Two days before heading to Rome to help elect a new pope, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl told an audience at a Friday Mass that modern society is “at a crossroads” and that Pope Benedict XVI’s successor must be an evangelist able to lure back those who have drifted into secularism.
Wuerl is among 11 U.S. cardinals who in coming weeks will vote for a pope, following Benedict’s surprise announcement last week that he is resigning. Since then, Catholics and others caught off-guard have been closely watching the comments of cardinals and other Vatican experts for clues to voters’ thoughts, personalities and priorities.
Speaking at one of two special Masses he will deliver locally this weekend — the other will be Sunday before a live-for-TV crowd at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Northeast — Wuerl told noon worshipers at St. Matthew’s Cathedral downtown that once Catholics recovered from the “shock” of the resignation, they should reflect on the demands of a 21st-century pope. That person, he said, must have the energy and disposition to globe-trot and deal with the torrent of social media. “The papal service in our day, our modern, hectic day, must include a ministry of presence,” he said.
A formal and mild-mannered figure who does not seek attention, Wuerl nonetheless has great stature at the Vatican.
He oversaw Benedict’s 2008 visit to Washington, which the Vatican considered successful in boosting the popularity of a pope who was then unknown — or unliked — by many Americans. Benedict named Wuerl a cardinal in 2010. The next year, the pope picked the 72-year-old as one of the global leaders of a top papal priority: re-evangelizing Catholics. Wuerl is considered one of the most knowledgeable catechists, or teachers of doctrine, among the cardinals.
That response conforms with conclave culture, which looks down on not only cardinals openly politicking but alsoon public discussion of who might succeed a pope, typically until the pope dies.
Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who lives in the archdiocese and has known Wuerl for decades, said the cardinal has been “conspicuously on the same wavelength” as the last two popes on the need to make Catholics more evangelistic. Wuerl has been speaking and writing and focusing on it, although his plain style may hinder him, Shaw said.
“It comes from the heart of the man, though,” he said. “He has a diplomatic personality, style, he isn’t bombastic, or even charismatic, exactly. He’s diplomatic.”
On “Face the Nation,” Wuerl said the most pressing job of the next pope will be to combat the “overwhelming” influence of secularism. “It’s really drowning out the voice of religion, the voice of faith,” he said. “Each one of us is called to a relationship with God, in whatever tradition we belong. I think the task of the pope is to say: ‘There’s a spiritual mission, and that’s the work of the church.’ ”
After nearly two decades in his home town of Pittsburgh, Wuerl came to Washington to follow the charismatic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who retired in 2006 — not unlike the path Benedict trod following John Paul II. Wuerl was known in Pittsburgh as a behind-the-scenes type who envisions his role as a teacher, not a hard-charging crusader. And in Washington, he’s solidified that reputation, focusing more on shoring up Catholic schools and parishes rather than on speaking out on such divisive topics as which Catholic lawmakers support abortion rights or the White House’s mandate that employer health plans include birth control.