Saturday, June 09, 2007

Into the Winner's Circle?

We might be hours away from the Belmont Stakes and the finale of horse-racing's Triple Crown, but only now is the ecclesiastical answer to the Kentucky Derby bounding to the wire.

As early as Tuesday, the archdiocese of Louisville looks set to receive its ninth head, and all indications are that Bishop Joseph Kurtz of Knoxville will get the nod to succeed Archbishop Thomas Kelly OP, who reached the mandatory retirement age last July.

A native of the diocese of Allentown, Kurtz -- a front-runner for the post from early on -- has scored high marks in leading the burgeoning Tennessee flock since his arrival there in 1999; earlier this year, Knoxville took the top rating in Crisis Magazine's survey of American dioceses. One of the few US bishops to hold a master's in social work, Kurtz serves as chair of the USCCB's Committee on Marriage and the Family. The longtime head of Allentown's Catholic Social Services, he's said to have a particular concern for the welfare of the poor.

Notably, in cases of a metropolitan vacancy for a US province with more than one suffragan see, a Kurtz transfer to Louisville would make Benedict XVI three for three in naming the new archbishop from among the suffragan bench.

Leaving Knoxville's 52,000 Catholics for the 200,000 faithful in the heart of Bluegrass country, the likely appointment would send the 60 year-old prelate to the first diocese of the American frontier in the midst of its bicentennial year, as tensions over ecclesiology, the archdiocese's handling of the abuse crisis and a recent dearth of priestly vocations loom just below the surface. On the latter account, Kurtz -- who's seen his presbyterate jump by half over the course of his time in Tennessee -- recently held a vocations summit of diocesan leaders and high school students to determine how best to form a culture fostering an individual's call in the life of the church.

"[A] a tension exists between adequately promoting both the vocation of every baptized person and specific vocations to the religious life," he wrote in summarizing the day's findings, noting two unhealthy tensions that creep up in vocation strategy: "the tendency to be shy about promoting religious vocations" and, at the other extreme, "view[ing] marriage and other paths to which students might be called as simply secular choices, devoid of God’s hand."

In headlining its report on the nation's local churches, Crisis placed Kurtz's name first among "a cadre of bishops, invisible to the national media, largely unknown outside their dioceses, absent from Washington political circles, who are truly unsung heroes of the Church, presiding over vibrant communities, building the Church, and effectively proclaiming the Faith." Now, with a larger charge seemingly headed his way, it would appear that Rome is set to signal its agreement.

After 26 years as archbishop, the highly-regarded Kelly recently informed his priests that, come September, he'll be taking an extended period in residence at Washington's Dominican House of Studies; once a staffer at the DC nunciature, the New York-born prelate went to Lousville from the capital, where he served as an auxiliary bishop from 1977 to 1981.

Reportedly, a press conference and meeting of the archdiocesan consultors have already been slated for Tuesday morning in Louisville. Kurtz -- whose calendar is conspicuously empty that same day -- is scheduled to celebrate a morning Mass for and meet with his diocesan staff on Wednesday in Knoxville.