- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2013

The archbishop of Washington is one of 118 men who will be locked inside a chapel in Vatican City in the coming weeks to decide the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church. But he’s most looking forward to seeing the art.

“The thing that will probably be the most awesome, sitting in the Sistine Chapel, is seeing on the wall and looking at the Last Judgement,” Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl said Sunday at Washington Dulles International Airport. “Christ coming to claim the living and the dead, judge us according to our deeds. Sitting there and thinking I’m going to be judged on how open I am to the [Holy] Spirit, and how faithful I am to what I do.”

Shortly before boarding his flight to Rome, where he will join his fellow cardinals, Cardinal Wuerl reflected on the momentous responsibility he faces, revealed a few clues as to what happens behind closed Vatican doors, and offered his deepest respects for the outgoing pontiff.

“Aside from the sacramental ministry, I can’t imagine that I will ever have to do anything as important as this for the rest of my life,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “Maybe if I live to be 150, but realistically, I think this is probably the most significant thing I am going to do.”

Pope Benedict XVI, the 266th leader of the Catholic Church, will step down Thursday from his post, the first papal resignation in nearly six centuries. Since his announcement two weeks ago that he would be leaving the leadership role — citing waning health and advancing age — the question has been who will be his successor.

To decide the next pope, a papal conclave is convened at the Sistine Chapel, its walls and ceilings famously painted by Michelangelo. The conclave involves the College of Cardinals, senior officials in the church. In an age of lightning quick communication and transparency, the conclave is one of the few meetings absolutely closed off from the public eye. The cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel and remain there until a new pope is selected. Smoke wafting into the air is used to communicate the outcome of the deliberations to the outside world.

Cardinal Wuerl was present at the 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II, but this will be his first conclave as a voting member.

“One of the things I experienced in the past and look forward to now is this whole sense of quiet,” he said. “Once inside, you’re supposed to be quiet. That was my experience in seeing that before. The idea is you’re supposed to be listening to the Holy Spirit.”

Cardinal Wuerl said a few days are set aside prior to the conclave for general governance rules and details of the conclave as well as time for the cardinals to meet and introduce themselves to one another, as the men hail from all over the world.

The archbishop did not say who he had in mind as the successor, but he stressed that the incoming pope would need to be someone who could “find a balance of wisdom and energy.”

Before his flight, Cardinal Wuerl celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for the outgoing pope at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Cardinal Wuerl said that while Benedict’s announcement was a shock and surprise for some, “now that some of the dust has settled, we are able clearly to see the courage, humility and honesty of our Holy Father that would lead him to say it would be better that someone with more energy serve as chief shepherd of the church at this time.”

The role of pope requires more traveling around the world than ever before, as well as an acceptance and embracing of social media, Cardinal Wuerl explained.

“Media is so important, because it’s the way in which the Word gets out,” Cardinal Wuerl said, adding that it was a challenge that the church, bishops, and especially the new pope will have to meet to refine the “capacity to be able to speak directly to people all over the world.”