When Cardinal Donald Wuerl decided to name the new seminary for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2011, the natural choice for him was to name it for Pope John Paul II.
As a young priest serving in Rome, he had witnessed that new pontiff’s first Mass in 1978, when that pope had repeated Christ’s words to “Be not afraid” and encouraged the world’s faithful to open the doors of their hearts wide to Christ. That pope knew that Jesus could transform hearts and change the world.
The Saint John Paul II Seminary soon expanded and was filled to capacity, guided by the priestly witness of that holy pope, who in his nearly three decades as pontiff traveled the world sharing the Good News of Jesus. And in 2017, Cardinal Wuerl ordained the first three priests who had been trained at that seminary to serve as the next generation of priests for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Cardinal Wuerl, whose resignation as archbishop of Washington was accepted by Pope Francis on Oct. 12, was truly a John Paul II bishop. In 1986, then-Pope John Paul II personally ordained Bishop Donald Wuerl at St. Peter’s Basilica, later appointing him to serve as an auxiliary bishop in Seattle, and as bishop of his native Pittsburgh in 1988, where he served until being named by Pope Benedict XVI as the archbishop of Washington in 2006.
After being installed as the shepherd of the Catholic Church in Washington, then-Archbishop Wuerl pledged to his people that he looked forward to taking that journey with them. And what a journey it has been for him, and for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Along the way, he was guided by what Pope John Paul II had identified as the three main roles of a bishop – to teach, to lead and to sanctify his people. Cardinal Wuerl was also guided by the words he had chosen for his motto as a bishop – “Thy Kingdom Come” – a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer reminding Christ’s disciples to reflect His love and truth in their lives, helping to build God’s kingdom here on earth while they ultimately seek being a part of it for eternity in heaven.
Cardinal Wuerl’s accomplishments as archbishop of Washington include hosting two papal visits to the nation’s capital, of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and of Pope Francis in 2015. He engaged the Catholic community in a wide-scale consultative effort to ensure the future stability of Catholic education here and expand scholarship assistance to more than $6 million annually, and then on the 75th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Washington in 2014, to chart a blueprint for the Church’s future outreach.
Under the cardinal’s leadership, Catholic Charities expanded its Parish Partners program, so parishes across the archdiocese could offer direct service to their neighborhoods, depending on what kind of help those communities needed. He began the White Mass and a Department of Special Needs Ministries to welcome the gifts of people with disabilities. Cardinal Wuerl also established an archdiocesan Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, and he utilized new and traditional media, including blogs, e-letters, social media, radio and TV spots, pastoral letters, his Catholic newspaper column and a range of books to share the Gospel in today’s world.
The main title of George Weigel’s second authoritative biography of Saint John Paul II was “The End and the Beginning,” and in Cardinal Wuerl’s case, at the beginning and the end of his service as archbishop of Washington, he was faced with two of the biggest challenges of his life.
When he became archbishop of Washington in 2006, the archdiocese’s network of center-city Catholic elementary schools was on the verge of collapse, due to declining enrollments and steep financial deficits.
Following another extensive consultative effort, a new framework for Catholic education in the city of Washington was devised. For the 2008-09 school year, a new Consortium of Catholic Academies included four of the schools, one stayed open as a parish school, and the seven other schools became part of a values-based public charter school network, so families in those neighborhoods would continue to have educational alternatives for their children.
Then in his last months as archbishop of Washington in the summer and early fall of 2018, Cardinal Wuerl led the Archdiocese of Washington as the Catholic community learned in June that their retired archbishop, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor as a New York priest and linked to sexual misconduct involving seminarians when he was a New Jersey bishop. The mid-August release of a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailed clergy abuse in six dioceses in that state, including in Pittsburgh, which was led by then-Bishop Wuerl from 1988 until 2006. Cardinal Wuerl, who had enacted strong child protection measures in Pittsburgh and removed all priests credibly accused of abuse there, faced strong criticism for his handling of a few of those cases, which he apologized for.
The fallout from the grand jury report included some protests and calls for Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation. After consulting with the priests of the archdiocese, Cardinal Wuerl announced that he would soon meet with Pope Francis and ask the Holy Father to accept the resignation that following Church law he had offered after turning 75 nearly three years earlier, to help bring healing and a new beginning for the archdiocese. He also initiated a six-week Season of Healing to pray for and offer support to survivors of abuse.
In a personal letter to Cardinal Wuerl dated Oct. 12, Pope Francis accepted his resignation as archbishop of Washington. He noted that Cardinal Wuerl had “sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”
Pope Francis said the cardinal’s request rested on two pillars that have been hallmarks of his ministry: “to seek in all things the greater glory of God and to procure the good of the people entrusted to your care.”
Those are qualities that I’ve witnessed in chronicling the life and work of Cardinal Wuerl as the archbishop of Washington, who in both challenging and joyful times, always has sought to be faithful to Christ and do the right thing, always for the good of the Church.
So as this chapter in the life of the Archdiocese of Washington closes for both our retiring archbishop and for our Catholic community, and as we await our new archbishop, we can again look to the words of Christ repeated by Saint John Paul II: “Be not afraid!” We also know that, as St. John Paul II told us, that when we open our hearts to Christ, we need not be afraid of any challenges or crises, because Jesus brings us new life and hope and goes before us always, and calls us to be his witnesses.
(Mark Zimmermann serves as the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.)
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.