- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

Almost a year into his job as the spiritual leader of the Washington area’s 560,000 Catholics, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl has set a personal agenda and style that are worlds apart from those of his more flamboyant predecessor.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, now retired, was known for his extroverted persona, hobnobbing with politicians and worldwide travels. His successor prefers to stay closer to home.

“I am not making the politics of the country my focus,” Archbishop Wuerl said in an interview with The Washington Times. “My focus is pastoral and spiritual as bishop.”

However, he hasn’t ruled out political involvement. In April, the archbishop met with an unspecified number of Catholic House Democrats at the D.C. home of Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut for what she called “an opportunity to get to know one another.”

“He has a wonderful style and focus on teaching. He has a willingness to listen and a pastoral approach. He appears to be a consensus builder,” Mrs. DeLauro said.

Asked about the nature of the discussion, she said: “We talked about everything but not about specific issues. People wanted the opportunity to talk about why they are serving [in Congress] and who they are.”

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said he has had several “conversations” with Archbishop Wuerl. The archbishop was a deacon at the wedding of his wife, Teresa, and her first husband, John Heinz, in February 1966.

“He’s a very thoughtful, very intelligent, strong representative of the church,” Mr. Kerry, also a Catholic, said this month. “He’s doing a terrific job. I’ve talked to him a couple of times [this year] and have had wonderful conversations with him.”

Archbishop Wuerl’s studious, precise and understated manner is a change of pace from Cardinal McCarrick’s frequent press conferences and de facto role as spokesman for American Catholic bishops. In January 2001, the cardinal had barely arrived at his Washington chancery from his previous post as archbishop of Newark, N.J., when he hosted two special dinner guests: the newly elected President Bush and his wife, Laura.

The cardinal left office a year ago, and Archbishop Wuerl was installed as the leader of Washington’s Catholics on June 22.

“I had no sooner gotten here than they invited me to the White House,” Archbishop Wuerl said.

“It was an extraordinary evening,” he said, adding that the meal in Mr. Bush’s private quarters was partly an occasion to bid farewell to Cardinal McCarrick and partly to greet him as the new archbishop and welcome Archbishop Pietro Sambi as the new papal nuncio to the United States.

Archbishop Wuerl has since been back to the White House to talk about urban Catholic schools, but the rest of his first year here has been spent comparatively under wraps, traveling the 2,104 square miles that comprise the Archdiocese of Washington.

So far, he has visited half of the archdiocese’s 140 parishes. His duties have ranged from dedicating a new Catholic high school in Olney and celebrating the Vietnamese New Year at Our Lady of Vietnam in Silver Spring to ordaining five priests last month at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“We’ve been trying to get to know this local church, which means getting around to it,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “That’s been a joy. It’s also been a challenge. It’s a big archdiocese territorially.”

David Gibson, an observer of the U.S.Catholic hierarchy and author of several books — including “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World,” released last year — said the archbishop was fortunate to have a year of adjustment before the 2008 presidential election.

“He is not a headline-grabber and he hasn’t been through a presidential campaign,” Mr. Gibson said. “Now he will be. As much as he’d like to keep a low profile and be a pastor, all those things are going to press in on him.”

Lawmakers and Communion

Archbishop Wuerl’s primary focus has been to establish himself as a teacher — much like his boss, Pope Benedict XVI, now into his third year of what religious observers and journalists have called a “teaching pontificate.”

The archbishop said he goes to Capitol Hill occasionally to meet with “a number of people on both sides of the aisle” for “conversations” to help people “form a conscience.” Just recently, he added, someone called to ask him about conscientious objection.

“The whole idea was, ‘Bishop, can you help me understand what the church’s take on this is?’ ” Archbishop Wuerl said of the dialogue with the lawmaker, whose name he did not disclose.

“I think that is one of the things a bishop can do that helps his flock: to try to help people understand the distinction between political actions and the moral import of those actions,” he said.

The archbishop’s relationships with lawmakers have generated some controversy, particularly on Jan. 3, when House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi attended Mass at Trinity University in the District. Her presence set off protests from Catholics who believe that canon law plainly bars pro-choice Catholic lawmakers from receiving Communion. A week later, the archbishop told a reporter in San Diego that he had no plans to bar Mrs. Pelosi from receiving Communion in his diocese.

“He created great scandal in the archdiocese for choosing not to deny Nancy Pelosi Holy Communion,” said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. “She persistently draws attention to her Catholic identity and her public support for abortion. He had a tremendous opportunity to set the record straight while publicly instructing her. What kind of teacher is that?”

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — wrote a letter to U.S.Catholic bishops saying they must try to convince pro-choice Catholic legislators that their stance is wrong. If the lawmakers did not change their minds, the letter said, they should be barred from receiving Communion.

Archbishop Wuerl declined to say whether he would ever take such a step.

“My primary responsibility is to teach and therefore to help every Catholic inform their conscience,” he said. “When people do things contrary to church teaching, my responsibility is to help them understand that is wrong. Sometimes that takes a lot of conversation. Sometimes you’re not successful at it.

