WASHINGTON, D.C. — Holding his shepherd’s staff and smiling, Cardinal Donald Wuerl walked to the front and center of the sanctuary of the Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington after Communion at a Dec. 17 Mass there, to have a heart-to-heart talk with the 47 seminarians seated nearby in the pews of the Mary, Mother of the Church Chapel.
“This day has a very special meaning for me,” he said. “There’s no place I’d rather be for this Mass, than with all of you, who represent the next generation of Christ’s priests.”
The seminarians included 26 of the Archdiocese of Washington’s 75 men studying for the priesthood, along with 21 men from other dioceses across the country who live at the seminary and study at the nearby Catholic University of America.
On that day exactly 50 years earlier – Dec. 17, 1966 – Donald Wuerl had knelt at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as Bishop Francis Reh, then the rector of the North American College there, placed his hands on the young man’s head, ordaining him to the priesthood.
Over the years, the Pittsburgh native’s priestly journey spanned from serving as a priest in the Steel City and at a Vatican congregation in the Eternal City, to becoming an auxiliary bishop in Seattle and then bishop of his home Diocese of Pittsburgh, and ultimately to becoming the cardinal archbishop of Washington.
In that time, his titles had changed from Father to Bishop to Archbishop to Cardinal Wuerl, but his life as a priest continued, beginning each day with prayers and Mass before carrying out his responsibilities.
And when it came time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his priesthood, Wuerl did it quietly, first on the exact day of the anniversary with a Mass at the seminary that he had founded five years earlier, then the next day with a public Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
“Priesthood unfolds day by day doing the ordinary things that priests do, and the primary thing that a priest does is celebrate Mass with his people, with his community, with his congregation, with his flock,” he said in an interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
“So what I did was, I celebrated Mass at the cathedral. That seemed like the appropriate place to be, because that’s my church,” he said. “We gathered for just the ordinary Sunday Mass. We had the opportunity to do what every priest does – preach, celebrate Mass and then be there with his flock. That for me made this all the more special.”
The cardinal’s 50th anniversary as a priest came in a year of milestones for him. January marked his 30th year of his ordination as a bishop, and June marked the 10th anniversary of his installation as archbishop of Washington, and Wuerl, who is now 76, celebrated all three with Masses.
“Every day I thank God for the vocation and the challenge of being a priest for all people,” he said in the interview, noting that priests are called to make Christ present in the world, through the sacraments, by preaching the Gospel, and by encouraging their people to reflect and share their faith in their daily lives.
In the interview, Wuerl said he was “so grateful for the grace to have persevered in the formation and preparation for that call, and then above all else, I’m grateful for the ordination itself.” In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest is configured to Christ as head of his Church, and changed, the cardinal said, noting that the priest begins to see life through a different lens, trying to be a good shepherd to the people he serves.
“So thanksgiving, that’s the word that dominates in my mind and in my heart and on my lips at this time of anniversary – thanks to God for the very grace, the grace to try to be a priest, to serve God’s people. It’s all grace anyway. Everything is God’s grace,” the cardinal said.
Growing up with two brothers and a sister in the Mount Washington neighborhood on a hillside that offers a panoramic view of the city of Pittsburgh and its three rivers, Wuerl had been inspired by the example of his parents and by the priests and Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters who staffed St. Mary of the Mount Parish and its elementary and high school.
His father, Francis Wuerl, worked the night shift for the Pennsylvania Railroad weighing freight cars. Many neighbors worked at the bottom of the hill in steel mills that once lined the riverfronts.
In an earlier interview, the cardinal said his father “was a man who placed a high priority on duty, duty to his family, duty to his Church and duty to his job. All of us learned a wonderful work ethic from him…He reminded us all the time we had to be responsible for what we did, responsible for who we were, and that you have to make your way in life, always able to say at the end of the day to God, ‘I did my best.’”
A young parish priest at St. Mary of the Mount, Father Joseph Bryan, encouraged the students to pray every day, spent a lot of time with them, and also offered them spiritual direction. As a teenager, Donald Wuerl bought a copy of St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual classic, “Introduction to the Devout Life,” which the cardinal still keeps today in his apartment, by the kneeler where he prays.
Inspired by that priest’s example and encouragement, Wuerl entered the seminary in 1958, studying to be a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Another key influence for Wuerl’s life as a priest and bishop was Cardinal John Wright. As a seminarian studying in Rome in the mid-1960s, Wuerl ran errands for Bishop Wright, who as bishop of Pittsburgh was participating in the Second Vatican Council.
After being ordained as a priest and serving at a parish, Wuerl was appointed as Wright’s priest secretary, a role he continued from 1969-79 when the bishop was appointed to head the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.
“He loved the Church, he loved teaching the faith, and he loved being part of the community,” said Wuerl, who was encouraged by Cardinal Wright to help edit the best-selling Catholic catechism for adults, “The Teaching of Christ.”
Over the years, Wuerl has become known as a teacher of the faith, and has published recent books about the Mass, prayer, the sacraments and marriage.
Washington’s cardinal archbishop was also inspired by the priestly example of Saint John Paul II, who as pope had ordained him a bishop in 1986, appointing him as an auxiliary bishop of Seattle and then two years later, as the bishop of Pittsburgh, which he led for 18 years until 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI named him archbishop of Washington.
When Wuerl founded a new seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2011, he named it for Pope John Paul II, whom he said offered an example to the future priests studying there, of a man who devoted his life to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to his flock, which in the pope’s case, involved traveling to 129 countries around the world during his nearly 27-year pontificate.
The seminary’s chapel includes two relics of Saint John Paul II – a liturgical vestment worn by him, and also the saint’s blood stained on the cassock that the pope was wearing when he was shot and critically wounded during an assassination attempt in 1981 in St. Peter’s Square.
And for the cardinal’s 50th anniversary as a priest, a third reminder of the seminary’s patron saint was added to the chapel there – a stone that the pope blessed at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during his 1979 visit to Washington. Engraved on the stone were words commemorating the cardinal’s priestly anniversary celebrated on Dec. 17, 2016 at the seminary.
The cardinal celebrated his anniversary Mass at the seminary’s chapel, standing at the altar that Pope Benedict XVI had used at his Papal Mass at Nationals Park during that pontiff’s 2008 pastoral visit to Washington, which Wuerl had hosted.
His anniversary also reflected the seminary’s special ties to another pope. One year earlier, Pope Francis after celebrating the Canonization Mass for St. Junípero Serra at the National Shrine, had visited the seminary, encouraging the seminarians there to adore Jesus in the way they prayed and also in how they served others.
The seminarians had stood on the steps, offering the pope a rousing greeting, and he jokingly asked if that was how they greeted their bishop when he visited.
So on Dec. 17 when Wuerl’s car pulled up to the seminary for his 50th anniversary Mass as a priest, the seminarians were waiting on the steps, cheering and waving wildly.
At the Mass, the cardinal told the seminarians that the priesthood “is all about standing in the place of Jesus” in today’s world. “Be someone willing to say, ‘Jesus, I give myself to you,” he said.
Concluding his remarks to the seminarians and priests there, Wuerl said, “This house has a very special place in my heart… Thank you for sharing this Mass and this day with me.”