The example of his parents, the encouragement of a parish priest, and the bishop who mentored him helped shape the priesthood of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who in December 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of his ordination.
Donald Wuerl was born on Nov. 12, 1940 in Pittsburgh, and grew up in Mount Washington, a working class neighborhood on a hillside that has a panoramic view of the Steel City and the confluence of its three rivers, the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio.
“The people who lived there were workers,” he said of the blue collar neighborhood, where some people worked for the city or county, but others worked at the bottom of the hill in the steel mills that once lined the riverfronts.
Cardinal Wuerl’s father, Francis Wuerl, served in the Navy during World War II. The cardinal’s birth mother, Mary, died of cancer when he was a little boy. He was the second child in the family, with an older brother Wayne, and a younger sister, Carol.
Their father later married Kathryn Wuerl, and they had a son, Dennis, the youngest of the family’s four children.
“She was the only mother I knew, and she loved us children as her own,” Cardinal Wuerl said in an earlier interview.
Kathryn Wuerl often led the children in praying the family rosary in the living room after supper, and teased them if they prayed their Hail Marys too fast. “It was a happy household. My mother directed things,” the cardinal said.
His father, Francis Wuerl, worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a weighmaster in a marshaling yard, weighing freight cars. “My father was a working man,” he said.
A memory that Cardinal Wuerl cherishes is of one Saturday morning, when he was about to run out the door and play ball with his friends. He saw his father, just home from the night shift, kneeling beside his bed and praying.
Washington’s archbishop, who himself often returns home late after celebrating Confirmations or attending evening events, once said, “I’ve never forgotten that scene… the image will come into my mind as I go into my room to say my prayers.”
The cardinal said that his father “was a man who placed a high priority on duty, duty to his family, duty to his Church and duty to his job. All of us learned a wonderful work ethic from him… He reminded us all the time we had to be responsible for what we did, responsible for who we were, and that you have to make your way in life, always able to say at the end of the day to God, ‘I did my best.’”
At St. Mary of the Mount Parish in Pittsburgh, where Cardinal Wuerl attended Catholic grade school and high school, he was inspired by the example of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters who taught him, and also by the parish priests, especially a young parochial vicar, Father Joseph Bryan.
During Cardinal Wuerl’s high school years, that priest spent time with the students and offered them spiritual direction. “He introduced us to the concept of praying every day,” said the cardinal, noting that the priest encouraged them to get a copy of St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual classic, “Introduction to the Devout Life,” which the cardinal still keeps today in his apartment, by the kneeler where he prays.
As a seminarian studying in Rome in the 1960s, Donald Wuerl ran errands for Pittsburgh Bishop John Wright, who was then participating in the Second Vatican Council there. Later after Father Wuerl was ordained to the priesthood in 1966, he served as Bishop Wright’s priest secretary in Pittsburgh, and then when Bishop Wright was appointed to head the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy and later became a cardinal, Father Wuerl served as his secretary in Rome from 1969-79 and also served as an official for that congregation. In 1978, he assisted Cardinal Wright during the conclave that elected Pope John Paul II as the new pontiff.
“He loved the Church, he loved teaching the faith, and he loved being part of the whole community,” Cardinal Wuerl said of his mentor, who during the Second Vatican Council championed religious freedom and ecumenical and interfaith relations, which have also been hallmarks of the ministry of Washington’s archbishop.
When he was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, Cardinal Wuerl was given a cardinal’s ring. Before that, as a bishop he had worn the ring bequeathed to him by Cardinal Wright, who died in 1979. Cardinal Wuerl had worn that ring after Pope St. John Paul II ordained him as a bishop in 1986, while he served as an auxiliary bishop in Seattle, then when serving as bishop of his home Diocese of Pittsburgh for 18 years beginning in 1988, and then after being installed as Washington’s archbishop in 2006.
One key lesson he learned from the veteran churchman, he said, was that “as a shepherd of the flock, you have to know the flock if you’re going to be a good shepherd. You have to get to like them and love them. There’s a theological level of love, and a human level of simply appreciating people, and the bishop has to do both.”