Archbishop Kurtz: Pope Francis Is 'Engaged' With People

Pope Francis celebrates his 77th birthday on Tuesday. Linda Wertheimer talks to the recently elected head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, about the pope's recent statements on global economics.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Time Magazine's Person of the Year is 77 today. Pope Francis continues to fascinate the world with his common touch and now with his thoughts on economics. In two recent church documents, the Pope discussed the wealth gap and the limitations of capitalism. After some American critics said that sounded Marxist, the Pope told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that while he considers Marxist ideology wrong, he has met many Marxists who are good people and he's not offended by being compared with them.

We wanted to get a sense of what the American church leaders think of their new boss so we called Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the new head of the American bishops. Archbishop Kurtz, first of all, congratulations on your election to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and thank you so much for talking to us.

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH KURTZ: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be with you and to be with National Public Radio.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this Pope is behaving in ways that we haven't seen. I mean driving his little Ford around the Vatican City, taking pictures of himself with tourists on their cell phones. This is a new man in the Vatican. What do you think of all that?

KURTZ: Well, I like it. I like the fact that he's engaged with people and he is himself. When he went to Assisi, I guess that's been about three months ago, and people asked him, are you going to ask the bishops or the cardinals to do something different, he says, I'm going to ask all of you to do something differently. And he, in a very beautiful way, but a way that disarms people, says, I want to follow Jesus Christ and I want to live a humble life.

I want to be able to serve others and not live for myself. And he's asking every one of us to do that.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Pope Francis does not differ from traditional conservative church teaching on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, but the world is interpreting what he has said as if he's saying we're focusing on something else. We're focusing on poverty, for example, on things that seem to him to be bigger.

KURTZ: Well, he certainly - our holy father is certainly saying, as you rightly said, I am a son of the church. I have a responsibility to preserve and pass on the sacred traditions. He's doing, though, in a way that says, I don't want to argue. I want to reach out and help.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you recently released his message for the World Day of Peace and the economic part of that message has gotten quite a bit of attention. He attacked the wealth gap in some parts of the world. How do you see American Catholics responding to that?

KURTZ: Well, I think what our holy father is talking about, first of all, is we cannot look at people as consumers and as producers only. And that means that as individuals, as a church and as a society we need to address the inequalities that exist within our world that often, obviously, hold people back because of the great poverty in which they live.

I think the answer that Catholics within the United States will give will probably vary. We have been known as a nation which is a nation of great charity and I hope that that level is only bolstered. But the truth is also that, as our holy father said, it's very easy for economies to forget the person and to see only the economic process, and he's challenging us.

WERTHEIMER: Well, we've seen some fairly harsh criticism of the pope coming from conservatives in this country who've suggested that when he talks about not being guided by desire for profit or his remarks that a free market is limited in its ability to help everybody, that does seem to me that he is running into an usual level of criticism for a modern pope.

KURTZ: Well, I think our holy father actually is saying many of the things that Pope John Paul II said, and certainly Pope Benedict has been very strong in speaking against a kind of unbridled capitalism, if you would. But our holy father, his emphasis is really challenging. If you've read fully both documents, but certainly the apostolic exhortation, which he talks actually a little more, I think, about economy, the joy of the Gospel, he basically is saying, listen, if I've offended anybody, that's not my intention.

My intention is to work with all people and to call forth the best of humanity.

WERTHEIMER: Do you see him as a very different figure for your church in this time?

KURTZ: Yeah. When you say a very different figure, obviously you're contrasting him, I would imagine, with the previous holy fathers. I think he himself in his statements aligns himself with what Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II have said. I think, in many ways, though, there is a new opportunity to hear the things that have been said but have not taken their full effect.

So I see our holy father as engaging the world. In that sense it's new. In that sense I think there's new opportunities for people who may have dismissed the church or dismissed their religion or their religious faith for some time to take a new look and to come back. I wouldn't underestimate the new strategy, the fact that things are said in a new way and they can captivate people and touch the hearts of people.

I think we're seeing that in many ways with - certainly I'm seeing that when I go from parish to parish with a new enthusiasm about the faith.

WERTHEIMER: Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, he is new president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States. Thank you so much for giving us all this time.

KURTZ: Oh, you're most welcome.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And on this day when Pope Francis turns 77, we want to wish him - I'm going to give this a shot here - Felicem deum natalem tibi pontifex, that is Vatican-speak for happy birthday.

WERTHEIMER: The Pope kicked off celebrations early yesterday with some young helpers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WERTHEIMER: The children, who helped him blow out the candles on his birthday cake, were patients in the Vatican's free medical clinic.

GREENE: What may be the pope's favorite present is en route from his hometown. It's some players from the Saints of Lorenzo, his favorite soccer team. They won the league title in Argentina over the weekend. The victory was something Francis had asked for shortly after he was elected head of the Catholic Church.

WERTHEIMER: The San Lorenzo club represents the poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires where the Pope grew up. It was founded over a century ago by a priest who allowed local children to use his church grounds for practice.

GREENE: The pontiff has been a member of the club for several years, paying his monthly dues religiously, according to a team official. Yesterday a delegation of San Lorenzo players and managers flew from Buenos Aires to Rome, where they will present their championship trophy in person to the pontiff. The series of events one San Lorenzo official called a gift from God.

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