High-Profile Pulpit Getting a Quiet Leader

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

PITTSBURGH -- From his office window, Roman Catholic Bishop Donald W. Wuerl can see the church in which he was raised.

St. Mary of the Mount sits on a dramatic, verdant bluff overlooking the city, a place where Wuerl knows how to get things done, where he knows the people, where he is warmly called a "real Pittsburgher" -- someone who doesn't like to make a big fuss about himself.

In his 18 years as bishop here, Wuerl's preference to work behind the scenes has enamored him to the people of this heavily Catholic region, allowing Wuerl, for example, to close with relative peace nearly a third of the diocese's 320 parishes as shuttered steel mills killed jobs and neighborhoods. He doesn't seek public attention, whether he's washing prisoners' feet or discussing immigration reform.

As Wuerl, 65, prepares to be installed next month as archbishop of Washington, however, people here say they can't predict how his quiet, formal style will play in a high-profile pulpit where controversial global issues are part of the daily fare.

"Bishop Wuerl is not the kind of person who bursts on the scene and wows people. It's drip by drip by drip, but over time he's a reservoir," said Fred Thieman, a Pittsburgh lawyer and former federal prosecutor who has worked with Wuerl on issues including clergy sex abuse, church finance and gang violence. "He is politically savvy, but he is not a political creature. It's hard to say how that will look."

Called "the teaching bishop" in this diocese, Wuerl is a slight man -- a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial Friday described him as "meek and mild" -- who speaks loudly as an educator. He has compiled a best-selling book of Catholic teachings, now in its sixth edition, and is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on catechesis, or teachings.

His nature is to be "cautious and conservative," said the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. Wuerl, whose appointment as archbishop of Washington was announced last week, will look to the Vatican and the bishops' conference on shaping his role in the nation's capital, Silva predicted.

The times Wuerl has chosen to speak out are unusual, and people here remember them. There was his call for handgun limits after a spate of shootings in 2000 -- a sensitive topic in a region where many schools close for the first day of deer hunting season. In 2004, he was one of the first U.S. bishops to say he did not support denying Communion to Catholic politicians who favored abortion rights, such as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), then a presidential candidate.

Wuerl has spent the past two decades in an environment much more typical of a U.S. Catholic diocese than is Washington, with its unbridled growth. When he returned to his home town in 1988, the diocese was nearly $3 million in debt and had far too many buildings for its shrinking population. Although the emotional process of closing churches still stings, Wuerl is generally praised as a hard-nosed executive who did what needed to be done. Over five years, he chartered studies and solicited feedback from thousands of parishioners, eventually closing or merging more than 100 parishes.

"He is seen as a man of knowledge. People really respect his competence," said the Rev. Robert Duch, who was assistant superintendent of schools during the reorganization and worked closely with Wuerl.

The process also helped launch Wuerl's reputation as a detail machine; he has demanded higher certification and training efforts for priests, deacons, religious teachers and principals and crafted new procedures for everything from clergy finance to school curriculum.

"The priests joke about him -- that we have to build another room onto our houses for all the policies he's created," Duch said. "It's healthy in a sense, because we know what's expected and we'll be held accountable."

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