Ask the Archbishop

Donald Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006; 12:00 PM

Donald Wuerl, Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., was online Wednesday, Dec. 20, at noon to discuss his first six months since his appointment to the post.

A transcript follows.


Donald Wuerl: Hello, I'm grateful for the opportunity to visit on the guest forum today.


Annapolis, Md.: Excellency,

Now that you know your archdiocese better, what is the top priority for the archdiocese in particular, and the Church in general, today? The choices that one usually hears about include orthodoxy, vocations, social services, evangelization, ecumenism, political action, and uniting people of different cultures (such as when a large immigrant population from Asia or Latin America moves into a hitherto homogeneous parish). Which one or two things are most urgent today?

Donald Wuerl: Today, the Church faces the challenge of proclaiming the Gospel and telling the story of Jesus in a world that is caught up in so much activity and often focused almost entirely on the here and now. Our task is to continually remind people of their relationship with God. The priority of the Church today is pretty much the same as it has been from the beginning: tell people the Good News that God not only loves us, but is with us and wants to have a living relationship with us.


Washington, D.C.: What is being done about recruiting new Catholics?

Donald Wuerl: One of the priorities of the Church today is to reach out to those who have fallen away from the practice of the faith and to those who have never really heard the story of Jesus and his Gospel. The task is to share with this generation of young people, young adults, something they may not have fully heard or appropriated. The priority of the Church, then, is a preaching, teaching effort to bring the Word of God into the lives of people.


Fairfax, Va.: Archbishop Wuerl: Thanks for taking my question. We live in Virginia and usually attend church in D.C., therefore, that's two different diocese. With the shortage of priests, could the Diocese of Arlington and the Archdiocese of Washington join together to consolidate resources and priests? It's only a river that divides us!

Donald Wuerl: The idea of a diocese is rooted in the understanding that the Church is gathered around the bishop. Therefore, the Church has always tried to set diocesan boundaries in geographic areas that reflect the local political and cultural life. It is prerogative of the pope to establish boundaries for dioceses. We look to both the Archdiocese of Washington and Diocese of Arlington to address the spiritual and pastoral needs of the people in those specific areas. We can share many ideas for ministry and even pastoral programs, particularly through our Conference of Bishops, without having to merge.


Suitland, Md.: Pope John Paul II transformed the position of pope more broadly into one of a cult of personality -- his tone, his gentleness, his appearance appealed to so man more people; before him most popes were the spiritual leaders of the most pious and traditional.

My wife is a liberal Catholic. She loved Pope John Paul II, but is very wary of the new Pope. I have heard this from many other Catholics.

Why do you think this is? I keep hearing about how unapproachable the new Pope "seems."

Donald Wuerl: My experience, limited as it is, with Pope Benedict XVI is that he is a warm, kind and sincere person. I think he shows all the signs of holiness. The task of being pope places him in the public eye all of the time. He teaches. He preaches. All of this he does with precision and I think pastoral sensitivity. Just watching him at St. Peter's Basilica leads me to appreciate all the more his priestly and pastoral style. There will always be contrasts in personal pastoral ministry. That happens in every parish every time you make a change, but at the heart of our teaching and pastoral ministry is the same message and the same sacraments. Pope Benedict XVI strikes me as a living example of the continuity of the Church in papal ministry.


Fairfax, Va.: The Catholic church says that it is a serious sin not to go to Mass every Sunday. And those in serious sin should not receive Holy Communion.

Only about 40 percent of Catholics go to Mass weekly...far fewer on holy days of obligation. The number of people who go to Confession has been dropping for years.

Yet, little of nothing is said. Church is packed at Christmas and Easter. Holy Communion is freely handed out to almost everyone who attends Mass.


Donald Wuerl: The reason the Church calls us to Mass every Sunday is because we are a part of God's family, the Church. We are supposed to come together not just as individuals, but as a faith community to celebrate and rejoice in the mystery of our salvation. We believe that when we participate in the Mass we are actually sharing in the death and the resurrection of Christ in a sacramental way. This is so important for our spiritual life, for our relationship with God and for our salvation that the Church tells us we should come together once a week on Sunday to do this. Part of our task today in teaching and in explaining the importance of our faith is to bring people to a fuller understanding of the importance of the Eucharist and the importance of approaching the Eucharist in a worthy manner.

This brings us to confession. One of the pastoral projects of the Archdiocese is to highlight for all of the faithful throughout the District and the five Maryland counties that are part of the Archdiocese, the great gift of forgiveness that is Christ's gift to his Church in the sacrament of penance, often called confession. What we will be doing at the beginning of the new year, is visiting parishes to celebrate the sacrament of penance (confession) together with the priests of the area so that we can underline the significance of this sacrament. We hope also during Lent to have an Archdiocesan-wide effort to recall for everyone the importance of the sacrament and to ensure its availability.


