After Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl was named as Washington’s new archbishop in 2006, I traveled to the Steel City and interviewed him at St. Paul’s Seminary there. I’ll never forget a story he told me from his boyhood, about seeing his father, who weighed freight cars for the Pennsylvania Railroad, returning home after working the night shift and kneeling by his bed to pray. That image, he said, stays with him, as he returns home late in the evening after attending meetings or presiding at parish Confirmations.
His vocation, like so many, grew in a devout Catholic home and flowered at his parish and school. This month, he marked his 50th anniversary as a priest, and as the accompanying photo shows, along the way he has been supported by the love of his family, whose younger generations know him as “Uncle Don,” and by the love and faith of the families in the parishes and dioceses where he has served, and where over the years he has been known as Father, then Bishop, then Archbishop, and now Cardinal Wuerl.
This year of 2016 has been one of milestones for Cardinal Wuerl, who marked his 30th anniversary as a bishop in January, his 10th anniversary as archbishop of Washington in June, and then his 50th anniversary as a priest in December. The Catholic Standard published a special edition honoring him for his 10 years here this summer, and we decided to honor him again in December for his golden jubilee as a priest.
So this edition includes tributes from bishops, priests and seminarians about Cardinal Wuerl’s service as a bishop and his life as a priest, to honor him for all three anniversaries, and along the way, we are celebrate the priesthood in our archdiocese by running stories profiling five seminarians and five priests here.
In his first column for the Catholic Standard published the week he became the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl noted that Pope (now Saint) John Paul II – who ordained him as a bishop in 1986 – had emphasized the three key roles of bishops: to teach, in season and out of season, to sanctify by overseeing the administration of sacraments, and to lead “as pastors and true fathers.”
This edition shows how Cardinal Wuerl has fulfilled those roles. Cardinal Wuerl, known as “the education bishop,” has taught the faith from pulpits, through pastoral letters and many books, in newspapers and websites, through blogs and e-letters, on radio and television, and through Facebook, Twitter and the archdiocese’s YouTube channel. No wonder the noted Princeton University law professor Robert George recently called the cardinal “the greatest catechist” in the Catholic Church in this country.
In this week’s Catholic Standard, Cardinal Wuerl’s work in sanctifying his flock can be seen in a special series of photos showing him administering the sacraments, with related excerpts from his books, pastorals and homilies.
In Washington, Cardinal Wuerl’s leadership has unfolded in his founding the Saint John Paul II Seminary to train the next generation of priests, in his hosting the visits of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington in 2008 and Pope Francis to the nation’s capital in 2015, in his convoking the first Archdiocesan Synod in 2014 to mark the Archdiocese of Washington’s 75th anniversary, and after a widespread consultative effort, to chart a blueprint for its future outreach in the key areas of worship, education, community, service and stewardship and administration.
A similar consultative effort resulted in new Catholic School Policies being adopted in 2009, to strengthen the Catholic identity, academic excellence, governance and affordability and accessibility of Catholic schools. Since 2008, there has been more than a seven-fold increase in archdiocesan tuition assistance, and for the current 2016-17 school year, the archdiocese has awarded about $6 million in tuition assistance to about 6,700 students attending local Catholic schools.
Our newspaper has covered those developments over the years, and they are highlighted in this special edition. But along the way, as the paper’s editor and as a contributing writer, I have also experienced Cardinal Wuerl’s priesthood in a personal way, that I’ve never written about before.
In the fall of 2006, I was covering a dinner at Georgetown University for SOAR! (Support Our Aging Religious). My wife Carol, who was about seven months pregnant, was with me, and I asked her if she’d like to meet our new archbishop, who was in attendance. During a lull in the dinner’s program, as guests moved about, I introduced Carol to Archbishop Wuerl, who smiled and said “hello,” and then asked if he could offer a blessing for her and the baby. Then he closed his eyes, moved his hand up and down and across in the shape of a cross, and quietly said a prayer for my wife and our unborn child. I remember thinking then, “That’s what a good parish priest would do.”
Two months later, our youngest child, Matthew, was born. His name means “gift from God,” and he is.
In December 2010, I flew home to pray at the bedside of my sister Becky who was in the hospital dying of colon cancer. When I returned to work, I happened to see Cardinal Wuerl in our building, and he said he was sorry to hear that my sister was so ill, and he added, “I celebrated Mass for her in my chapel this morning.”
About eight weeks later, Becky died, and one of the first notes and Mass cards that I received was from the cardinal.
In an interview, Cardinal Wuerl once told me, “When you become a priest, you have lots of families. Every parish assignment becomes your parish home. If you’re a bishop, every assignment becomes your home, your family.”
These past 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of reporting on Cardinal Wuerl’s leadership of our Archdiocese of Washington, and also been blessed by his priesthood. I hope you our readers enjoy this special edition highlighting the story of his priesthood, from his family to ours.