In this week’s discussion, Archbishop George J. Lucas interviews Archbishop Emeritus Elden Francis Curtiss in recognition of the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Archbishop Curtiss recalls his own vocation to the priesthood, shares how his relationship with Jesus has grown over the years, and talks about some of the new challenges facing priests and seminarians today.
Q: Archbishop Curtiss, you are celebrating 60 years as a priest this year, so on behalf of the whole archdiocese, I want to offer our congratulations and thanks for so many years of generosity and service as a priest and a bishop. Talk a little bit, if you would, about your life as a young person – how you began to feel yourself drawn into a relationship with the Lord, and how you came to discern his call to share in his priesthood.
I think, Archbishop, that it’s probably the same for you: It began with my mother and father. My mother had a great faith, a strong faith. In fact, I think she helped my dad develop the faith along the line. She insisted I attend a Catholic school, even though there weren’t many in eastern Oregon where I grew up. She was a very prayerful person, and that’s where it began for me.
As far as the priesthood is concerned, I don’t remember any time when I did not want to be a priest. I was playing Mass when I was about four years old. My dad said, “I think he’s going to be a priest.” It was in my mind from my earliest conscious reflections that I was going to be a priest.
Q: I imagine your parents were supportive of that.
They were, they were. I wanted to go in high school, and my mother said, “Absolutely not, he’s going to stay here. We’ve got a Catholic high school here. He can go after he graduates from high school.” So that’s what happened. I went to seminary in college.
Q: You know we developed a pastoral vision here in the Archdiocese of Omaha, and that we are encouraging everybody to see that our Lord wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. Would you be willing to share a little bit about how your own relationship with the Lord has grown over the years as a priest and bishop?
Well, I think first of my Slovenian grandmother, who spoke very broken English. Jesus was so real to her. She said to me one day when I was a boy, “You know, I must introduce you to Jesus.” And I said, “What?” She took me to a parish mission that was being preached at the cathedral in Baker, and she said, “You know what? Do you know what is Eucharist?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I think I do.” She said, “That’s Jesus’ body and blood. Eucharist will teach you how to love him.” And that’s where it started.
That personal relationship with Jesus that began at a very early age was developed in the seminary, because of the prayer life of the seminary and the studies. I think prayer every day, especially contemplative time with the Lord alone, is what develops our spiritual life. I think that’s essential for us as priests and as bishops. God knows it’s essential for bishops!
Q: How do you think the challenges facing our priests and seminarians today differ from the ones you faced when you were a young priest?
We live in a fast-paced secular culture where you’re busy, busy, busy. We are caught up in so many things, and I think it is tougher today because people are not as anchored to their communities as they were when we were young priests. The parish was kind of the center of their lives, and there was more stability. Young people today have so many opportunities, and their lives take so many different directions, so I think it’s harder in a way to be people of faith today than it was in the past.
You know, everybody just automatically went to Mass back when I was ordained. But I think that people have to make decisions now. They have to decide what they’re going to follow. What is their life going to be like? How do they want to live? What’s going to help them be happy and satisfied?
I think there is a great opportunity. I think we are going to have better Catholics and stronger priests coming than we did in the past. Although, there may be fewer of them, because you have to make the decision, and you have to stay with it. So, I’m hopeful about the future, even though we might not have the same numbers of active Catholics as we did when I was first ordained.
Q: I appreciate your hopeful attitude – the theological virtue of hope is very evident in your life and in your ministry over all these years. It’s very encouraging. As one of the senior members of our Catholic community, do you have any words of encouragement you want to offer to other people who are at the same point in life?
It is a good thing to look back on your life and see the way the Lord’s helped you through issues and difficulties and heartaches. But, it’s also important to stay very focused to realize it’s wonderful to have the experiences that we have, the people who have come into our lives, even though we have all had losses.
Rather than focus on the mistakes, what’s important is to focus on the good things that have happened to you and the way the Lord is present to you, and he wants you to have a sense of fulfillment and happiness. I think we senior people ought to be the happiest people in the world, because of what the Lord has done in our lives – even with the debilities and the sicknesses and the illnesses that we have and the gradual letting go that we have to go through.
But, if you have the sense that the Lord has walked with you and that he’s continuing to walk with you, then rejoice that you’ve had the experience that you had and you should enjoy life and be happy for what you have now.