Potomac, Md.: Where do your true loyalties lie -- Steelers or Redskins?

Donald Wuerl: Fortunately, the teams are in different conferences and both apparently need prayers.


Silver Spring, Md.: Archbishop Wuerl:

I just moved to the area and do not live within walking distance to a Church. I also work in downtown D.C. on Sundays. Can I become a parishioner at Saint Matthew's (since it is Metro accessible)? I know that one cannot become a member of the Shrine near CUA's campus. Any other suggestions of Roman Catholic Church's that are Metro accessible on the Red Line? Thank you for doing this chat.

Donald Wuerl: First of all, welcome. It is good to know that you are here and looking for a church so that you can get to Mass. On our Web site,, you should be able to find information about the location of parishes and even the Mass schedule. Anytime you are in town, I hope you feel comfortable going to St. Matthew's Cathedral. My experience has been that many people go to the Cathedral during the lunch break so they also can celebrate at the Lord's table.


Fairfax, Va.: Excellency, what book (or books) would you recommend to a Catholic (or non-Catholic) person seeking to gain a better understanding of the faith?

Donald Wuerl: Recently, the Bishops of the United States published an adult catechism called the "United States Catholic Catechism for Adults." I have found this book to be inviting and engaging. It is also readable and filled with information about our faith and how we live it in today's world. Since its publication in July, it has gone into numerous printings and is greatly in demand. It is available through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops publications office ( and at many local bookstores. I would also call your attention to another smaller volume, entitled "The Catholic Way" that is done in a readable style, more akin to newspaper-style writing than what we usually associate with a catechetical textbook.


Mount Rainier, M.: Archbishop Wuerl, given this archdiocese's unique location in our nation's capital, how do you see bringing the Church's teachings on justice and peace into the public square -- particularly in relation to the unjust war and occupation of Iraq, on U.S. use of torture, as well as the further building of the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border.

It seems we need more prophetic Catholic voices to "speak truth to power," to speak out clearly on issues. Thank you.

Donald Wuerl: Every pastor, priest or bishop, has an opportunity and obligation to teach the faith. Necessarily, the faith will impact on our lives, on our actions and the positions we take individually and collectively. For that reason, I would see my ministry as one that includes presenting clearly and I hope persuasively the teaching of the Church in every situation so that those who have to make political decisions, which happens regularly in Washington, would be fully apprised of the obligations that flow from the Gospel.


Waldorf, Md.: The Church is having a difficult time getting more young people to become priests. Cardinal McCarrick was very encouraging of vocations. What do you plan to do to increase the number of men becoming priests?

Donald Wuerl: The Church is constantly inviting young women and men to religious life and men to priesthood. Our challenge is to help our young people find the quiet time to hear the voice of God and the guidance to be able to respond to it. I try at most public Masses to invite our young people to reflect on God's call and their response, but also to invite parishioners to encourage our young people to think about religious life and the priesthood. Sometimes a young person is looking for some encouragement and they should find it among the parishioners where they go to church.


Silver Spring, Md.: I have often wondered what the thought process is in how a priest is assigned to a parish. Do you make all the decisions and how often is it reviewed?

Donald Wuerl: One of the responsibilities of the bishop is to see that there is appropriate pastoral care for all of the faithful spread throughout his diocese. In the Archdiocese of Washington we have 140 parishes spread out over five counties and the District of Columbia, not to mention the numerous special ministries such as chaplaincies in hospitals, campus ministries and other institutions. All of these require constant review and attention. For that reason, any archbishop turns to the Priest Personnel Board for input and assistance and has diocesan staff who relate to and speak with the priests. In this way, adequate pastoral ministry can be provided throughout the whole Archdiocese. The reason why in the ordination ceremony each priest makes a promise of obedience to his bishop is precisely to give the bishop the practical possibility of meeting the needs of all of the faithful. Priests offer with great generosity their talents, abilities and their lives to the service of God's people. The decision of where that takes place is one that always involves more than just the priest or the bishop.


Herndon, Va.: Do you think it is your duty to discuss the Church's position on life issue -- abortion and stem cell research in particular -- directly with Catholic Senators and Representatives. If yes, have you?