“The next step — after lots and lots of conversation — is that if a person is acting out in a way that contravenes their faith, you ask them, ‘Do you think you should be receiving Communion?’ and even to say to them, ‘If you really do need to examine your conscience and if you can’t bring yourself to what the church calls a coherent position, don’t you think you should refrain from Communion?’

“I think that’s what the pope is talking about,” Archbishop Wuerl said.

Is there a time when teaching stops and discipline starts?

“I think there will always be a time you say, ‘For the good of the church, you are now presenting a public scandal,’ but you have to remember this person has a bishop and he has to be involved in this discussion as well. I think discipline is always the last step,” he said.

But isn’t it his right to say who receives Communion within the archdiocese?

“I don’t think it is uniquely any one bishop’s job to oversee all the politicians in the United States,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “Every Catholic member of government has a pastor and a bishop and they need to be in dialogue with them. The idea that the archbishop of Washington is somehow bishop for the nation is not acceptable.”

Inside the Wuerl pool

Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo says the archdiocese’s Hyattsville chancery has been nicknamed the “Wuerl machine” for the archbishop’s meticulous and driven work ethic.

“The hard-charging administrative style — schedule divvied up into 10-minute blocks, detailed command of figures large and small, lots of homework for aides and [bishop] — both inspire confidence and credibility,” Mr. Palmo wrote in November on his Web site, whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com.

Within three days of the papal announcement on May 16, 2006, that Archbishop Wuerl was named to the Washington see, his senior staff members were asked to come up with job descriptions and lists of their accomplishments and goals.

The archbishop’s schedule’s been so packed since coming here, he has had to forgo his habit of swimming laps, except for an occasional foray into the Catholic University pool.

“He’s a hard worker 24/7,” said the Very Rev. David O’Connell, president of Catholic University and a 20-year friend of the archbishop. “On Saturday, I was working in the garden and I got a phone call from the archbishop. I was wearing a T-shirt,” but the archbishop, he noted, was at his office. The two men talked about business for an hour on a day that most clergy take off.

“He’s not a micromanager, in my experience of him,” Father O’Connell added. “He’s got carefully honed administrative skills. He’s had those positions all his life, so he’s had a long time to develop those skills. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s a bishop’s bishop, he really is.”

The education archbishop

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 50 percent of the 475 men who will be ordained as priests this year in the United States attended a Catholic elementary school.

This is one reason why Archbishop Wuerl has spent much of his first year trying to overhaul the archdiocese’s inner-city school system. Soon after he arrived in Washington, the archbishop called in his catechists and said he wanted to hold a workshop for the archdiocese’s religious educators. On Oct. 5, 2,300 people attended the archdiocese’s first catechetical convocation to set a vision for religious education.

“We had to get everyone on the page with the same information,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “Here are the number of students we have, here’s what it costs, here is where the deficits are, here is where our potential for addressing some of those deficits lie. And … how to guarantee Catholic education in the future for the diocese and how can we guarantee we won’t outprice it.”

One of his concerns is that the Center City Consortium, a corporation created to fund eight inner-city schools, has run out of money.

“In the past 10 years, we have spent nearly $60 million,” the archbishop said, “but the number of schools has gone from eight to 14. That has overtaxed the sources. The board is working to see how we can keep as much Catholic education in the [inner-city] as possible while also being able to pay for it.”

It’s not that the archbishop is lax on fundraising.

His annual archbishop’s appeal is far ahead on donations, having raised $11.3 million in pledges, about $3 million more than it had at the same time last year. This year’s goal was $11.1 million.

Monsignor Ronald Jameson, rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral downtown, said his parish pledged 114 percent of its goal for the appeal.

“I am very impressed with him,” Monsignor Jameson said of the archbishop. “He is so organized. He spends a lot of time in preparation for ceremonies [at the cathedral] to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

In the confessional

Perhaps the archbishop’s biggest success was his first pastoral letter on the sacrament of confession, released near the beginning of Lent.

Called “The Light is on for You,” it evolved into a press campaign with 100,000 brochures in English and Spanish, a Web site (www.thelightison.org), ads on the Metro system, one billboard in Prince George’s County and radio ads.

“It was an extremely successful effort,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “A large number of priests have said to me, ‘Some of the confessions I heard in one day made the whole thing worth it.’ ”

Other pastors reported having to reorder brochures and hearing confessions of Catholics who had not taken part in the sacrament for several decades.

The Catholic Church requires its members to go to confession at least once a year, but a 1980 University of Notre Dame survey — the most recent one available — showed that one out of four Catholics never go. The archdiocese received inquiries from several other dioceses and press requests from overseas about the pastoral letter.

The success of the penance campaign raised questions at the chancery about what else can be done to reach the region’s many Catholics.

“We’ve had some meetings on how to get my voice out as pastor,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “We found out those ‘Light is on for You’ radio pieces got responses from thousands of people. I’d like to get into that whole world of popular communications.”

So when does he intend to begin a blog? The 66-year-old archbishop acknowledged that this technology is beyond him.

“Down the road I’d like to,” he said. “But you have to use sound bites and be brief and repetitious. Many of us were trained and formed in literature, philosophy, theology — the very disciplines that don’t train you to release everything into sound bites. So you have to reprogram your way of speaking.”