Cardinal Wuerl reflects on the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood
Dec. 22, 2016
(The following is the text of a Catholic Standard interview with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, about the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Cardinal Wuerl was ordained on Dec. 17, 1966 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On Dec. 17, 2016, the cardinal celebrated Mass at the Saint John Paul Seminary in Washington, which he founded five years earlier for the Archdiocese of Washington. The next day, he celebrated a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle commemorating the 50th anniversary of his ordination. The interview was conducted by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor. A video of the interview can be found below.)
This month (December 2016) marks the 50th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood. What does this anniversary mean to you?
Cardinal Wuerl: “At the very heart of the anniversary is the sense of gratitude. As I look back over these five decades, I’m so grateful to God first of all for the call. Imagine the call to be a priest, to walk in the midst of God’s people as the good shepherd. What an extraordinary call that is.
“I’m so grateful for the grace to have persevered in the formation and preparation for that call, and then above all else, I’m grateful for the ordination itself, being changed – the Church tells us that in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest is configured to Christ as head of his Church. He’s changed. We say changed in his very being, but there’s a sense affectively, emotionally, you’re changed, because you begin to see life and the people you serve through a different lens, through the lens of trying to be the good shepherd in the midst of this marvelous flock of God.
“So thanksgiving, that’s the word that dominates in my mind and in my heart and on my lips at this time of anniversary – thanks to God for the very grace, the grace to try to be a priest, to serve God’s people. It’s all grace anyway. Everything is God’s grace. This is just an opportunity to quietly and very humbly say, ‘Thank you.’”
How did you celebrate your anniversary?
Cardinal Wuerl: “As it turns out, I had a number of anniversaries this year. I had the 50th of my priesthood, my 30th as a bishop, and my 10th as archbishop of Washington, so I thought, ‘That’s a lot of anniversaries! Why don’t I try to do this as the way it unfolded, without a lot of fanfare.’
“Priesthood unfolds day by day doing the ordinary things that priests do, and the primary thing that a priest does is celebrate Mass with his people, with his community, with his congregation, with his flock.
“So what I did was, I celebrated Mass at the cathedral. That seemed like the appropriate place to be, because that’s my church. We gathered for just the ordinary Sunday Mass. We had the opportunity to do what every priest does – preach, celebrate Mass and then be there with his flock. That for me made this all the more special.
“I did this with all the anniversaries. The 30th anniversary as a bishop (in January) was celebrated at the cathedral with Mass, a regular ordinary scheduled Mass.
“The anniversary of my 10th year as archbishop, we celebrated that by having a Mass for all the employees in the Pastoral Center, here in this archdiocese that’s served by all of them.
“It was a quiet celebration, but it was a rich celebration, because it meant so much to be celebrating the anniversary the way that you celebrate every single Sunday as a priest and as a bishop.”
When did you feel called to be a priest, and how did the witness of your family and parish priests and sisters in Pittsburgh inspire your vocation?
Cardinal Wuerl: “I think I felt the first call, the first hint of a call, when I was very young. It was a practice in the elementary and secondary school I went to, we were encouraged to get to Mass, not just on Sundays, but to pick a day during the week (when) we might want to go. That was a wonderful tradition. The more I started going to Mass, and as I got into the seventh and eighth grade and high school, the more I thought about maybe being a priest or at least checking out what that entailed.
“And the great support (for that) was the support that came from my family. First of all, my mother and father were people of deep faith, and while they never really suggested priesthood, they were certainly very supportive.
“We had in our parish a very young priest. He was assigned to the parish in my first year in high school, and he was a wonderful example. We had four priests in that parish, and two of them were in and out of the school all the time, so we got to know priests regularly, but this priest was the one who taught many of us to pray, to read Scripture, to do some spiritual reading in the course of the day.
“Then of course there were the (Immaculate Heart of Mary) sisters themselves who were a beautiful example, a wonderful testimony of the love of God.
“My family and my friends, they were all very supportive. I don’t think I ever really encountered any opposition to entering the seminary and studying to be a priest, so I am so grateful for all of that support, going all the way back to my youngest days.”
What do you remember most about your ordination day?
Cardinal Wuerl: “Well, I’m glad I can remember anything about it, because it tends to be something of a blur, being so excited about it [then].
“One of the things that comes to mind is the procession in, and thinking on that walk in, you’re making your way to the altar, this is [the culmination of] all these years of preparation and you’re now there. I can remember thinking that going down that procession.
“And then comes the moment in every ordination when you prostrate yourself before the altar, and I remember that so clearly, just stretching out there, and our spiritual director had told us, make that the moment when you give yourself totally to Christ, say that in your heart when you’re on the floor, and I remember our spiritual director saying that to us so insistently on our retreat the week before the ordination.
“And I’m grateful my mother and father were there. That’s a gift from my priesthood ordination also that I will remember, being able to rejoice with them, because they had made that journey with me and been so supportive and caring and loving the entire time.
