Despite an undercurrent of criticism of Pope Francis in some sectors of social media, the blogosphere, cable TV talk shows, and so on, Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl says he’s experienced tremendous enthusiasm for the pontiff, and that those “threatened” and “unhappy” are “very few.”
Marking his tenth anniversary as the Archbishop of Washington, Wuerl also warned of a “growing hegemony” by secularism in American culture, and decried what he sees as a widespread media silence about anti-Christian violence around the world.
Wuerl made the comments in an interview with Crux’s national correspondent Mark Zimmermann, who’s also the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington, to mark his anniversary.
Despite controversy in some quarters over Francis’ recent document Amoris Laetitia, which appeared to open a cautious door to allowing divorced and civilly remarried believers to receive Communion, here too, Wuerl said, the overwhelming impression he’s had is of support for the pope’s approach.
“So many of the priests I know here and around the country are telling me that they find great support in the Holy Father’s encouragement that we reach out pastorally,” he said.
When he was installed as the new Archbishop of Washington in June 2006, after serving for 18 years as bishop in his native Pittsburgh, Wuerl said that day began “our faith journey together” in Washington — which, in Church terms, includes more than 620,000 Catholics in 139 parishes and nine missions in the District of Columbia and five surrounding Maryland counties.
Since then, Wuerl’s résumé includes:
- Convoking the first Archdiocesan Synod in 2014, a collaborative effort that charted a blueprint for the archdiocese’s future outreach in areas such as education, service and community.
- Hosting visits by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and Pope Francis in 2015 to Washington.
- Establishing the Saint John Paul II Seminary for the archdiocese in 2011, named for the pope who ordained Wuerl as a bishop in 1986.
- Revising archdiocesan Catholic school policies to strengthen Catholic identity, academic excellence and affordability and accessibility.
- Increasing tuition assistance for Catholic school students from low-income families.
- Being elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2010.
- Issuing pastoral letters on topics including the New Evangelization, Catholic education, the Church, Catholic identity and Confession.
Wuerl has said that among the most personally and spiritually rewarding aspects of his ministry is his pastoral engagement across the archdiocese, as well as expanding the archdiocese’s multicultural ministry, which includes weekly Masses in 20 different languages.
Washington’s archbishop said he’s inspired by the witness of young Catholics in the archdiocese, including the students who fill the downtown Verizon Center for the annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life, and young adults, whom he will be joining at the upcoming “Kraków in the Capital” World Youth Day event in Washington.
The following is a transcript of Crux’s conversation with Wuerl.
Crux: When you were named to be the archbishop of Washington 10 years ago, what where your expectations coming into the job, and did those come to fruition?
Wuerl: Over 20 years as a bishop before coming to Washington, I recognized just how complex the situation in this great archdiocese is. While it is not one of the mega-sees, in terms of population, it is arguably the most complex.
Like every diocese, it is home to numerous parishes, schools at every level, hospitals, Catholic Charities, social services and many other ministries.
In addition, one finds here the Apostolic Nunciature, the headquarters for the Conference of Bishops, the bishops’ university (The Catholic University of America) for which the archbishop is chancellor, the National Shrine for which he’s chair of the board, and headquarters for so many national Catholic organizations which over the years have included the Catholic Health Association, the National Catholic Educational Association, as well as headquarters for religious communities and their colleges and formation programs.
The list could go on.
To all of these, if only because of proximity, the archbishop of Washington has some ongoing relationships. Then when you add the layer of political structures, included is the seat of the federal government of the United States, the relationship to the District of Columbia government and also to the government of the state of Maryland, since the archdiocese includes five counties in Maryland.
Ten years ago, my initial expectation was to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could about the Archdiocese of Washington and its complex setting, and to begin to minister, as best I could, to the Church of Washington.
Over these 10 years, I have come all the more to appreciate the significance of all those other relationships, because you cannot really minister to the faithful of the Church of Washington and ignore all of those other structures, particularly governmental, which impact the faithful every day in a direct manner.
I do take great satisfaction in knowing that when we completed the first Synod of the Archdiocese of Washington in 2014, there was a general sense among the laity, religious and clergy that the archdiocese was going in the right direction and addressing the areas of essential concern – worship, education, service, community and stewardship, and doing it well.
Yes, we recognize we have a lot of work to do, but there was great comfort in knowing that we were going in the right direction.
I have a climate change question, but not about the environment. In your 10 years as archbishop of Washington, has the political climate changed? How about the climate in the Church?
