Roman Catholic Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh will enter the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 10 days to accept his most prestigious role in nearly 40 years as a priest.
The incoming archbishop of Washington will receive his crozier — an ornate staff shaped like a shepherd’s crook — from retiring Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick amid much pageantry June 22. He then will be escorted to his throne as the new leader of 560,000 Catholics in Washington and five suburban Maryland counties.
A week later, he will travel to Rome to receive the pallium, a woolen stole — a long, narrow piece of fabric — that all new archbishops receive as a sign of their office.
Pretty heady stuff for a thoughtful Pittsburgh boy who says he has “never been successful at sound bites.”
All of Washington’s archbishops, except the first one, eventually have been named cardinals. Chances are excellent, considering the advanced age of Pope Benedict XVI, that Bishop Wuerl will be one of about 120 men who will pick the next pope.
Bishop Wuerl will return to the nation’s capital to fill the shoes of a larger-than-life cardinal known for behind-the-scenes politicking, speeches at hearings and protests, visits to the White House, letters to the president and Congress on topics of the day, and chairmanship of a task force on how to respond to pro-choice Catholic politicians.
Cardinal McCarrick’s successor is a bookish, almost austere scholar who reads ancient Greek and Roman history for relaxation. When pressed to name a sport he likes, he finally says he enjoys tennis and swimming.
“My life is really the church,” Bishop Wuerl says in a lengthy interview. “I’ve felt no need to get away from it.”
“He’s been an effective bishop in Pittsburgh,” observes Robert George, a Princeton scholar and writer on the Catholic Church. “He made his reputation writing a catechism before the church published its official catechism [in 1992]. But he has a big task in front of him. He’s shifting into a national spotlight where he’s never been before.”
Bishop Wuerl’s name has circulated for 10 years as the logical one to replace retiring prelates in some of the nation’s top dioceses. But other men were appointed to sees in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago while he waited in the wings.
In July, Cardinal McCarrick reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. Once again, Bishop Wuerl’s name hit the rumor mill.
On May 8, Bishop Wuerl was called out of a meeting to take a call from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the new papal nuncio to the United States.
“The Holy Father is transferring you to Washington,” he was told.
Bishop Wuerl denies he was angling for the job, one of the most influential posts in the U.S. Catholic Church.
“One of the signs to me that this really is what God wants … is that I never asked to leave Pittsburgh,” he says.
“It’s funny they appointed him to Washington,” muses Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, “which may be some kind of indication of what Rome wants. They don’t want a hot actor in Washington or someone who’ll be immediately divisive. Wuerl’s a teacher, which would comport well with what Benedict wants.”
Which is to be a teacher, not a prophet.
Which suits Bishop Wuerl just fine.
Called as a teen
Born in Pittsburgh on Nov. 12, 1940, Bishop Wuerl was mentored as a teenager by his parish priest at St. Mary of the Mount Catholic Church, the Rev. Joseph Bryan. After reading “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales and other Catholic classics, he enrolled at Catholic University for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy.
“At a certain point,” he says, “you feel you’re being called; that this is what God has in store for you.”
At 23, he was picked to study at the North American College in Rome, considered a training ground for future church leaders. Arriving in 1963, he became assistant to Cardinal John Wright, the bishop of Pittsburgh, during the last two years of the Second Vatican Council.
Although the seminarians were not allowed in the sessions themselves, he says, “We listened to summaries of the talks during lunch in the refectory.
“The excitement captivated us. We got to drink in the spirit of that council and the changes abroad in the church.”
He was ordained in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1966, then sent back to Pittsburgh, where the cardinal retained the young priest as his secretary.
When the cardinal was named to head up the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy in 1969, Father Wuerl moved to Rome with him. He taught at the University of St. Thomas, known as the Angelicum, and co-authored “The Teaching of Christ,” a well-received Catholic catechism published in 1976.
“He’s definitely the teaching bishop,” says David Scott, a Catholic writer in Pittsburgh who formerly wrote for Our Sunday Visitor. “He writes more than probably any bishop in the United States. He always has something long in the diocesan paper. Right now, he’s going through the apostolic exhortations of John Paul II, and that’s after he went through the encyclicals.”
Returning to Pittsburgh in 1980, Bishop Wuerl spent five years at St. Paul Seminary, west of the city, as vice rector and then rector. At the end of 1985, he was summoned to Washington by papal nuncio Archbishop Pio Laghi for a face-to-face meeting.
“He indicated I was going to be named a bishop and sent to Seattle,” Bishop Wuerl recalls. “It was a great shock and a great surprise because I was quite happy doing my work here.”
The Vatican no longer trusted Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, seen as a church liberal who dissented on key issues. Wanting to bring in a loyalist alongside him, Vatican officials searched for the right American priest for the job. Pope John Paul II remembered a certain priest he had met in the bureaucracy of the Congregation for the Clergy.
Bishop Wuerl was summoned to Rome for an extra boost of encouragement for the unenviable task. The pope himself consecrated Bishop Wuerl on Jan. 6, giving him one of his own mitres, a pointed hat that bishops wear. John Paul had worn it during a visit to the Netherlands, where crowds jeered him.
