ORLANDO, Florida — People are free to raise questions about certain teachings but should remember Peter is the rock of the Catholic faith, according to the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Wuerl was in Orlando for the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” and spoke with Crux about the impact of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

“We are 50 years after the [Second Vatican] Council. What’s happening is all that Pentecostal energy that the Council unleashed is now, with this Holy Father, being felt,” Wuerl said. “It has taken a long time, but the Church moves very slowly solidifying, clarifying, reaffirming her teaching. Now we are at a point where this Holy Father is saying all that energy, let’s do something with it, and people are responding and saying: I do feel my call.”

The cardinal downplayed opposition to the papacy, especially objections to the papal document Amoris Laetitia, saying it’s “not a very large group,” adding that it’s “a rather concentrated, and in a certain sense, esoteric” discussion.

“I can reflect back to my entire adult life – there has never been a pontificate where something that was issued wasn’t contested by someone,” Wuerl said.

He said he finds “a great consolation and sense of serenity” in the fact that, for Catholics, Peter is the touchstone of faith, but added that doesn’t mean you still don’t raise a question, if you “speak truth in love.”

“And I think that’s how you can gauge whether this is truly Spirit-driven or not,” Wuerl said. “The Spirit is the Spirit of patience, of peace, of love, of gentleness, of compassion, of kindness. When you hear language that doesn’t reflect that, I have to say to myself, ‘How could that be Spirit-driven?’”

The following are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Wuerl, which took place on July 1, at the beginning of the Convocation, which brought together 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity.

Crux: How are you doing?

Wuerl: I am doing well, and all the better for being here at this extraordinary gathering. To think of it, we are going to have some 3,000 people representing efforts, elements, aspects of the life of the Church in this country. I think one of the really significant elements of this is the vast majority of participants will be laywomen and laymen, and that speaks to what is happening in our Church. It’s the Second Vatican Council making its way … slowly but surely…but doesn’t the Church work that way? Slowly but surely…Think of it, when you look out into that array of people, you are going to see the face of the world, because that’s who we are in the United States: Every ethnic tradition, how many languages, how many backgrounds, how much heritage. And all there under the banner of ‘We believe in Jesus Christ.”

And you obviously find that very exciting.

Well, I do. Because isn’t that what priestly ministry, and certainly episcopal ministry, is all about? I think of it in terms of the office and the role of the bishop. His job, his task, is to maintain the unity. You have this huge, and in Washington, greatly complex Church…. the goal is to keep everybody on board as the Church moves forward. Remember, when Pope Francis was in Washington for the canonization of Junipero Serra, he kept using that motto of Serra: He kept saying, ‘siempre adelante’ – always forward – and he kept saying, “we have to move forward.” The bishop’s job is to make sure we are moving forward together.

You can probably make an argument that it is especially challenging in the United States, simply because the United States is a very rambunctious culture, and because we are so big – the Church in this country is so big – there is a tendency for people, even when there is no question of ideological disagreement, just they do different things, there is a tendency for them to work in silos.

I think that, as you say, we are so big, and I think this is healthy, we tend to do things regionally, we tend to do things according to that area of the nation that we come from. Mainly because we are too big to do much together. Even this is really just one layer – a very high-level layer – of Church. My hope is that everybody is going to come back from the Orlando experience to their diocese to their region to their parish and say okay folks now let’s us get together and do these things here.

You talk about the importance of moving forward together, and obviously trying to lift up what is a real unity often, even though sometimes we don’t see it because we become very consumed by the divisions, and the fractures, and the fault lines. But unity at this particular moment in American history, it has to be said is a somewhat counterculture enterprise, isn’t it? It’s not exactly like the larger culture, particularly our political culture, helps reinforce a spirit of common cause.

And this I think is something that I think we need to thank God for: The gift of the Spirit. When we look at – as we will tomorrow – at that crowd, whether it’s when we are having the talks, at the Mass, when we are having the presentations, and you realize what holds all of us together is our faith, because people have different appreciations of everything else going on. In our country – economically, politically, culturally socially – it’s so diverse, but the one thing that brings us together…is the Holy Spirit.