Donald Wuerl: Among the topics that I have addressed with consistency and regularity in my entire priestly and Episcopal ministry, which stretches over 40 years, is the defense of human life. We are often told that all the Church talks about is the "pro-life agenda." This, of course, isn't true, but it does reflect how high a priority the Church gives to the life issues and how human life is treated today. One reason why we are such a persistent voice in defense of the sanctity of life, the God-given origin of life is because there is so much said and done in our culture today that underlines that understanding. We are at a real crossroad in our culture today. We have to clearly explain and proclaim the uniqueness of human life in a way that convinces others of this reality. Otherwise we could face a society in which human life was reduced to a simple commodity. Hence, the great worry over embryonic stem cell research that is so regularly encouraged in our land. Once we appropriate to ourselves the right to end human life at any age, we set the stage for the unbridled manipulation and use of the lives of others.


D.C. Area: My wife and I have become increasingly alarmed at the way gay men and women are thought of and discussed by some Church leaders and those claim to be morally righteous. We have stopped going to Church on a regular basis because it's unconscionable to us that human beings would be talked about this way -- we have some gay friends and they are great people just like heterosexual people. We're all sinners, but why are they tagged as more or less extreme sinners (my phrase)? Could you provide some guidance. Thank you.

Donald Wuerl: Our Conference of Bishops has recently reiterated what has been the longstanding teaching of the Church involving two significant moral issues. First, human sexuality is intended to be exercised in marriage. The Church has always taught as part of the great Judeo-Christian tradition that sexuality is a blessing, a gift, but intended for a family communion of life and love.

Secondly, every human being is to be treated with dignity and respect. When the Church proclaims Her moral teaching in the area of human sexuality or in the area of other life issues, She does so always respectful of individuals, even those who disagree with Her or do not follow the teachings that the Church proclaims as part of the Gospel.

It is important to read what the Church actually teaches. This teaching is available from a variety of sources. I would recommend both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Web site ( and the recently-published "United States Catholic Catechism for Adults." We all stand before God less than perfect.


Washington, D.C.: Since all of us are sinners and fall short of the glory of God, who does the Pope confess to?

Donald Wuerl: Because of sin, we are all equals in need of absolution. Priests are encouraged to have a confessor and to visit him with some regularity. Traditionally, the pope has a specific priest confessor, but his name is not usually published.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Your Excellency, I hope you enjoy your first Christmas here in Washington. Are you in touch at all with Archbishop McCarrick? Did he give you any advice for coping with Washington?

Donald Wuerl: From the moment of the announcement of my appointment to Washington, Cardinal McCarrick has been of great encouragement and support and he continues to be so today. I am always grateful for his kindness and wisdom. We will be celebrating Christmas in different places, but will be joined in prayer and priestly solidarity. I look forward to my first Christmas Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew as well as the Christmas Day Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. As soon as this guest forum ends, I will finish my homilies for both Masses and for a children's Mass at one of the parishes Christmas Eve. May you have a blessed and holy Christmas.


Laurel, Md.: The earlier football question, while seemingly silly, raises an interesting question: Doesn't praying for something as trivial as the outcome of a football game amount to idolatry, or at least blasphemy? I guess the bigger question is this: are there consequences for attempting to draw God's attention away from issues that are truly deserving of a miracle, such as helping a child survive cancer, getting troops home from war safely, etc.? The reason this is significant, in my view, is that I would imagine that there must be millions of football-related prayers being issued en masse in this country, every Sunday.

Donald Wuerl: Thank you for reminding all of us that we should pray for the well-being of one another. In fact, that is part of our Christian obligation. Personally, I have a long list of prayer intentions. The outcome of sports events hasn't made it onto that list, but we should always include in our prayers the well-being of people engaged in such strenuous activity.

One purpose of our prayer is to invoke God's abundant blessings. In God's providence and in God's eternity, those blessings are already determined. But in our life and time, we can offer an expression of faith and trust in the hope that God has already seen and appreciated our faith. It is a matter of perspective.


Washington, D.C.: What has been the most challenging part of the job?

Donald Wuerl: Anytime you move you have to start over again, getting to know people and places and the history of both. I find that here in the Archdiocese that has been helped greatly by the wonderful welcome I have received and the kindness of so many of the faithful and even people beyond our Church. Thank you!


Washington, D.C.: There seems to be a greater need than ever for charitable organizations. What is the status of Catholic Charities? Do you plan to expand it?

Donald Wuerl: All of us feel the need, especially in this time of year to help people in need. We individually cannot always be present everywhere there is a need. Catholic Charities/Catholic Community Services tries to be. That is why we are asked to support the effort that makes regular, ongoing outreach and response to those in need a reality. We can all be justifiably proud of this "good-works arm" of the Church and the more support it receives, the more good it can do.


Donald Wuerl: As we conclude this time together on the guest forum, I want to thank everyone who participated and wish everyone a blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with God's grace and peace. God bless you.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company