Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl delivers the homily during a Sept. 14 Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. The Mass, held on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, marked the start of a six-week "Season of Healing" for the archdiocese. CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Cardinal Wuerl says celebrating sacraments, sharing Gospel his 'greatest joy'

  • October 13, 2018
WASHINGTON – In a 2016 interview marking his 10th anniversary as archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl said he was inspired by "the faith of our people, strong faith that's manifested at every level of the life of the church."

"There's a beautiful aspect of it, and that is the unity of this church that is reflective of the faith of all the different cultures and ethnic groups that make up this church," he told the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper.

On Oct. 12, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the 77-year-old prelate. He appointed Cardinal Wuerl to be apostolic administrator of the archdiocese until his successor is chosen. As required by canon law, bishops turn in their resignation to the pope when they turn 75; the cardinal's resignation had not been accepted until now.

"The Holy Father's decision to provide new leadership to the archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future. It permits this local church to move forward," said Cardinal Wuerl in a statement.

In recent weeks, Cardinal Wuerl had faced criticism, including protests and calls for his resignation, after the mid-August release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report describing allegations of sexual abuse by priests and other church workers over a 70-year period beginning in 1947. The report covered six dioceses in that state, including Pittsburgh, which was led by then-Bishop Wuerl from 1988 until he was named to Washington.

After the report was issued, Cardinal Wuerl inaugurated a six-week "Season of Healing" to pray for and support abuse victims.

In a recent letter to priests of the archdiocese, he indicated that he would meet with Pope Francis and ask the pontiff to accept his resignation, "so that this archdiocesan church we all love can move forward" and it can experience "a new beginning."

During his tenure in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl has worked to expand educational opportunities for children and services to those in need, encouraged efforts to share the faith, championed the cause of religious freedom, led an effort to plan the church's future outreach, utilized traditional and new media to spread the Gospel, and welcomed two popes to the nation's capital.

He also established the St. John Paul II Seminary, the first seminary in the United States named for that saint.

In 2008, in welcoming Pope Benedict XVI at the papal Mass in the newly opened Nationals Park, then-Archbishop Wuerl said that the nearly 50,000 people there, including many from throughout the archdiocese, represented the face of the Catholic Church in the United States -- people from many different backgrounds who shared one faith. (Pope Benedict made the archbishop a cardinal in 2010.)

In 2015, Pope Francis traveled to Washington, and like Pope Benedict, it was his first pastoral visit to the United States.

This pope's visit included the first canonization Mass to be celebrated in this country and the first papal address to a joint meeting of Congress. Afterward, Pope Francis visited Catholic Charities and met with the homeless and poor served by that agency of the Washington Archdiocese.

Both papal visits hosted by Cardinal Wuerl were marked by large-scale efforts to help others.

One day before Pope Francis arrived, Catholic Charities announced that more than 100,000 people had taken the Walk with Francis Pledge to pray, serve or act on behalf of those in need. For Pope Benedict's visit, Catholics at local parishes and schools had collected 227,837 pounds of food for the archdiocesan Hunger to Hope Food Drive coordinated by Catholic Charities.

Under the cardinal's leadership, Catholic Charities expanded its partnerships with parishes and community groups. The archdiocese also established a Department of Special Needs Ministries and an annual White Mass for people with disabilities and their families and friends.

Cardinal Wuerl marked the Archdiocese of Washington's 75th anniversary in 2014 by convoking its first synod, with the stated goal of "building the best church we can be."

The synod's 200 participants from different backgrounds across the archdiocese drew on a widespread consultative effort -- analyzing more than 15,000 suggestions from parish and regional listening sessions and online surveys -- to chart a blueprint for the local church's future outreach in the key areas of worship, education, community, service and stewardship/administration.

A similar consultative and collaborative effort had unfolded in 2007, when then-Archbishop Wuerl called a Convocation for Catholic Education that brought together 500 educational leaders from throughout the archdiocese, who looked at current challenges facing Catholic schools and discussed the need for strategic planning to sustain Catholic schools for the future.

Among other actions, the consultation and collaboration resulted in new archdiocesan Catholic School Policies in 2009 aimed at strengthening the Catholic identity, academic excellence, governance and affordability and accessibility of Catholic schools.

Facing a financial crisis in 2007 with the archdiocese's Center City Consortium of 12 Catholic schools in the District of Columbia, a study group of parents, principals, pastors and experts in education and finance convened that spring and after extensive consultation developed a new framework for Catholic education in the city.

For the 2008-09 school year, a new Consortium of Catholic Academies included four of the schools, one of the schools stayed open as a parish school. The seven other schools became part of a values-based public charter school network, so families in those neighborhoods would continue to have educational alternatives for their children.

Cardinal Wuerl championed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and Maryland's BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) Scholarship Program, saying they provided vital educational opportunities and hope for a brighter future for children from low-income families.

As archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl served as chancellor of The Catholic University of America and worked with the university's board of trustees to develop and adopt a new governance structure intended to permit greater lay participation in the university's affairs.

Nationally known as a teacher of the faith, Cardinal Wuerl expanded the archdiocese's communications outreach to include blogs, e-letters, and various social and multimedia platforms.

Cardinal Wuerl often wrote and spoke about the need for Catholics to remain vigilant against government measures that erode religious freedom and to stand in solidarity with Christians around the world facing persecution.

Just after he was named to Washington in 2006, the prelate said that in his new role he would "first and foremost be a teacher." He added, "I want to proclaim the good news that Christ is risen. … I believe in the power of prayer, the power of faith, the power of God's grace."

His column in Catholic Standard was titled, "The Teaching of Christ," the same title as the best-selling adult catechism that he edited.

He wrote books on living the faith in today's world, the Mass, the Creed, the sacraments, Catholic marriage, and the sacrifice of martyrs through the centuries and in contemporary times. His pastoral letters examined Catholic education, sharing the faith, Catholic identity, the role of the church, the sin of racism, and God's mercy found in the sacrament of confession.

In 2018, Cardinal Wuerl issued a pastoral plan, "Sharing the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family," for parishes to expand outreach to people in different stages of married and family life.

As a teacher of the faith, he preached from the pulpit of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and during Masses at parishes throughout the archdiocese. His teaching as archbishop of Washington appeared in television and radio spots, in blogs and e-letters, and in social media and videos.

Cardinal Wuerl made evangelizing and teaching through online and social media tools a priority, and the Archdiocese of Washington became the leading diocesan presence on Facebook and Twitter. In 2012, he began his blog, "Seek First the Kingdom," and in that same year, he began writing an e-letter to directly communicate with the faithful on a range of topics and issues.

Reflecting on his 50th anniversary as a priest in 2016, Cardinal Wuerl said what has given him the greatest joy in his priesthood has been "this pastoral contact with people, making the journey with them, as together we're trying to draw closer to Jesus."

"As a priest, my task is to celebrate the sacraments with and for them, and to share the good news of the Gospel with them and for them," he said. "That's the greatest joy."

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