It’s like that Pentecost experience, but now we are back to what you had raised earlier, the task of trying to hold that together. But the rambunctious part is the Spirit. Is the Spirit working? Think of it: Some of my colleagues in Europe with almost envy look at the Church in this country and see how alive it is, how much energy there is, and, as you well know, that’s because of parish life.

The life in the Church in the United States is unfolding in parishes all over: In various languages, following different customs and traditions, but all bound around the Eucharist and that Creed.  But it’s being energized by laywomen and laymen. Your average parish – and I would like to think that every parish had at least a priest, and in Washington that’s still, thank God, true – but the priest has increasingly the function of holding together and making sure that the sacramental ministry is carried out while encouraging all of this activity going one.

And that really is the difference, I think, at the grass roots between American Catholicism and western Europe, in particular. I mean, our parishes, in comparison are beehives of activity. It’s like one stop shopping. Of course, at the center is the Sunday Eucharist, but around that you have got soup kitchens, and you’ve got bible study groups, and you’ve got youth ministry, and you’ve got marriage prep, and you’ve got RCIA.

I think when you take a look at that response, I think it is so on target. We are blessed with movements, but our parishes are where the life of the Church is. We don’t have to turn to a movement to say “Will you come in revitalize us?” or “Will you come in and form a seminary for us?” It’s all going on.

I think where the movements are an exceptional blessing for the Church is in two areas: In the older Church – that’s Europe – where it needs now new energy, and in those parts of the world – Asia, Africa – where they can use some evangelizing help, because they just could use some more help to do what they are doing.

I think of the growth of movements where in Europe if it weren’t for the presence of that movement in this particular area there would be nothing happening. But you’re right: The parishes do that.

We are blessed, though. It’s like the role of religious communities, particularly the great religious communities of men like the Dominicans, or the Franciscans, or the Jesuits. The goal is not to have them come in and run parishes, the goal is to have them come in and do their charism to enrich their Church. I think that is what the movements could do. They don’t need to do the parish, because the parish is already doing that.

You know that unity does not mean that we do not occasionally have our disagreements. We have seen plenty of examples of them in the Church recently. I suppose the most high profile would be divergent reactions to Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia and the idea of the cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and remarried.

When those kind of things come up – and obviously you are very well aware those clashes are out there – when they come up, what would your message be to Catholics about ways in which to voice what they perceive to be legitimate concerns about things happening in the Church, but doing it in a way that doesn’t rupture a spirit of fundamental unity?

I think we have to put this into perspective. For my perspective, the reaction you are speaking about is relatively focused, it is not a very large group, and it certainly isn’t reflected in the hierarchy of the Church, and I don’t see it reflected among most of the priests. So in a way, that’s a rather concentrated and in a certain sense esoteric discussion.

You’re saying it’s a sort of insider debate?

Put it into the perspective of two things. There has always been – I can reflect back to my entire adult life – there has been never been a pontificate where something that was issued wasn’t contested by someone.

Go all the way back to John XXIII and Mater et Magistra. And then we have Paul VI, as well. And then John Paul II, not everybody liked his social encyclicals. And then comes Benedict, and the complaint was “You can’t understand these things,” which I always found to be not a real complaint, because they were always beautifully written.

There has always been that. But on the other side, there is a sense in which what holds us together – the Creed, the Eucharist – is never challenged, so what we are talking about are things that are far further down the line.

I’m asking for you to do a little bit of pastoral counseling on the fly: If you are Catholic out there and you see something the pope has written about refugees or something the U.S. bishops have said about health care, and your instinctive reaction is negative. Obviously, the advice is to not just to stifle that because we want to hear what people think – and it’s a positive thing that people are so passionate about the Church that they want to push it – but how do you voice that in a way that doesn’t end up fueling acrimony rather than promoting unity?

