

During his time as bishop, he was often in Chattanooga, where he not only participated in activities involving Catholic parishes and schools but also joined in events such as an interfaith Seder at Mizpah Congregation.

Kurtz was invariably friendly, well-spoken and full of humor. Indeed, his first news conference as bishop saw him cut to the heart of the matter for Tennesseans.

“I grew up a (Penn State) Nittany Lion fan,” he said, “but I look forward to being a good Volunteer.”

Kurtz, who replaces Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, as USCCB president, will serve a three-year term.

“The bishops conference will benefit greatly from Archbishop Kurtz’s experience and guidance in this important leadership position,” Bishop Richard F. Stika, the current diocesan leader, said in a news release. “The Diocese of Knoxville was blessed by the leadership Archbishop Kurtz provided to our diocese for seven years. We pray for him as he begins this new role.”

Following his Nov. 12 election, Kurtz, 67, sounded like Pope Francis following his March election by striking a conciliatory tone.

“The challenge for us in welcoming people and most especially serving people who are voiceless and vulnerable spans right across the board from our work in immigration, our work in serving people who are poor” and in advocating for the “pre-born as well as the very elderly,” he said.

“One of the major challenges is what, really, our Holy Father has said over and over again: How can we warm hearts and heal wounds?”

And despite Catholic bishops’ long-standing disputes with the Obama administration over mandating birth control coverage in health insurance policies and expanding gay rights, Kurtz told reporters “there is a great desire on the part of the bishops’ conference to have a good and healthy relationship with the White House and Congress.”

“We always need to look for opportunities” to cooperate, he said.

In another similarity to Pope Francis, who chose to live in the guest house of the Apostolic Palace rather than the papal apartments when he was a cardinal in Buenos Aires, Kurtz chose to live in an apartment near, rather than at, the Louisville Cathedral.

“I do think he brings a pastoral approach rather than simply an intellectual approach,” the Rev. William Hammer, pastor of the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., told The Associated Press.

Kurtz acknowledged as much in referring to his early priesthood in the Diocese of Allentown (Pa.), where he served 12 years as pastor.

“Being a pastor in a parish is perhaps the best kind of preparation for any kind of leadership in our church,” the Mahanoy City, Pa., native said, calling the period the “most important” of his life.

Kurtz, who earned a master’s degree in social work, also was tempered by his years as guardian of his younger brother, George, who was born with Down syndrome. The younger Kurtz lived in the parish rectory with his priest brother and then in the chancery when he came to Knoxville. George died in 2002.

Applauded often for his personal style, Kurtz also is known as a good communicator, his 6,500 Twitter followers just one evidence of that. But his abortion opposition is unstinting. He has prayed outside a Louisville abortion clinic, protested a contraception mandate in front of the Louisville federal building and authored “The Rite For Blessing of the Child in the Womb” while he was bishop of Knoxville. So it’s not likely his new position will keep him from speaking out on positions important to him and to the church, new tone or not.

“He’s a man,” Christopher Hale, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told Religion News Service, “who is clearly capable of moving the bishops’ conference forward in the vision laid out by Pope Francis.”

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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