Part prayer, part pep rally with Wuerl

After Christmas Mass, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl dropped by a dinner for those alone or needy and then joined in a few songs.
After Christmas Mass, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl dropped by a dinner for those alone or needy and then joined in a few songs. (Melina Mara)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010

For thousands of Washington area Catholics, going to church on Christmas doesn't mean seeing tons of familiar faces at the place where your child goes to Sunday school. Instead, the holiday is marked by streaming with strangers into the largest Catholic church in North America - the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Northeast Washington - and watching Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl greet television viewers around the world.

More than 4,000 people packed the huge, soaring basilica Saturday afternoon to hear Wuerl, the Washington archbishop whom Pope Benedict XVI elevated to cardinal last month in Rome.

Seeing one of the Catholic Church's most prominent men was one of the reasons worshipers said they came, along with the basilica's dramatic architecture and well-known choirs.

Just seeing Wuerl, wearing the red hat of a cardinal, climb the basilica's steps and pass a Nativity scene inside prompted some to snap photos and even sob. The prominence of his new position, combined with the religious heft of the holiday, was moving, some said.

Others were sort of star-struck.

"Who is that?" whispered Hermie DeGuzman, 41, who was marking her first Christmas in the United States with two friends.

All three had come in October from the Philippines to live in Northwest Washington and work as preschool teachers.

The women said they came to the basilica to see the inspiring building and services that are broadcast to Roman Catholic audiences around the world.

The service was part worship, part ogling and part "media-blitz," said Jennifer Kiessling, 36, of Silver Spring.

Kiessling, a government lawyer, was at Mass with her husband and two young children.

Although they are connected with a local parish, Kiessling said they come to the basilica on Christmas because "it's one of the most beautiful environments I've ever seen - the architecture, the high-profile religious figures," the very global crowd. Worshipers tend to include many immigrants, and outfits ranged from high, stiff African hats on women to Peruvian wool jackets on men. There were elderly women with blond bouffants and young men in buzz cuts.

"There's nothing like this in California," Kiessling said. "We can make everyone jealous."

In the crowd were Washingtonians notable for various reasons, including conservative leader - and Catholic convert - Newt Gingrich and Diego D'Ambrosio, a Dupont Circle barber known for such well-heeled clients as Wuerl and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The basilica's seats were full and dozens were standing by the time Wuerl gave his homily, which focused on Christmas as a time of recommitting to one's faith - and to sharing it.

Wuerl, an elegant if formal priest, is known as a serious teacher, not one to use a homily - even with an audience of 4,000 - to reference events in the news. He spoke about the word "Christmas" - Christ's Mass - and the importance of evangelizing and sharing the teachings of Jesus.

"The new evangelization can be as simple as 'Merry Christmas' to someone who needs to hear these words of hope, joy and love," Wuerl said from the altar high above the silent crowd.

Meanwhile, in the basilica's basement, people shopped at the gift store, watched the service on a live feed and ate at a special meal for those alone or in need. After the Mass, Wuerl joined a volunteer choir in the cafeteria to sing "Silent Night" and "Happy Birthday."


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