By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The two main focuses of the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver — family and education — have never been needed more than they are right now, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in his address Aug. 1 at the Founders Gala as the knights and ladies concluded their 100th annual national convention.
“Do we need you knights and ladies,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville.
“Just look at the injustice that has filled the streets of our cities,” he said. “You are the yeast that the dough needs if the bread of justice is to rise.”
Archbishop Kurtz said the Claver emphasis on raising dignity, especially among the young, though an emphasis on family and advancing educational opportunities resounds when he hears young people speak at an annual banquet in the Archdiocese of Louisville to celebrate African-American church leadership.
“I love it when young people come up to speak,” he said.
“What they say comes from the heart. Then always mention three things — their faith, their family and their education,” the archbishop said.
Family and education are essential in raising the dignity that the Catholic faith holds is given at conception to every human being who was created in the image and likeness of God, Archbishop Kurtz said.
“Dignity is a gift,” he said. “A child in the womb, a person who has a disability, they are to be treated with dignity because they are children of God.”
But dignity is also a “task” that requires work, he said.
Archbishop Kurtz recalled that when he misbehaved as a child, his mother could stop him cold with just these words: “What you just did is beneath your dignity.”
It is the continuing task of all believers to follow the model of the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver and constantly work to remind society of the truth of God’s love that will “raise people up to the dignity that is theirs.”
He recalled the words of St. Edith Stein, who was among the millions murdered in the Nazi Holocaust, that truth and love not only co-exist, but are necessary to each other.
“Do not accept anything as truth that lacks love,” the saint said. “And do not accept anything as love that lacks truth. One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”
Always proclaim the truth with love, Archbishop Kurtz said. And to do that, people need to be close to each other.
The archbishop said when he was a pretty good at bowling, sometimes scoring as high as 185, he learned a trick that instantly shot his average above 250.
“I walked up the lane and got within 10 feet of the pins. Could I ever bowl like the dickens,” he said, drawing laughs from his audience.
But there is a lesson there, Archbishop Kurtz said: “Error increases with distance.”
“Fathers, you want to make mistakes with your children? Stay distant. Mothers, you want to misunderstand your own children? Stay distant,” he said.
“We are not having a priority of family unless we are close,” the archbishop said.
He noted that there may be some people in that very banquet room who may have had a falling out with a member of their own families, and perhaps were inspired by the Claver message of the importance of family.
“If you are distant from a family member and came to this convention, and still do not want to reach out to that person, then this convention didn’t work,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
Rooted in a strong family, education becomes the second of two “elevators that raise up the dignity that is yours.”
Achieving an education requires self-discipline that is first learned in the family. Catholic schools reinforce those lessons and add Gospel virtues, he said.
“We’ve got kids going to all kinds of schools, and I’m for all schools being good,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
“But I’m all for making sure we don’t fall behind in Catholic schools, and for making sure they are available to everyone,” he said.
He noted that the banquet was about to honor Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis with the 2015 Founders Award, not only for his national leadership, but in particular for his Jubilee Schools program in which Bishop Steib and the Diocese of Memphis re-opened previously closed schools to provide quality Catholic education again to children in urban poor neighborhoods.
“Throughout the United States, bishops have been receiving and benefitting from the leadership of Bishop Steib,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
He also noted that Pope Francis, who has urged the church to renew and increase its outreach to the poor around the world, will be coming to the United States in a few weeks.
Pope Francis decried a “throw-away culture,” and that includes people, Archbishop Kurtz said.
“We throw away people like we throw away things,” he said.
Evangelization, he said, means drawing people close rather than throwing them away.
“You and I, if we are not evangelizers, are letting people down,” he said.
On that note of drawing people close to God, the elected leader of the U.S. bishops closed his speech with self-effacing humor.
Archbishop Kurtz told of a dream he had standing at the pearly gates with a bus driver from his home town. St. Peter leads the two men to their new homes in heaven.
They stop first at a glorious mansion and St. Peter told the bus driver that this was his home for eternity.
As they continued to walk, “the houses got smaller and smaller,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
Finally, St. Peter stopped at a one-room cottage and told the archbishop that this was his eternal reward.
“I preached God’s word,” the archbishop protested, “and he drove a bus.”
“Archbishop,” St. Peter answered, “When you preached, people slept. When he drove, they prayed.”