Archbishop Steps Onto Main Stage

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Washington in two weeks, he will be greeted by a close ally. Archbishop of Washington Donald W. Wuerl "epitomizes the kind of bishop that Benedict is looking for," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Seminary at Georgetown University.

Both are reserved scholars more focused on firming up church doctrine than opening doors to new interpretations.

Yet the pontiff declined an opportunity last year to elevate Wuerl to the highest ranks of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The promotion might well come in a few years, and a successful papal visit now could only enhance Wuerl's reputation.

For the hardworking archbishop, who usually prefers to operate behind the scenes, hosting the pope April 15 to 18 is a high-profile mission.

Wuerl's "stock goes up not only in Rome but in the United States if all this goes well," said Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. "His stock will go down if something goes really poorly."

The 67-year-old Wuerl's daily 16-hour schedule is tighter than usual these days. His nightly swim at Catholic University has dwindled to every other week as he wends his way though the many fine points of the papal visit, down to the color-coded seating charts at Nationals Park for the papal Mass.

"I hope he's going to see a slice of America," said Wuerl, whose office successfully pushed the Vatican to schedule two popemobile trips for Benedict in the District. "In this archdiocese, if you stand at a pulpit or an altar and you look out into the congregation, chances are you're seeing a slice of the world."

Wuerl, who will mark his second anniversary in Washington in June, presides over an archdiocese that has changed considerably since the last visit by a pope, John Paul II in 1979. The archdiocese population is 45 percent bigger, with Hispanics making up almost one-third of it. Mass is celebrated in more than 20 languages, compared with seven in 1979.

Wuerl has strived to negotiate the often-tricky shoals of the Washington archdiocese, where he balances running a medium-size diocese with expectations that he serve as de facto spokesman for the U.S. Catholic church.

It is not an easy role for a theologian more interested in teaching the faith than national politics.

"The appointment is, for me, a very challenging one," Wuerl said. In addition to adjusting to a new diocese, "add another overlay to it because Washington is the capital of the country," he said. "It is an extremely cosmopolitan city with multiple communities."

Wuerl heads a $350 million operation that touches Catholics and non-Catholics. Aside from running 140 suburban and rural parishes and 106 schools, some of which educate more non-Catholics than Catholics, the archdiocese also oversees Catholic Charities, one of the area's largest nongovernmental social services providers.

Wuerl and Benedict share a warm relationship, and Wuerl serves on influential bodies at the Vatican and in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. So it was somewhat of a surprise in November when Wuerl was not elevated to cardinal as Benedict named 23 churchmen to the post. A cardinal traditionally heads the archdiocese of Washington.

Experts say the Vatican avoids having two cardinals eligible to vote for the pope from the same diocese. Wuerl's predecessor, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, 77, is eligible to vote until he is 80. Wuerl will probably receive a cardinal's traditional "red hat" after that.

Some Catholics have accused Wuerl of abandoning the black community with his proposal to convert seven inner-city Catholic schools to publicly funded charter schools. He also angered some conservative Catholics by refusing to discipline House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a Catholic who supports abortion rights, after she accepted Communion at Mass last year at her alma mater, Trinity Washington University.

"It is extremely difficult to make a public judgment about the state of the soul of someone else," Wuerl said. "Our task is to convince people and win people over to what is the correct view."

A few Catholic school advocates also find Wuerl's leadership lacking. They want to halt the charter school conversions, which mostly affect African American children. Last month, the archdiocese said that almost all of the schools' faculty members and parents signed forms endorsing the plan.

Charter opponent S. Kathryn Allen said Wuerl did not put enough effort into raising funds to keep the schools Catholic. "His predecessors worked hard to find alternatives" to closing the schools, she said. "And it doesn't appear that he has tried as hard."

Those who know McCarrick and Wuerl say the new archbishop, a quiet, precise man with deep-set gray eyes, lacks the charisma of the more sprightly McCarrick.

At "Theology on Tap," a popular bar gathering of young Catholics at which the archbishop traditionally speaks, McCarrick was known for wading into the crowd and hoisting a beer. At a recent "Theology on Tap" at Ireland's Four Fields in Northwest Washington, Wuerl raised his glass only to point out that it contained water.

Wuerl "couldn't be more different" from McCarrick, said George Weigel, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank. He has a "quieter, more restrained personality [and] takes the role of the bishop as chief teacher of the church very seriously."

He is, however, known as an involved and demanding administrator, poring over financial reports and briefing papers on every aspect of the diocese.

"He wants to make sure the books are very clear," said the Rev. Ray Kemp, a diocesan priest for 40 years. "He wants to be on top of all this."

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