The meal was a typical fundraiser of local Catholic power players, but one detail stuck out: Washington’s archbishop, Donald Wuerl, was seated at a regular round table down on the floor, while his extroverted, well-known predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, dined on the raised stage.
In a faith community where ritual and hierarchy are explicit and treasured, some found the seating at the late 2000s event notable, as they also did Wuerl’s demeanor. The archbishop seemed totally fine with the arrangement.
“I was really struck. Most bishops would want to be up there and wouldn’t allow this to happen,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, who has written several books on the lives of U.S. bishops. “But Cardinal Wuerl was more than happy to let Cardinal McCarrick be the one up there.”
With his unassuming and reserved style, Wuerl is not a well-known figure to the region’s growing number of Catholics, many of whom probably don’t realize that their leader is one of the world’s most influential bishops. Pope Benedict had already named the slender 73-year-old in 2010 to craft the church’s modern-day evangelization message, but Pope Francis in December further solidified Wuerl’s stature by picking him as the only new American on the powerful, 30-member Vatican body that selects bishops.
With popes typically replacing about a third of bishops every five years or so, Wuerl will play a key role in shaping the next generation of church leaders. As a careful insider, he is in some ways a surprising choice of partner for Francis, who makes constant news with spontaneous, often provocative comments and came to Rome without experience there.
But the pope’s and the archbishop’s contrasting personalities — one longtime bishop’s aide jokes that Wuerl has “cuff links on his pajamas” — could be seen as appropriate at a time when people seem to be seeking a spirituality both timeless and flexible.
Wuerl is also highly respected by his bishop peers as a savvy and gifted administrator who knows how to get things done without a lot of drama.
He had high-level Vatican experience at a young age, and served stints as a firefighter, taking on diocesan controversies on both the left and right. In an era of Catholic culture war, he has not used one of the country’s most prominent pulpits to focus on issues that divide Catholics, such as gay marriage or denial of Communion to abortion-supporting politicians. And at a time when church attendance is down and some dioceses are in bankruptcy, Washington’s converts and fundraising are up and a new seminary was opened in 2011.
“People trust him because he’s prudent, he’s not going to lead them over a cliff,” Reese said. “He rarely makes a mistake, he doesn’t say things that are controversial.”
People who know Wuerl say he sees Francis’s election as an affirmation of his own moderate approach. In a Washington Post interview at the archdiocesan headquarters in Hyattsville, Wuerl enthused about the pope: “I love being a part of what he’s doing.”
He was particularly moved, he said, by Francis’s comments at one of the twice-monthly meetings of the Congregation of Bishops, which makes recommendations to the pope on how to fill vacant spots.
“When it was his turn to speak, he speaks softly,” Wuerl said of Francis. “He’d say what he thought. He didn’t feel the need to defend. He seemed so confident!”
Members of the congregation play a particularly large role in filling openings in their own countries, Wuerl and others said. Francis will have the chance to make a significant statement soon in Chicago, a large, very Catholic archdiocese whose leader, Cardinal Francis George, is 77 and undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
In picking bishops, John Paul II and Benedict sought to unify Catholics after the dramatic changes of the Second Vatican Council. To this end, the popes picked a generation of leaders who prioritized orthodoxy.
The question today is what kind of leaders Francis and his bishop-advisers will select. Francis has given several long talks on the topic, noting the importance of being faithful to “the Truth” but going on at much greater length about more spiritual qualities.
Catholics “need someone who looks upon us with the breadth of the heart of God; we do not need a manager, a company administrator,” Francis told the Congregation in February. “Men who are guardians of doctrine, not so as to measure how far the world is from doctrinal truth, but in order to fascinate the world . . . with the beauty of love, with the freedom offered by the Gospel.”
Wuerl said he hears Francis in this way: “You have to be with people in all of their struggles. You have to meet them where they are.”
Francis hasn’t picked many bishops, so it’s difficult to predict whether change is coming. Wuerl declined to give details of their meetings.
Wuerl, who has been Washington archbishop for eight years, recently received a lot of feedback suggesting that most of the approximately 621,000 Catholics living in the D.C. area and suburban Maryland aren’t looking for big changes in the diocese. Preparing for a first-ever synod — or key meeting — in June to mark the archdiocese’s 75th anniversary, Wuerl asked for comments on how the church is doing. His office said he received 15,000 pieces of mail and e-mail that he said added up to “fine-tuning.”
They mostly asked for support for their spiritual lives, he said: better homilies by pastors, “more encouragement and teaching.”
The archdiocese is considered comparatively very healthy, and more so since Wuerl came.
Its annual fundraising appeal has prompted larger donations in recent years and was at its highest ever in 2013, as was the number of new Catholics who came into the church over Easter — 1,306. Eighty young men are studying for the priesthood in the archdiocese.
Its main social service arm, Catholic Charities, has seen annual revenue rise from $50 million in 2007 to $77 million in 2013. Wuerl installed a powerhouse fundraiser in Monsignor John Enzler, a popular local-boy-turned-priest.
Wuerl is particularly proud that the archdiocese during his tenure has gone from giving $800,000 in tuition help to needy students attending Catholic schools to $5.5 million this academic year.
Asked about the big picture, Wuerl called this a time of “spiritual renewal” and said people aren’t satisfied with what they get from technology and social media and their jobs, and in fact were more apt to be searching spiritually than when he was young.
“When I ask young people, ‘Do you pray?’ many times the answer is, ‘Yeah, in my own way, but yeah I do.’ . . . It says to me they do take seriously that there is a spiritual dimension to their lives. And aren’t too busy.”
To some longtime Wuerl watchers, this kind of language sounds newly softer and more open. While he is definitely not a culture warrior, Wuerl in recent years joined religious conservatives in particular in framing the Catholic Church as struggling against a desire to make doctrine irrelevant and what he termed in 2012 a “tsunami of secularism.”
Wuerl’s construction was key because he used the term in what was meant to be the guiding document for the church’s new outreach efforts. He had been asked by Pope Benedict to craft the document as part of a campaign called the New Evangelization.
John Thavis, a reporter who has covered the Vatican for decades, said that document was created to be a map for the papal document on evangelization. Because of Benedict’s retirement, it turned out that Francis wrote the document, which came out in November.
Instead of following Wuerl’s focus on secularism, however, Thavis said Francis “set that aside . . . instead of talking about how bad secular society was, he talked about how the church needs to improve how it relates to people in this modern society. It wasn’t necessarily a rejection of Wuerl but it was certainly the pope putting his own, different mark.”
During the Post interview, in which he sounded solidly upbeat, Wuerl used his regular e-mail to parishioners to highlight an anti-Catholic column in a weekly magazine and the legal standoff between the Obama White House and some religious groups over mandated contraception coverage.
“We have seen this kind of hostility toward the Catholic faith before,” he wrote of the U.S. climate, citing anti-Catholic laws in colonial Maryland.
Wuerl’s stance seems to alternate between focusing on deep concern among Catholics about change and secular society, and the notion that Catholicism can not only withstand change but thrive in it. In some senses, it’s an echo of the vacillation that is occurring within the church as a whole.
“By nature I am optimistic. The Lord is with us and things go according to God’s plan, but you can’t close your eyes,” Wuerl said when asked how he reconciles the two positions.
“The secret, I believe, is balance,” he said. He cited the Old Milwaukee beer slogan: It doesn’t get any better than this. Then: “I hear people saying, ‘It has to!’ That’s where we are today.”