ROME – By reputation, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. is one of the most politically astute figures in the Catholic hierarchy. As a result, he knows full well that no matter what Pope Francis says in his looming document on the family, some Catholics are going to be upset with it.

When that happens, Wuerl has a simple message: It’s the pope, folks.

“You can’t pick and choose among popes and still claim to be Catholic,” Wuerl said. “For a Catholic, the rock is Peter.”

Every pope in his lifetime, he said, “has had something to say that somebody didn’t like,” and yet “the same Spirit is guiding the Church in every different period of her life.”

Wuerl, who had not yet seen the forthcoming apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia at the time he spoke to Crux, also predicted it will reflect a “huge consensus” with a two-year process of dialogue behind it.

If, as some have suggested, the document expresses a cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Wuerl said that would not be tantamount to a pastoral revolution.

“If this document says, look, there’s a lot of space – we have to be aware that the teaching doesn’t change, but pastoral practice has to be compassionate – I think we will find that many, many of the priests are already doing that,” he said.

Wuerl told Crux he sees a definite “Francis effect” among his priests, especially older ones who carry the scars of the abuse scandals, and who today are “standing taller” because of positive reaction to the pope’s emphasis on welcome.

Wuerl spoke on Monday at Rome’s Pontifical North American College, where he was on hand for the annual Rector’s Dinner Thursday night. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: Let’s begin with the Year of Mercy. The pope’s idea was that this jubilee wouldn’t just be celebrated in Rome but in the local churches. What are you doing in Washington to make that real?

Wuerl: We were already focused for some time on the idea of making people more aware of the whole basis of our mercy, which is confession and absolution, and to make it more accessible to them. Years ago, we started something called “The Light is On for You.” It’s a program in which we all commit ourselves, one night a week during Lent, that we’ll all be in church the same night. The light will be on.

The result has been re-inserting into the conscious not just of Catholics, but of the wider community, that the Catholic Church still does confessions. That was a very important thing, because we’re now finding that we have young adults for whom it’s a part of their vision of the Catholic Church that we do confessions. That was the foundational piece.

The gist of what we’ve been saying is that it’s easy to make a visit, to the cathedral or the shrine, but when you go through that door, think of yourself as coming home again, even if you’ve never left it. Know that on the inside of that door, the mercy is waiting for you in whatever form … it’s usually confession, but whatever. My priests are telling me that over the years, ‘The Light is On’ has become so ingrained into the life of the church that Wednesday nights have become ‘confession night.’

This year, with the Year of Mercy and the added emphasis, they said two things have increased: The number of people coming, and also how long people have been away before coming to confession again. You get more people coming, and more people coming saying, ‘You know, I haven’t been here in twenty years.’

So it’s not just the frequent flyers?

No, not at all. That’s what I think is really motivating the priests. I had one older priest say to me during a break at a priest’s council meeting, “You know, I heard a confession a couple weeks ago, and if it was the only confession anybody heard during their entire ‘Light is On’ thing, it was worth it.” That was really nice to hear.

There was a young priest, only a couple years ordained, who said, “The pastor told me these things start slowly. On the first Wednesday you’ll be there for a half-hour or forty-five minutes. The second Wednesday you’ll be there an hour, the third a little longer, and so on.” By the third or fourth Wednesday, he said they heard confessions for almost three hours. He told me, “This is why I became a priest.” Then he told me, “I said to myself, I’m going to tell the Cardinal that!” He just felt so good about his role as a priest.

I think the effect we’re seeing is more subtle than demonstrative. There are lots of people who are feeling that they’re being welcomed. They’re being welcomed by this pope.

The point of this year is to foster the virtue of mercy. So, do you believe the Church is becoming more merciful because of what the pope is doing?

Is the question ‘Are we becoming more merciful?’ or ‘Are we becoming more open to people understanding that we’re merciful?’ This Holy Father projects a welcoming. I don’t see him doing him away with any of the things for which we need to ask forgiveness.

If anything, he’s adding some items to the list!

Yes, now we’re reminded that it’s harder to get through that eye of the needle.

I think where things have changed, and they’re not measurable in quantity but in quality, is the sense that people are being invited. He’s projecting an openness in the Church with which I find the priests in the archdiocese are very comfortable. They’re buying into it.

This year, we had the largest number of priests at the chrism Mass we’ve ever had. The mood was so upbeat. We had over 200 priests … twice, they had to move the reserved seats back. We has standing room only for the crowd, because we had so many priests.

The thing that was so good about it, I thought, was the upbeat mood, and it’s all the Francis effect.

You attribute that to Francis?

I do. The impact he had on his visit is still there. I would attribute all of this to him. They’re hearing his call, and his brand of pastoral ministry to ask people to come and walk with us, the ease with which he welcomes people. A number of our priests have said, “This is the way it should be.”