It was a hint of things to come. Archbishop Hunthausen was ordered to delegate final authority to Bishop Wuerl in several areas in which the Vatican considered the archbishop remiss — ministry to homosexuals, liturgy, the marriage tribunal, medical ethics, former priests and priestly formation.
The Seattle prelate unhappily put up with this state of affairs for nine months, then took the unusual step of making public and denouncing the unusual arrangement at a press conference, causing an ecclesiastical uproar. Suddenly, Bishop Wuerl, previously a minor player on the national church scene, became a media sensation.
At the November 1986 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, reporters pursued both Archbishop Hunthausen and Bishop Wuerl — who stoically refused any comment — around the Washington Hilton.
“It was an opportunity to learn a great deal,” the bishop says today. “The understanding [between the Vatican and Archbishop Hunthausen] broke down soon after I was there. There was a general agreement on the broad outline of what would happen, but there was a disagreement on what it would entail.”
Eventually, a commission of two cardinals and one archbishop brokered a deal that restored Archbishop Hunthausen’s powers, brought in a new bishop as his designated successor, and sent Bishop Wuerl back to Pittsburgh to await a new assignment.
Bishop Wuerl talks little about the painful 17 months he spent in Seattle, nor of the nine months cooling his heels until then-Pittsburgh Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua was transferred to Philadelphia. In March 1988, Bishop Wuerl was installed as bishop of Pittsburgh.
Back on familiar turf, Bishop Wuerl soon realized he had a different crisis on his hands. Some 200,000 residents had emigrated out of western Pennsylvania in the past two decades because of Pittsburgh’s rapidly contracting steel industry, and by the late 1980s, it was clear there were too many parishes for too few Catholics.
Starting in 1989, the bishop began a sweeping series of mergers and closures, shutting 36 churches outright and merging another 130, often doing away with old parish names and creating new parishes that lacked the heritage of their mother parishes.
The number of churches dropped from 333 to 214 today. This did not go over well with many Catholics in the diocese, especially those in historic ethnic churches started more than a century ago when Hungarians, Poles, Italians and other Catholic Europeans poured into western Pennsylvania for jobs in its exploding steel mills.
“We had areas with six or seven parishes in communities of 20,000,” says the Rev. Frank Almade, the new diocesan vicar for clergy. “In some of those ethnic parishes, they had not sung a song in their native language in two generations.”
Many Pittsburgh Diocese Catholics — who numbered about 830,000 in 1994 and 780,000 today — were furious at the closing or merging of their beloved churches. They held candlelight vigils and rosary processions in protest. But a lawsuit filed in a Pennsylvania state court against the diocese was found to be without merit, and today the bishop says he’d have 75 priestless parishes had he not taken drastic steps 15 years ago.
“People have been going, period,” says Bob Lockwood, editor of Pittsburgh’s diocesan newspaper. “There’s been very old demographics here.”
Still, 14 priests head up more than one parish. To compensate, Bishop Wuerl announced in April a plan to have “parish life collaborators” — laypersons, nuns or deacons — run a parish.
“No bishop wants to have a parish without a priest,” Father Almade says. “But you can’t grow priests from rocks, and if you do not have the vocations, you have to make sure the people have pastoral care.”
Not everyone in the diocese is happy at having to do without a priest, but the bishop got a partial pass by being a native son.
“He remains one of us,” Father Almade says. “You can move the Pittsburgher out of Pittsburgh, but you can’t take the Pittsburgh out of him.”
Bishop as teacher
For 30 years, since publication of his catechism, Bishop Wuerl has concentrated on his first love: teaching. He remains a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he delights in interacting with students and make the essentials of the Catholic faith understandable to laity.
His nationally syndicated half-hour TV program, “The Teachings of Christ,” has been running for 17 years. His resume lists 10 topics that he has recorded on video, ranging from the rosary to the priesthood, baptism and the fathers of the church.
He’s a stickler for clarity. Two years ago, the Pittsburgh prelate was not happy with the theological free-for-all the 2004 election became when bishops openly disagreed with each other over whether to withhold Communion from pro-choice Catholics.
In August, he pleaded with fellow bishops — in a 2,800-word statement released to Catholic News Service — to shape up. He was well thought of among the group, having come in third for president of the USCCB in 2004.
“Actions taken by one bishop within a diocese can have immediate national impact and affect the bishops of the rest of the dioceses throughout the country, especially neighboring dioceses which share the same media market,” Bishop Wuerl wrote.
“There’s tension in the conference on how to approach political questions,” Mr. Roberts says. “Wuerl was one of the frankest to bring it out to say we need some kind of mechanics on this thing.”
Archbishop of Washington
Bishop Wuerl makes it clear he does not plan to be a media star in his new job.
“I’ve never been successful at sound bites,” he confesses. “The whole idea is not to make statements but help people understand why you’re saying what you’re saying. You need a premise, a major [point], then a minor, then a conclusion to make your point. You cannot do that in sound bites. So I’m not a good subject for interviews.”
His first year, he says, will be spent getting to know the Archdiocese of Washington and the many Catholic institutions in town.
“The role of the church in a pluralistic society and public debate is to present Gospel values and the teaching of the church,” he says. “So, you want to be present to make your voice heard.
“The bishop has to proclaim the faith. My vision is to proclaim it in such a way to try to convince people of its value, its truth, its coherence.”