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Archbishop Curtiss looks at his priesthood

Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss, who turned 76 on June 16, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. The official celebration took place June 26 beginning with a Mass at St. Cecilia Cathedral. A reception at the Cathedral Center followed.

Along with observing his 50th anniversary as a priest, Archbishop Curtiss is celebrating his 32nd anniversary as a bishop and 15th anniversary as an archbishop.

The archbishop was born in an Oregon pioneer family June 16, 1932. His parents were Elden Francis Curtiss Sr. and Mary A. Curtiss. They are both deceased. He has three brothers - Tom, Dave and Don.

His father was born in Baker City, Ore., and his mother was born in Slovenia. His parents met in Baker City, where his mother had moved for nurses training. They were married in 1931.

At the age of 25, he was ordained to the priesthood May 24, 1958.

From 1958 to 1970, he served as an associate pastor, hospital chaplain, campus minister, superintendent of schools and pastor in the Diocese of Baker in Oregon.

He was appointed director of pastoral formation at Mount Angel Seminary in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon in August of 1970. He was named president-rector of the seminary in January of 1972.

He was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Helena in western Montana in 1976.

In 1993, he was appointed the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Omaha.

Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, apostolic pro-nuncio to the United States, presided at the archbishop's installation at Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum in Omaha June 25, 1993.

Attending the installation were three cardinals - Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Roger Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles - nine archbishops, 30 bishops and more than 125 priests.

Archbishop Curtiss was invested with the pallium - symbol of office of a metropolitan archbishop - by Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome June 29, 1993.

In the following interview with Charlie Wieser, executive editor of the Catholic Voice, Archbishop Curtiss shares some memories of his childhood in Oregon, his priesthood and his years as a bishop.

Q: It's always interesting to go back to the beginning. What are some of your early family memories?

A: My parents came from a long tradition of Catholicism and were active in their parishes. My mother was a very prayerful woman. She taught her sons how to pray and to be active in the church.

Some of my favorite memories are of Christmas and Easter with my family.

Our Christmas dinners were wonderful because it was a time when the Curtiss family gathered to celebrate our blessings.

Midnight Mass was a highlight for me. We'd all go to the cathedral in Baker City.

During Easter, we celebrated with my mother's side of the family.

Before the big meal on Easter, my Slovenian grandfather, who provided the home-cured ham, would toast the risen Lord and then say: "Good meat. Good wine. Good company. It's the beginning of paradise."

Q: When did you first hear the call to priesthood?

A: I'm one of those priests who knew from a very early age that I was born with a vocation to the priesthood.

My mother told me that I practiced celebrating Mass when I was just 4 or 5 years old. She knew I was going to be a priest because of the many signs I gave in my formative years. She always encouraged me.

When I was a young child, I felt very much at home in church. I was intrigued by what was going on at Mass.

I have to admit that outside of church I played as aggressively as other children, but in church I knew something special was happening.

The priesthood was always on my mind, so I wanted to go to high school seminary. At that time, my mother told me: "No. You stay home. You have a good family here. You stay home through high school and then after high school you can go if that's what you want."

So that's what I did. My parents were happy and very supportive.

When I went to St. Edward's Seminary in Seattle in 1950, I felt that I was at the right place even though seminary life was very strict in those days. I liked the seminary

routine and structure, with my days consisting of prayer, the celebration of the Eucharist, studies and recreation.

I enjoyed the classes, especially studying the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. I began to see how a good foundation in philosophy formed the basis for solid theology.

In the years of priesthood that followed, as a parish priest, seminary rector and bishop, the daily routine I learned in the seminary served as the foundation for my daily routine throughout my life. I cannot underestimate how important these disciplines, learned during those eight years in the seminary, have been to my life and ministry as a priest and bishop.

In the seminary in the 1950s, we pursued an intimacy with the Lord in the Eucharist, which led us to an intimacy with his people. We learned how Jesus responded to people in all kinds of circumstances, and we'd meditate on the reality that God so loved the world that he sent his son as a man to minister to us. We priests have the unique privilege of continuing this priestly ministry in our own day to our own people. This mystical dimension of the priesthood was and continues to be essential to understanding the ordained priesthood and what it means to be a priest of Jesus Christ.

Following the Second Vatican Council, there were some who emphasized the role of the priest as one who leads the congregation in the Eucharist as a family meal rather than as the paschal mystery of the suffering and death of Jesus, which is essential to the Eucharistic celebration. Pope Benedict XVI is striving to bring us back to this essential understanding of the Eucharist.

I think the Church and vocations to the priesthood will be energized by this re-orientation by the pope to the essential nature of the Eucharist and priesthood. Young people today seem to recognize this need to identify the ministerial priesthood with the ongoing ministry of Jesus with his people.