You’re saying this is the kind of priesthood they’ve always wanted to live, and the pope is encouraging them?

I think that’s true. They feel he is saying to them, “This is right.” I keep saying to them when we have our gatherings, the mantra is, “Go, encounter, and accompany.” That last part is essential. You don’t encounter and correct. You go out and encounter and begin to accompany people, because otherwise, if you just correct, they’re not going to walk with you the next time.

They’re not going to listen to the correction if you haven’t done the accompaniment?

That’s right.

The last ten years or so have not been an easy time to be a Catholic priest, maybe especially in the United States. Has Pope Francis made it easier to be a priest?

I’d give a very demonstrative yes to that. Under John Paul II and under Benedict, there was a lot of encouragement. A lot of young men came into the priesthood … we have a seminary filled with them.

But for many priests who have been in the vineyard a long, long time, and who have been hurt by the scandals and scarred by the tarring of all the priests by the same brush because of what some priests did, they’re the ones who are now standing taller. The younger men didn’t quite need that as much.

Pope Francis’ document on the family will be released on Friday. As we speak, have you seen it?

No, I haven’t.

No matter what it contains, someone’s going to be upset. What’s the right spirit with which people should receive whatever the pope says?

Remember that there was a process behind this document. It began in February 2014 when the Holy Father called for this process, then we had the synod of 2014 and the synod of 2015. He kept saying, this is a process of listening. It’s about hearing what people are going through, and also reminding ourselves of our teaching.

I think what we really need to do when this comes out is to recognize that this is the work of a huge consensus in the Church, whether or not absolutely everyone agrees with every aspect of it. This was two years of dialogue, and it was not closeted dialogue. It was totally public. Some of it was exaggerated, but that happens in dialogue.

It might have been a blessing that the first document that came out, the first effort to do a report, was not very well done …

You mean the first interim report at the 2014 synod?

Yes. That prompted the Holy Father to say that we need a document that reflects a consensus. That’s what this is supposed to be. It’s not just reporting everything everyone said, as if everything’s equal. If one person says one thing and forty say something else, the forty is what counts.  It took two years, and in the midst of all of that we had conferences of bishops, universities … everybody was invited to contribute.

What I think is going to come out of this is a reflection on what the Church has said and done historically that allows us today to think pastorally. Let me explain that.

At the heart of our teaching is the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Church tries to sustain and protect that revelation through her doctrine. But doctrine has to be made alive, and for the community that takes the form of canon law and for the individual it takes the form of pastoral practice.

I think we’re going to see a refreshment along those lines. We know what the teaching is, but during both synods we kept hearing that the teaching is not the same as the pastoral practice. I think we’re going to see in this document … I’d be surprised if there are conclusions, but I think there are going to be clear indications that the teaching, the law and the practice are all aspects of something far greater, and that’s the Church’s experience of the Lord. That’s going to be a huge step forward.

If a Catholic in the Archdiocese of Washington comes up to you after the document comes out to express disappointment or anger with something it contains, how will you respond?

I think our response has to always be that for a Catholic, the rock is Peter. When I don’t understand something clearly … and I have to say, there are a lot of things I don’t understand clearly in the life and practice of the Church … but the touchstone is Peter. It’s been that way throughout all of my life.

I go back a long way, as Pius XII was pope when I was in high school. Every one of the popes has had something to say that somebody didn’t like, whether it was “Mater Si, Magistra No!” [a reference to a 1961 editorial in the National Review rejecting the teachings of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra], Pacem in Terris, Humanae Vitae …You name the pope, there’s been something that some people didn’t like.

I have to remind myself, it’s the teaching of the Catholic Church. The same spirit is guiding the Church in every different period of her life. The spirit doesn’t change, so you can’t pick and choose among popes and still claim to be Catholic.

If there is a cautious opening in the document to an “internal forum” solution for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, would that change much in terms of pastoral practice in the Archdiocese of Washington?

It would be very hard to tell, because of the essence of pastoral practice. When you’re counseling someone who is trying to arrive at a conscientious conclusion, it’s between the priest and the person. It’s not the same as the bond of the confessional, although a lot of that conversation takes place in the context of confession. The last one to hear about it would be anybody outside.

But if there is some opening in the document, would that amount to a pastoral revolution?

I don’t think it would. If this document says, look, there’s a lot of space … we have to be aware that the teaching doesn’t change, but pastoral practice has to be compassionate … and there’s space to try to put all of that together, I think we will find that many, many of the priests are already doing that.

It’s why these priests were saying with “The Light is On for You”, and why they’re saying with the “Francis effect,” that “this is what we do.” I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise.

Personally, I think it’s going to be quite subtle. It’s not going to be the dissolving of marriages in the confessional, it’s not going to be annulment, but it is going to be meeting people conscientiously where they find themselves to be. This is pastoral practice, which has been a part of the life of the Church from the beginning.