Washington Archbishop Speaks Softly and Carries a Light Crozier

c. 2007 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ Finding the right bishop to lead a Catholic diocese, a Vatican envoy once said, requires identifying “the `saint’ who fits the niche.” One year after he was named archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl won’t say he’s the right “saint” for the nation’s capital. That’s determined by “the Architect,” […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Finding the right bishop to lead a Catholic diocese, a Vatican envoy once said, requires identifying “the `saint’ who fits the niche.”

One year after he was named archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl won’t say he’s the right “saint” for the nation’s capital. That’s determined by “the Architect,” said Wuerl, 66, gazing heavenward.

In the U.S. Catholic Church, there are few niches as prominent as the Archdiocese of Washington, where the archbishop’s influence extends far beyond his flock of 140 parishes and 560,000 Catholics.

Often, the archbishop here becomes a de facto spokesman for the U.S. church, and one of its primary representatives in national politics. Moreover, Washington is one of the handful of U.S. dioceses whose archbishop is traditionally promoted to cardinal, which means he has a say in who becomes the next pope.

One year into what is expected to be at least a decadelong tenure, the softspoken archbishop provides a possible window into how Pope Benedict XVI plans to staff prominent posts in the worldwide church.

“He almost epitomizes the kind of people that Benedict will be looking for to appoint bishops,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center who has written widely on the church. “He’s smart, he’s theologically educated but he’s not a cop.”

The news last May that Wuerl would succeed the popular Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was met with relief in some Catholic camps, who feared Benedict would appoint someone who might use the high-profile pulpit to chastise wayward Catholic politicians, as a few bishops have done.

But a larger question also loomed: How could Wuerl possibly replace the telegenic and affable McCarrick, whose charm and influence is legend in Washington? Unlike McCarrick, Wuerl shuns the spotlight and has little use for this city’s celebrity culture. Conversing with queens and political power-brokers, he says frankly, are parts of the job he could do without.

In many ways, Wuerl resembles the man who put him in Washington, Pope Benedict XVI, church-watchers say. A reserved intellectual with a reputation as a “teaching bishop,” Wuerl prefers working quietly behind the scenes and avoids controversial public pronouncements. Moreover, in contrast to their charismatic, globe-trotting predecessors, Benedict and Wuerl seem to be as concerned with the world of the church as they are with the church in the world.

“I think what we’re seeing with Benedict is lots of bishops with doctorates in theology,” said Francesco Cesareo, dean of the liberal arts college at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where Wuerl was bishop 1988-2006.

Wuerl “certainly fits that mold of an archbishop that’s going to make clear for the faithful the church’s teachings and reinvigorate the sacramental life of the church,” he added.

Indeed, like Benedict, Wuerl believes the key to “re-energizing the church” is to get more Catholics to participate in the sacraments.

“We have to re-introduce our people to the mystery of what the church is and what the sacraments are,” Wuerl said.

To that end, the archbishop’s first major initiative in Washington was a massive, multi-media campaign to draw Catholics back to the sacrament of Penance during Lent last spring.


Monsignor Peter Vaghi, pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Md., where the campaign was a hit, said Wuerl’s passion for the sacraments and for teaching “reflects some of the priorities the pope has given us.”

“We have received an archbishop who loves to teach the faith clearly, enthusiastically and at every opportunity,” Vaghi said.


Wuerl said teaching the flock should be an archbishop’s top priority, whether that flock includes senators or janitors. An author of numerous books on the church, including a primary role in writing the United States Catholic Cathechism for Adults, Wuerl relishes the role.

“I use every single occasion, even something as simple as being invited to an invocation for some event, to make some catechetical point,” he said.

Politically, Wuerl has put Washington politicians at ease by speaking softly and carrying a light crozier. He has said he will not refuse Communion to Catholics who support abortion rights and will not publicly denounce anyone _ whether liberal or conservative.

“If you’re going to try to convince, if you’re going to try to persuade, you do that in conversation, meetings and discussions,” he said. “You meet the person where they are and try to persuade them.”

Wayne Wuerl, 69, the archbishop’s older brother, said the archbishop is not a pushover.

“Quite the contrary. He’s a Type A personality,” said Wayne Wuerl, who lives in western Pennsylvania. “But a Type A personality doesn’t have to be loud to get things accomplished.”

Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Washington’s Georgetown University, said the archbishop’s low-profile approach is appreciated among the capital’s “very sophisticated, high-powered, intellectual clientele.”

“He doesn’t make inflammatory statements; he doesn’t shoot from the hip,” Gillis said.

Several politicians have called on Wuerl to explain how Catholic teachings impact a particular issue _ conversations the archbishop insists must be kept private. Often, Wuerl said, he refers the politicians to specialists in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I’m the bishop of Washington; I’m not the bishop of the United States,” Wuerl said.


Indeed, Wuerl has spent more time delving into diocesan details than national politics during his first year in Washington.

During Wuerl’s 18 years as bishop of his native Pittsburgh, he was known as a fastidious manager. Priests joke that their shelves are filled with three-ringer binders produced by the chancery, said the Rev. Lou Vallone, who has been a priest in Pittsburgh for the last 34 years.

“Every aspect of life, there’s a three-ring binder for it,” Vallone said.

Susan Gibbs, director of communications for the Washington archdiocese, said Wuerl has brought the same attention to detail to his latest post. “Whether its catechetical or financial he understands the information at a very detailed level,” she said.


Ultimately, the practical archbishop has an idealistic goal: to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Wuerl said he sees humanity inching towards that goal every time he visits one of his archdiocese’s multi-cultural parishes.

“They’re all there united in faith,” he said. “United in the love of God and united in the Eucharist. And you say to yourself, this is not only the beginning, this is already a big step forward in that world we want to create.”

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Photos of Wuerl presiding at an ordination Mass are available via https://religionnews.com.

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