Q: What were some of the challenges you witnessed after the Second Vatican Council?

A: I was ordained in 1958, which was four years before the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, so I was very much a part of the pre-Vatican II Church.

I read the documents from the Second Vatican Council, but early on I became concerned about the interpretations of these documents by some people. I did embrace the reforms in the liturgy, and I was enthusiastic about the possibilities of involving lay people in more profound ways in the mission of the Church. But I was uneasy with the theologians, catechists and liturgists who were calling not only for a renewal of the Church, but for a reformation of the Church.

This is why I responded to the call from the monks of Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Ore., to be an instructor at their seminary. It was 1970 and I was a pastor of a rural parish in eastern Oregon, but Bishop Francis Leipzig of Baker City allowed me to be assigned to Mount Angel Seminary.

At the seminary I proposed to the administration that the seminary should be a microcosm of a diocese with clear lines of authority and structure as well as promoting clear fidelity to the magisterial teaching of the Church. I also proposed that the faculty be concerned not only with the documents of Vatican II, but with those of all the previous general councils of the Church.

These proposals were not accepted by all the administrators and faculty, but in January of 1972, I was appointed president and rector of the seminary.

It was a difficult task to reconcile the views of the reformers with those of the traditionalists on the seminary faculty. It was important for the traditionalists to accept all the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and to accept the fact that major reforms in liturgy, parish structures and the role of the laity were here to stay. At the same time it was important for the reformers to accept the fact that it was the same Church as before, but with new emphases and developments.

My goal was to maintain a creative tension between opposing views about interpreting the Second Vatican Council without compromising the traditions of the Church and her magisterial teaching, and at the same time not compromise the reforms of Vatican II.

Q: When you were appointed the bishop of the Diocese of Helena in Montana in 1976, what was your reaction?

A: I received a call from my bishop, Thomas Connolly. He told me: "You better sit down. I have a letter from the apostolic delegate (Archbishop Jean Jadot) saying Pope Paul VI wants to appoint you as bishop of Helena."

I told him I couldn't believe the pope was asking me to be a bishop because I was only 43 years old.

I remember telling Bishop Connolly that I didn't feel right about it because I was so young and I didn't feel I was prepared to be a bishop.

Bishop Connolly told me: "You can't turn down the pope. You are better prepared to be a bishop than I was. You've been a pastor and the rector of a seminary. Of course you're ready."

Q: What was your diocese like in Montana?

A: The Diocese of Helena covers almost 52,000 square miles, the western third of Montana. There were 65,000 Catholics in 58 parishes, about 80 priests and practically no Catholic schools.

With few Catholic schools, I started the Catholic Youth Coalition to work with youth. We had a camp at Legendary Lodge at Salmon Lake. It was a beautiful location for bringing together high school students for leadership training in an effort to get them more involved in the Church.

During my 17 years in the Helena Diocese, I worked with many priests and people who were committed to the Church and wanted to live as authentic Catholics in a changing world.

Q: Tell me about the synod in the Diocese of Helena.

A: The 1988 Synod was called to consult the people of the diocese and to listen to them. I felt we couldn't move forward with confidence as a diocese unless we achieved support from most of the people. We needed parishioners to take more responsibility for the life and ministry of the Church in order to ensure the renewal, the resources and the unity we needed for the future.

During the event, which was held Aug. 8 to Aug. 11, we addressed several topics, including how to best minister to the people of the diocese, the religious formation of the people of God, the structuring of parishes, finances, moral theology and the diocesan mission in Guatemala.

It truly was a significant occasion in the life of the Diocese of Helena and a model for the consultative process that we needed as the Church of western Montana.

Q: One of the big things addressed was the mission you had in Guatemala. Can you tell me about that mission?

A: At the Second Vatican Council Bishop Raymond Hunthausen (then the bishop of the Helena Diocese) was told by a bishop from Guatemala about the desperate situation there - lack of priests, poor facilities and few programs for his people.

It was during Vatican II that Pope John XXIII asked western bishops to help with the Third World and to share some personnel and resources with these struggling churches. That's what was done between the Helena Diocese and Guatemala and it continues to this day. While I was the bishop in Montana, I went about every 12 to 14 months to the missions. I had two priests working there in my time. There's one there now.

Q: In your life as a priest and bishop, what have you done to promote and support vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life?

A: Let's go back to my early years as a priest, when I was the Catholic chaplain at Eastern Oregon State University. I saw many young people who were looking for truth and meaning in their lives.

That's when I realized that many young men and women would be open to vocations if they were invited and supported in their decision.

Yes, times have changed. When I was growing up, there was no way I could have escaped the priests and sisters in our classroom who were always inviting me to think about the priesthood. It was a common practice back then to be asked by clergy and religious to consider a priestly vocation.

