When Pope Francis arrived at the Saint John Paul II Seminary during his 2015 visit to Washington, the seminarians and priests there stood on the steps, waving and cheering loudly. The pope, accompanied by Cardinal Donald Wuerl – his host during the visit – thanked them for the welcome, and joked that he was sure that they always greeted their own bishop that way when he visits the seminary.
On Dec. 17, the seminarians did just that, offering a rousing welcome to Cardinal Wuerl as his car pulled up. The cardinal – who had been ordained to the priesthood in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome exactly 50 years earlier, on Dec. 17, 1966 – had decided to mark the date of his anniversary by celebrating Mass at the seminary that he founded for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2011.
“A year later (after Pope Francis’s visit), we decided to give Cardinal Wuerl a similar greeting, a greeting fit for a pope and for a cardinal, too,” said Steve Castellano, a seminarian for the archdiocese. “We were on the front steps when his car pulled up, and we started cheering and applauding.”
Cardinal Wuerl joked that he would tell Pope Francis that he had gotten a welcome like the pope had.
During the Mass that followed at the seminary’s Mary, Mother of the Church Chapel, Cardinal Wuerl after Communion gave a heart-to-heart talk to the seminarians about the call to priesthood.
“This day has a very special meaning for me,” the cardinal said, as he held his shepherd’s staff and stood at the front and center of the sanctuary, near where the seminarians were sitting. “There’s no place I’d rather be for this Mass, than with all of you, who represent the next generation of Christ’s priests… I wouldn’t want to celebrate that anywhere else but here.”
The cardinal noted that the chapel had a new reminder of the seminary’s patron saint – a marble stone that Saint John Paul II had blessed at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during that pontiff’s visit to Washington in 1979. The stone, now displayed at the back of the chapel, is engraved with the cardinal’s name and the date of his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination, along with the cardinal’s coat of arms, and two medallions commemorating St. John Paul’s visit to the National Shrine.
Cardinal Wuerl – who was ordained as a bishop 30 years ago by Saint John Paul II, also at St. Peter’s Basilica – noted the special relationship that the seminary has to three popes. Two relics of the seminary’s patron saint are displayed in the chapel, including blood stained on the cassock that pontiff was wearing on the day when an attacker tried to assassinate him in 1981.
The altar in the seminary’s chapel is the one that Pope Benedict XVI used at his Papal Mass at Nationals Park during his 2008 visit to Washington, and an apostolic blessing signed by that pope marking the seminary’s 2011 founding is on display in the hallway.
And last year, Pope Francis visited the seminary, encouraging the seminarians to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and by the way they live their lives.
Those personal links to the past three popes highlight how “the passing on of the Good News requires a new generation of priests… That’s how the Good News got to me, and how it got to you,” the cardinal said.
The priesthood “is all about standing in the place of Jesus” in today’s world, Cardinal Wuerl said.
“At ordination you’re configured to Christ. That makes it possible through the Holy Spirit to do the things Jesus did, and manifest the beginning of the kingdom” of God here on Earth, including preaching the Gospel, celebrating the Eucharist, and absolving people of their sins, he said, noting priests help bring God’s mercy and Christ’s love to their flock, wherever they are sent.
“Be someone willing to say, ‘Jesus, I give myself to you,” Cardinal Wuerl said, encouraging the seminarians to open their hearts to responding to God’s call.
Earlier during his homily, the cardinal said that Advent is a time to remember Christ continues to be present in his Word, in the sacraments, and in His people, and they are called to share his Good News with others.
“Faith is something we renew every day, confirming in our hearts Jesus is with us, and we’re coming to know him better each and every day,” Cardinal Wuerl said.
At a dinner after the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl was joined by the priests staffing the seminary, and by the 47 seminarians studying there, including 26 men from the archdiocese and 21 men from other dioceses across the country. Msgr. Robert Panke, the seminary’s rector since it was founded five years ago, offered a toast to the cardinal, saying, “You really honor us with your presence… Thank you for establishing the seminary. We literally wouldn’t be here without you. You teach us in so many ways.”
The rector thanked the cardinal for his example of love for the church and for encouraging the seminarians to be close to the pope. “You couldn’t get closer than the visit of Pope Francis (here). You literally brought him to us,” he said.
Cardinal Wuerl was presented with a special gift from the seminary – a bound volume of letters from each seminarian, thanking him for his priesthood. He noted that they each were being given a prayer card with his ordination photo on one side and a prayer for priests on the other side. “When you put this in your prayer book, remember sometime to pray for me,” he said.
Earlier at the Mass, the cardinal had concluded his remarks to the seminarians and priests by saying, “This house has a very special place in my heart… Thank you for sharing this Mass and this day with me.”