During a May 8 Mass, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington takes symbolic possession of the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains in Rome.
During a May 8 Mass, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington takes symbolic possession of the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains in Rome.
Legend has it that when Michelangelo finished his statue of Moses, which he considered to be his most lifelike sculpture, he tapped it on the knee with his mallet and commanded it to speak.

That famous sculpture continues to draw visitors from around the world to the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains in Rome, which is the titular church for Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who believes that the sculpture does have something to say to people of today.

In a recent interview, Cardinal Wuerl commented on the countenance of Moses, who had looked on the face of God, and come down from Mount Sinai holding the tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, holding the tablets with God's law inscribed on them, seems to look upon viewers "with this look of challenge. He's looking at those who should be recognizing on those tablets the word of God," Cardinal Wuerl said.

"That statue of Moses is a reminder God has given us a norm for life, there's the natural moral law written in our hearts, and so we wouldn't miss it, God wrote it on the tablets for Moses," the cardinal said.

In this week's Catholic Standard, Cardinal Wuerl's "The Teaching of Christ" column examines the Ten Commandments (see page 5).

In his interview, Cardinal Wuerl noted that in Michelangelo's sculpture, Moses is "presenting to us, this is the word of God, this is how you are to live, if you are truly a member of God's family. The law is there to guide us. We know Christ is the fulfillment of that law."
The cardinal also commented on the beauty of the sculpture as a work of art. "It speaks to me of the extraordinary creativity of human beings," he said. "You look at that, and you marvel that someone could carve that out of a block of marble." Cardinal Wuerl noted that someone once asked Michelangelo how he was able to sculpt the statue of Christ the Redeemer that is on display at the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, and the artist reportedly said, "I chipped away everything that wasn't Christ."

Cardinal Wuerl also commented on the famous relics that give the basilica its name, the chains of St. Peter that reportedly bound him while he was imprisoned in Jerusalem and in Rome. Those chains, on display in the church, offer "a visible testimony to the role of Peter in Rome, his ministry in Rome and his death in Rome," the cardinal said.

Those chains offer an important lesson to today's Christians, Cardinal Wuerl said. "One of the things we learn is that discipleship is never easy, that witness to the faith can bear great consequence," he said.

The cardinal noted "the church on the road outside of Rome, Quo Vadis, that reminds us we may be tempted to avoid the consequences of bearing witness to the faith." At that site, St. Peter, who had been fleeing persecution in Rome, encountered the risen Christ in a vision, and asked him where he was going. Jesus responded he was going to Rome, to be crucified anew. That encounter gave St. Peter the courage to turn back to Rome and face his own martyrdom.

"The chains remind us sometimes there's a heavy price to pay for being a faithful disciple," Cardinal Wuerl said.

After the Consistory in Rome this past November when he was elevated to the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Wuerl noted that Pope Benedict in his homily pointed out that the color red that cardinals wear is the color of martyrdom, and signifies that they must be willing to give their lives for Christ and his Church.

When asked what part of the ceremony of taking possession of his titular church that he found to be most moving, the cardinal said, "The most significant part of the ceremony is when you arrive at the door of the church, and you are met by the pastor. He presents to you a crucifix that you kiss, as a sign of your commitment to Christ and the service of his people. The crucifix we will be using at the ceremony is the crucifix I kissed when I took possession of the cathedral church of Pittsburgh, and when I took possession of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington."

In the interview, Cardinal Wuerl spoke of the excitement he felt when Pope Benedict XVI announced his titular church. "...Only two churches in ancient Rome are dedicated to St. Peter. One, Benedict has (St. Peter's Basilica), and the other, he gave to me," the cardinal said.

The cardinal said his titular church stands as a special sign of the ties between him and the pope, and between the Church of Washington and the papacy in Rome. In 2008, Cardinal Wuerl hosted Pope Benedict XVI's pastoral visit to Washington, which included a Papal Mass for more than 50,000 people at Nationals Park, where the pope encouraged Catholics to be Jesus' disciples today, and bring Christ's love and hope to their communities, their nation and their world.

"As the archbishop of Washington, you and the Church of Washington have a very special tie to Rome and to Peter, Peter who is Benedict XVI, and to this church that reminds us of the first Peter. The (titular) church really is a sign of the bonds of Washington and Rome," Cardinal Wuerl said.

At the May 8 Mass where he took possession of his titular church, the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains in Rome, Cardinal Wuerl concluded his homily by noting, "We ask God to continue to bless the Church of Rome, to which we now are bound in a particular way through this church of St. Peter in Chains, and to bless its faithful people and its chief shepherd, Benedict XVI - Peter today."