This is one of the ways elements of the theological heritage of our Church. We are always free to raise questions about the presuppositions of specific teaching. We are always free to say ‘What’s that based on?’ while accepting the teaching.

I think for Catholics, the Rock is the touchstone of our faith, and that Rock is Peter. And if Peter – whatever his name is today: Paul, John Paul, Benedict, Francis – if Peter is saying “this is how we are looking at this and moving forward,” I find a great consolation and sense of serenity in that, that doesn’t mean you still don’t raise a question – such as “I’m not sure I understand this” or “what does that mean” – but we always speak the truth in love.

And I think that’s how you can gauge whether this is truly Spirit-driven or not. The Spirit is the Spirit of patience, of peace, of love, of gentleness, of compassion, of kindness. When you hear language that doesn’t reflect that, I have to say to myself “How could that be Spirit-driven?”

The touchstone of this convocation is evangelization, and in talking to many of your brother bishops it has become very clear that in many ways – although the planning, and talking, and thinking about this event was well under way before this happened – Pope Francis’s document Evangelii Gaudium, which was sort of in some ways the Magna Carta of his papacy, is also an incredibly important touchstone for this event.

The reason that document is so important is that it is the fruit of a whole history leading up to its publication, because even our Holy Father says that that is not all his work.

Few papal documents ever are!

But, it’s not as if the inspiration came from him. The inspiration goes all the way back.

I think it was Paul VI who said isn’t it time for us to begin to see how well we are going to witness to the faith? Then John Paul comes along and says we need a whole new evangelization – new in order, new in method – now Benedict comes along and calls for a synod on the new evangelization to say, ‘folks aren’t we supposed to be evangelizing disciples?’

Then out of all of that comes Evangelii Gaudium, and I think this is where Pope Francis brought such impetus to the life of the Church. He is saying every single believer is supposed to be an evangelizing disciple, and let’s go do it, and here is the document that says how we are going to do that. We are not going to recognize how profound has been the effect of Pope Francis on the Church in terms of evangelization for some time.

Next March will be the five-year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis – March 13, 2013. You just alluded to the effect of Francis in the realm of evangelization, but when we get to that five-year anniversary, at that stage what do you think the “Francis Effect” on the Church will have been?

I think it will have been an opening up onto the world with the invitation – his whole style is invitation, his whole style is to say to people ‘why don’t we together take a look at Jesus, and see if we can get both of us a little closer to him?’

I think the impact of these five years has been an opening up from ‘let us not just concentrate on how the Church is doing,’ but ‘let’s concentrate on how well are we reaching out.’ And he keeps saying that mantra: Go out, encounter, engage, and accompany. I think the five years are going to be looked on as the great opening again of the invitation to encounter Christ.

Do you think that message and that impulse to get, as he often says, to get out of the sacristy and into the street, meeting people where they are and bringing them the message of Christ – do you see that impulse filtering down to the clergy, to the laity, to the rank-and-file of the Church?

This is the big difference. We are 50 years after the Council. What’s happening is all that Pentecostal energy that the Council unleashed is now with this Holy Father, being felt.

It has taken a long time, but the Church moves very slowly solidifying, clarifying, reaffirming her teaching. Now we are at a point where this Holy Father is saying all that energy, let’s do something with it, and people are responding and saying I do feel my call.

So fair to say, you believe the enthusiasm we see for Pope Francis is the reception of Vatican II taking place?

I think it is. I think [that’s] what we are seeing – and again it takes a long time. The Spirit works through individuals, and it just takes time – for generations – to fully understand. And with the leadership that comes…remember we wouldn’t be here at least in my opinion, if we didn’t have John Paul II for 26 years. We wouldn’t be in the Francis papacy.

When you think of it: All the energy that was unleashed at the Council, and then there was the periods of confusion, there was the period where not everything was clearly focused the way it should have been. Then we had this wonderful pontificate that basically did an encyclical or an exhortation on every single element of the [Council]. With that done, now we can say we truly have a clear idea of what the Council wanted us to do, now let’s go do it. And Francis is the one saying here’s how you do that.