Now, we need a new "feeder" system that includes Catholic parents, school teachers and parishioners who are willing to pray for vocations and ask our young people to consider the priesthood or consecrated life.

We also need to teach our young people to pray and to be devoted to the holy Eucharist, so that the call to them will not be missed.

When I was bishop in Helena, I was elected by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops to chair the bishops' Vocation Committee. This gave me the opportunity to address vocation issues on a national level and encourage my fellow bishops to make stronger efforts to develop vocation ministries in their dioceses.

Later, as Archbishop of Omaha, I served six years as episcopal advisor for Serra International, an organization of lay people whose primary purpose is to support vocations to priesthood and consecrated life. It was my privilege, in many places throughout the world, to emphasize that the Eucharist, which is the very life of the Church, is available to us only through ordained priests, so it's a necessity, not an option, for the Church to foster new vocations.

What I've learned these past years is that vocations will flourish if:

• A significant number of priests in a diocese are committed to the priesthood as the Church defines it, and are happy in their priesthood and willing to promote it.

• Women religious support the ordained priesthood.

• Lay people support vocations to priesthood and consecrated life.

Q: Now that you are celebrating your 15th anniversary as archbishop of the Archdiocese of Omaha, can you point to some highlights of your time here?

A: So much has happened these past 15 years, and continues to happen here.

When I arrived in 1993, the Archdiocese of Omaha was smaller in square miles (14,000 as compared to 52,000 in the Helena Diocese), but there were more Catholics (225,000) and more parishes (156) and definitely more schools.

And there was Creighton University, the College of Saint Mary and Boys Town, so the educational ministry here was tremendous, and it remains that way today.

One of my priorities has been to make sure our education system remains one of the best in the country, and that's been done (see page 15), thanks to the hard work and support of so many people in the archdiocese.

We've also worked hard to raise the funds to keep our parishes, schools, archdiocesan agencies and ministries strong for the years ahead. An Annual Appeal was started (see page 20) to provide us with some of the funds needed to serve the people of the archdiocese.

And let's not forget the Eucharistic Congress and Synod Assembly. Those were historic events.

The proclamation declaring the fifth synod of the Church of Northeast Nebraska was given on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2003. It was a continuation of and a response to a year of study, reflection, discussion, prayer and renewed liturgical worship.

Earlier, we celebrated a Eucharistic Congress on April 27, 2003, at the Civic Auditorium in Omaha. It was a magnificent celebration of faith.

In the dismissal rite of the Eucharistic Congress, I offered a special mandate to the assembly and the entire archdiocese: "We have to manifest in a public way our lives of faith grounded in the Eucharist. We have to channel the energies stirred by the movement of the Spirit in us and in our faith communities."

I found it fitting that the Eucharistic Congress and Synod Assembly shared the same theme: "Called from Worship into Service."

Over the course of the three days of the Synod Assembly - July 11 to 13, 2004 - more than 100 lay, religious and clergy participants shared discussions, insights, practical questions and hopes for the future of the Church of Northeast Nebraska. The synod delegates were shining examples of the faith-filled people we have throughout the archdiocese. I sent them from the assembly to be a spark for the fire of renewal in each parish community as we strive to implement the work God has begun in us.

The synod recommendations looked at leadership and collaborative ministry, liturgy and prayer life, faith formation, vocations, ministry to aging members, and outreach to people so we can be more effective as inclusive faith communities.

Another dream of mine was to have an archdiocesan youth camp (see page 22).

When I learned they were going to name the camp after me, I told them I thought it was a little premature. Usually something's named after you after you retire. But I'm honored they named it after me.

I felt a youth camp was important because Omaha was the only diocese in the area that didn't have some kind of camp. The youth camp and retreat center will become very important in the lives of the people of the archdiocese, especially for our youth because they need to come together and have a good time and enjoy the beauty of that place and to celebrate their faith, but in a more relaxed way.

Q: When people tell you they are unhappy with the Church, what is your response?

A: To be faithful Catholics means that we accept the Church as a gift of Christ to us. We accept the wisdom of the Church, even when we cannot always understand it or appreciate it. We should stay with the Church no matter what happens.

I've learned that when I'm faithful to the magisterium of the Church and support Sacred Tradition, I'm at peace with myself and the people around me.

Q: What have you learned in your 32 years as a bishop?

A: I've discovered over these years that when we learn to do the will of the Father as did Jesus, the life and ministry to which we are called not only are possible, but actually become a joy. I've always enjoyed the people to whom I have been called to serve, even when there have been disagreements and tensions.

Despite the disappointments and failures I've experienced, I have been able to maintain a sense of gratitude for the call that Jesus gave me so many years ago, to follow in his footsteps as a priest and then as a bishop.

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