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Since his election, Francis has gained popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, thanks to his unconventional stories — he worked as a nightclub bouncer in Buenos Aires — his concern for the poor and afflicted, and his remarks on issues such as same-sex marriage.

“I can say with total conviction that it was the Holy Spirit that chose, guided the election of Pope Francis,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “You go into the conclave, there are no nominations, no candidates, no speeches, no talking. You simply pray and vote, and out of that came this extraordinary pope.”

Shortly after Francis’ anniversary, one of the church’s highest honors — sainthood — is being bestowed on John XXIII and John Paul II.

John XXIII was elected pope in October 1958, and he convened the Second Vatican Council. He died in 1963 and was beatified in 2000 by John Paul II.

“He was only pope for five years, but what an extraordinary person,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “He came in and said, ‘We need a council. We need to update the way the church functions.’”

The Second Vatican Council established the church’s constitution, increased the status of bishops and allowed the liturgy to be celebrated in vernacular languages, instead of the traditional Latin, to improve understanding among the laity.

John Paul was elected in 1978 and died in 2005. He was beatified in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI, who waived the traditional five-year waiting period to begin the sainthood process.

“For almost 27 years he dominated the world’s stage religiously, spiritually, pastorally,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “I think the reason we have so many young men in the seminary now, so many young people reassessing their relationship to the church, is the foundation he laid. I knew him before he was pope. He not only named me a bishop, he ordained me a bishop. I’ll always have a special tie to John Paul II.”

Along with major events for the year, the church as a whole is focusing on how to “live the Gospel,” the cardinal said.

While caring for the poor has always been a priority for the church, perhaps now more than ever is the reality of extreme inequality of resources.

“Around the world, more than half of the people on this planet struggle each day just to find enough food to live that day,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “It’s not for lack of food. It’s for lack of distribution. It’s for lack of sharing.”

The U.S. poverty level is an entirely different standard than those of other nations, he said.

“We need to be aware of our brothers and sisters who have so much less,” he said. “This is part of the message of the church: We are all brothers and sisters. Our God who created all of us is the God who calls all of us to care for one another. I think that’s going to be one of the big, big challenges of the future, helping refocus on the needs of others.”

Long road to Washington

Family is one of the factors that led the young Wuerl to pursue a life dedicated to the church.

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