D.C. Archbishop Wuerl joined by 400 friends in Rome as he becomes a cardinal

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 12:05 AM

The archbishop's two brothers will be there. So will a rabbi he knows from Pittsburgh, the D.C. barber who cuts his hair and the fast-talking (and devoutly Catholic) television commentator Chris Matthews.

When Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl heads to Rome on Tuesday for the elaborate ceremony that will make him a cardinal, he will be trailed by a horde of family members, friends, priests and ordinary Catholics eager to watch him join the ranks of the church's most powerful men.

Wuerl's entourage numbers 405 - admiring participants who signed up for a pilgrimage that is part transcendent religious experience and part Catholic fiesta.

"In secular terms, it's like your team is going to the Super Bowl," explained Rocco Palmo, who blogs about insider Catholic Church issues.

And like the Super Bowl, attendance requires serious cash. Almost all the pilgrims are shelling out $2,200 to $5,300 of their own money to witness Wuerl's elevation Saturday to the elite College of Cardinals.

Kim Fiorentino is among those heading to Rome for six to eight days of pomp and pageantry. Fiorentino, a 49-year-old Potomac lawyer who belongs to one of Washington's most active Catholic groups, the John Carroll Society, said she expects to be spiritually transported by the rituals for which the church is so renowned.

"I'm hoping there will be tons of incense," she said. "I'm hoping the pope will have some red Prada [shoes] on, some ermine. No one does it like the Catholic Church."

The elevation ceremony at the Vatican, known as a consistory, will be presided over by Pope Benedict XVI, who selected the 24 men becoming cardinals. The red-hatted clerics elect new pontiffs, so they wield tremendous authority within the billion-member church.

For centuries, consistories were largely private affairs attended by elite church officials from around Italy. In recent decades, the gatherings have become one of Catholicism's biggest spectacles, with thousands of priests, nuns, big donors, Catholic activists, faithful parishioners and people who do business with the church flying in from all over the world.

For Catholics, they are powerful affairs, reminding many of the breadth and expansion of a faith that in the West can sometimes feel imperiled by secularism and clergy sex abuse scandals.

Pilgrimage logistics

In Washington, furious pilgrimage-planning began a month ago under the guidance of Guido Adelfio, a cheery Bethesda travel agent who was chosen by the archdiocese to organize the trip.

The logistics were daunting. Trying to accommodate the short notice, Thanksgiving week and different budgets, Adelfio crafted a complex matrix that involves 20 flights, nine hotels and five different itineraries. His plan also calls for tour leaders to wear baseball hats in Italy with an identifiable "W" - technically the logo for the Washington Nationals but for a few Roman afternoons representing Washington's newest cardinal.

Wuerl, 70, will join his well-wishers for some events, but he is staying elsewhere and will spend much of his time in meetings with the pope and other cardinals.

As the departure date grew closer, Adelfio fielded questions from 80 excited, anxious pilgrims one evening in the gym of Little Flower Church in Bethesda.

Will there be bathroom access at the Vatican? (Yes.) Is a little black cocktail dress appropriate for a reception attended by a bunch of cardinals? (Absolutely not.) Does the five-star-hotel group use the red lanyards or the blue ones? (Red.)

"And people, put your valuables in the hotel safe," Adelfio admonished. "It's called 'safe' for a reason."

For those who signed up for the trip, encounters with Pope Benedict are a big part of the draw. In addition to at least three guaranteed chances to see him, the pilgrims will celebrate Mass at different basilicas, visit the Sistine Chapel and tour the Pontifical North American College, where American clergy and seminarians study. Confession is scheduled, as are dinners, shopping excursions and parties.

The Vatican opens the Apostolic Palace, the home of the pope, for the new cardinals to have public receptions, a chance to glimpse rarely seen frescoes and private chapels.

This will be the third consistory for Rosemary Carter, a 76-year-old mother of six from Northwest Washington.

She's known Wuerl for more than four decades, dating back to his time as a priest and archbishop in his home town of Pittsburgh. (While Wuerl has been a low-key presence since he arrived in Washington in 2006, he is a celebrity in Pittsburgh. There was so much interest in his elevation that a travel agent there attempted to use Wuerl's official photo to promote a tour and had to be asked to stop by the D.C. archdiocese.)

Carter is the type of old friend who delights in describing Wuerl as "a stick of chewing gum," a reference to his super-erect posture and trim build. Like the pope, he is a traditionalist who will guard the church's teachings on everything from health care to human sexuality, Carter said approvingly.

Wuerl's enormous entourage, which includes more than a dozen relatives, still doesn't rival the more than 500 Texans who flew to Italy in 2007 when Galveston-Houston Archbishop Daniel DiNardo became the first cardinal from the U.S. South.

"It was like when worlds collide, all those Texans running around Rome," Palmo recalled.

A large group of pilgrims also traveled to Rome when Washington's last archbishop, Theodore E. McCarrick, was made a cardinal at a 2001 consistory that elevated 42 men - more than any other ceremony in Catholic history. But the trip ended chaotically for 250 from Washington when their charter plane broke down and they were stuck inside the Rome airport for 10 hours.

"Don't tell 250 Washingtonians they can't get home," said archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs, who was on the flight. "There were groups trying to contact the tour company, groups calling their elected officials and, most effective, a group saying the rosary."

"Nearly 10 years later, people still talk about that day," she added. "It was a long day, but we bonded over it."

The ceremony

On Saturday, the pilgrims will gather at St. Peter's Basilica to watch the 21/2-hour elevation ceremony. Wuerl and the other new cardinals will be wearing red capes with 12 buttons, thought to represent the 12 apostles, and robes with 33 buttons, for the number of years Jesus lived before crucifixion.

Each man will recite a detailed profession of faith and listen as the pope reads an oath of fidelity, including to "act with fortitude, even to the point of spilling your blood for the increase of the Christian faith." On Sunday, the new cardinals will receive rings to symbolize a spousal bond with the church.

Wuerl's staff has been hurriedly trying to get his consistory vestments properly tailored and to get his letterhead and prayer cards redesigned and reprinted with his new, more ornate coat of arms - five rows of red tassels instead of four rows of green ones.

Wuerl has special sermons to deliver in Rome, not to mention finding time amid all the hoopla for prayer and reflection.

"An event like this forces you to reflect on how humbling this is," Wuerl said. "You're reminded it has much more to do with your office than your personality. It has little to do with me personally."

For the pilgrims, there are earthly issues still to be sorted out.

"At the Vatican," someone in the back of the Bethesda gym asked Adelfio, "do the toilets require coins?"

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