“There are all kinds of memories that flood back when you look at that day. Those are some of the more significant ones.
“Then, of course, the laying on of hands. I still have the picture, the photo of that, and that brings back a blessed memory of the actual moment of ordination.”
Thirty years ago, you were ordained as a bishop by St. John Paul II. What do you remember most about that experience, and what did you learn about the priesthood and being a bishop, from his example and teaching?
Cardinal Wuerl: “When I look back at that, it was just a very short distance from where I was ordained a priest at St. Peter’s [Basilica in Rome], that I was ordained a bishop by St. John Paul II.
“”Kneeling there as the pope came down and placed his hands on the heads of all seven of us who were kneeling there, I can remember just trying to prepare myself, [thinking] ‘You’re going to receive this outpouring of the Holy Spirit.’
“Then of course, the moment comes when the Holy Father is standing right in front of you, with his hands on your head. That’s a moment I will always treasure.
“But the real gift of John Paul II was of course the example, the example he gave of what ministry is all about, and the great continuity. He was a pope who stressed this living faith and how each one of us ordained is called to teach that faith, to express that faith, to share that faith. That was his whole life, almost 27 years of travel and preaching, travel and writing – all of that to pass on the faith.
“If there was one thing that impressed me the most or I have carried away from that time of [my] experience with Pope John Paul II now St. John Paul II was his love for the Gospel, and his understanding that the priest has to preach that Gospel to everyone.”
This year marked your 10th anniversary as archbishop of Washington. Two highlights as our archbishop involved hosting visits of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and Pope Francis in 2015. What do you admire about them as priests and bishops?
Cardinal Wuerl: “It really is a joy to think back over these 10 years and realize in 2008 we had Pope Benedict. He came as this magnificent teacher of the faith. He inspired all of us to appreciate this living continuity of the faith.
“And then in 2015 we had Pope Francis, and again [he was] an inspiration, but of a different kind. His was an inspiration to reach out, to invite back to the faith, to invite back to the Church, people who had drifted away.
“For me those two events will always be highlights of my decade as archbishop of Washington.
“Both men, though, had something in common. They were both aware that they were Peter, they were the successor to Peter, that they were the rock, the touchstone of our faith. They had different names – Benedict and Francis, but they were keenly aware that their role in this Church was to be what Peter was to the apostolic Church, to be the leader of God’s people and the touchstone of our faith. [As Jesus said] ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ Both of them lived that.
“That’s the takeaway from those visits. Pope Benedict said, ‘I came in my apostolic journey to renew your faith,’ and Pope Francis said, ‘I have come so that in imitation of all those evangelizing disciples, we might be inspired to do the same.’ What an extraordinary blessing on our Archdiocese of Washington, for the Church in our country, for the Church period, to witness those two popes in our country with that beautiful message.”
How has your priesthood evolved over the years?
Cardinal Wuerl: “When you talk about the priesthood evolving, there’s a very real sense in which the priesthood itself never changes, but the priesthood is lived in an ever-changing situation.
“There’s a sense in which you have to be alert to the situation around you, whatever the issues are. We live in this highly secular world, so one of the things my priesthood is much more aware of today than it might have been at ordination is the need to bear witness to the faith in a culture that doesn’t see the value in it.
“That wasn’t the case when I was ordained, so there’s a constant evolving, not of the priesthood, but of the circumstances and the understanding of what you have to bring as a priest to the culture today. That’s part of the beautiful gift of continuity as well.
“When I look back over 50 years and think of Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict, Francis, a whole continuity that links us with the apostles, and I realize there’s a beautiful integrity, continuity, strength and sameness of our faith, and at the same time, we’re being told today, don’t forget the circumstances today call you to live it in a very unique and special way. Today the challenge is to be the witness of that enduring faith that rests on Peter.”
What gives you the greatest joy as a priest?
Cardinal Wuerl: “For me, I think the greatest joy is the ministry itself. As a priest, my first assignment was to a mill parish. Most of the workers in that parish worked in the steel mills. For me, that was a very joyful time, because it was a parish where you could walk around on the sidewalks and visit people. We were not in a suburban parish, and we didn’t need cars.
“Then as time went on and assignments changed, I realized the situation might change, but the work is identical. It’s this pastoral contact with people, making the journey with them, as together we’re trying to draw closer to Jesus.
“As a priest, my task is to celebrate the sacraments with and for them, and to share the Good News of the Gospel with them and for them. That’s the greatest joy.
“As a bishop, you get to parishes. I get to parishes for the installation of pastors, the anniversaries of parishes, the Confirmations, [and] parish events. The joy is being there with God’s people, God’s family, around the table of the Lord, recognizing what brings you here is the simple realization of God, God in your life, love of God, love of neighbor, and the call to do that just as well as you can.
“There’s a challenge to priesthood, but there’s an enormous, satisfying joy to priesthood as well.”
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