I think up-close here in Washington we’re seeing the same thing everybody around the country is experiencing, which is that there does not seem to be a growing climate of engagement and cooperation. It seems that there is more political gridlock today then there was 10 years ago. There’s also the pronounced secularism that has increased across our culture in the past 10 years, which impacts strongly on the political environment.
Nonetheless, I find that there is considerable space for engagement if one is willing to take the time and make the effort.
When we come to look at the Church, I think there are two simultaneous currents.
By far the strongest is the enthusiasm for Pope Francis, his pastoral ministry and his invitation to people to stay close to the Church, even as they struggle with the many difficulties they face including, for some, a sense of alienation from the Church. I find more people open to talking about the really important elements of our faith and their relationship to God and the Church now than I did 10 years ago.
At the same time there is another undercurrent that is unhappy with the pastoral ministry of Pope Francis. For some, the starkness of his presentation of the Gospel, much like his namesake presented it centuries ago, is distressing.
Pope Francis’ constant calling us to a self-examination of our faithfulness to the Gospel appears to be threatening to some – some very few.
The presidential campaign season will be upon us in full throttle with the political conventions this month and then the campaign through November’s Election Day. What is your advice for Catholics for an especially challenging election campaign?
Going into this turbulent political period, I find the bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship” to be all the more valid and helpful.
Here we are reminded of the constant pastoral position of the Church that the transformation and sanctification of the temporal order is the work of the laity. The clergy is tasked with teaching the Gospel and presenting the elements of Christian life that are embedded in the Word of God, but the application of that teaching to the political, economic, social and cultural areas of life is the work of believing laywomen and laymen.
In my advice, I’m echoing what the bishops of the United States have said for so many years. The faithful need to inform themselves on the issues and weigh those issues in the light of Church teaching and the demands of the Gospel, and then participate in the political process in a convinced and conscientious manner.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world today, and how should the Church confront those challenges?
The challenges that the Church and, I believe, the faith is facing are on two levels, deeply interrelated.
On the cultural, social, philosophical level, there’s the growing hegemony of a secularism that sees no role in the political, social, economic and cultural orders for faith, for a transcendent reference point and therefore for the Church. The bleaching out of religious reference in the public square has led to a very serious challenge to the Church and her institutions.
Increasingly, in our country, those who find the Church’s teaching rooted in Sacred Scripture to be annoying have begun to refer to it as “discrimination” and, in some instances, to insist that the Church not be able to carry out her institutional ministries on the grounds that her message violates the rights of others. This is a new and very dangerous approach to the healthy pluralism that has always been a hallmark of our nation.
The strength of our country and its democratic way of life has always recognized the great pluralism culturally, socially, ethnically, religiously that identifies us. To begin to bleach all of the differences out, in favor of some generic gray secularism, runs counter to our history and, I believe, our freedom as a people.
On another level, altogether related but far more tangible, is the violence directed to Christians around the world. As our Holy Father has pointed out, this is an age that is seeing as many martyrs as any other time in history. Not just in the Middle East but in India, parts of Africa, Asia the persecution of Christians and particularly the Catholic Church is an ongoing, daily reality ending, for many, in death.
What is disgraceful is the great silence in so much of the media, the entertainment industry and the opinion makers when faced with this horrible reality. Atrocities occur for two reasons: 1.) There are those who commit them; and 2.) There are those who remain silent in their presence.
How would you summarize the reception that Amoris Laetitia has received in the United States, and is it making any difference in pastoral priorities and practice?
The embrace of Amoris Laetitia, its teaching, its invitation, its recognition of the human condition and its challenge to people to stay close to the Church as they struggle to walk with Christ has been extremely positive and widespread, particularly at the grass roots level.
This document grew out of two Synods and several years of reflection, consultation, listening and praying. I believe it is best described as a “consensus exhortation,” speaking from the pastoral experience of bishops around the world. It also has the advantage of being a continuity document.
Its teaching is deeply rooted in the long-standing received tradition of the Church, but now presented with the pastoral challenges that follow on every Church doctrine.
So many of the priests I know here and around the country are telling me that they find great support in the Holy Father’s encouragement that we reach out pastorally, that we embrace those whom we encounter, and that we attempt, to the best of our ability, to accompany them as we all try to make our way to closer communion with Jesus.
I also hear from a number of priests that there is nothing new in Amoris Laetitia, that this pastoral approach is something we have always attempted to do. It seems that Pope Francis has so beautifully presented the challenge to all of us, to go out, to encounter, to accompany and to engage his touching hearts and revitalizing pastoral outreach.