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Cardinal Wuerl presides over grand basilica Christmas Mass despite cloud hanging overhead

Cardinal Donald Wuerl leads a packed Mass on Tuesday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (Julie Zauzmer/The Washington Post) (Julie Weil/Julie Zauzmer)

Two months ago, Cardinal Donald Wuerl stepped down early from his position as archbishop of Washington, faced with a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation that condemned him for his mixed record on handling abusive priests under his supervision.

On Christmas Day, Wuerl was robed in the majestic symbols of the Catholic Church regardless, sitting on a seat designed to resemble a throne with his ceremonial head-covering shaped like a crown.

Pope Francis praised Wuerl in October even as he accepted the cardinal’s early retirement over the abuse scandal and offered him a soft landing by keeping him on as administrator leading the Archdiocese of Washington until his successor is named, which has not happened yet.

On Christmas Day, Wuerl made his return, celebrating Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as his first major public event after months of staying somewhat away from the limelight.

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“We can truly have peace and goodwill and harmony in this world,” Wuerl preached in a homily that stuck to an optimistic message about the power of the Christian faith to heal all ills.

Many in the crowd at the basilica’s noon Mass, who filled every pew and spilled into the aisles, praised Wuerl’s message as well as the soaring orchestral works that filled the glittering shrine. “This is the best Mass I’ve ever been to in my whole 35 years of Catholicism,” Melissa Escobar gushed.

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Others said they were bothered to see Wuerl leading the ornate Christmas service. The cardinal had skipped other major events since the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in August, including the annual back-to-school Mass and the annual Red Mass for the Supreme Court. Both of those are events he would ordinarily have led; at both, protesters outside demanded that Wuerl resign.

On Christmas — with Wuerl having already submitted his resignation, although Francis has made no move yet to pick a replacement — no protesters gathered outside the basilica.

Mary Elizabeth Wagner of Centreville and daughter Christelle Melome said they thought twice before attending Mass on Tuesday, because Wuerl would be leading the service.

“I feel like he should have not had the platform, to be completely honest,” Melome said. “It’s a representation of the church. I think it was a bad representation.”

But after the service, both said they were glad they attended. Wagner even rated Wuerl’s homily as “fabulous.” “That’s what Christmas is about, to keep faith even when things are rough. And right now, in this city especially, things are really tough.”

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Duffy Burns, a Californian attending Mass with his son, who lives in the Washington area, said that he wanted to hear a message of “love and unity” and that he wondered about Wuerl delivering it.

“It’s a very tough message to give with that controversy hanging over his head,” Burns said. But he didn’t think someone else should have filled Wuerl’s spot. “I believe in redemption and forgiveness. I’m more than willing to hear what he has to say.”

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Chris Kane, a weekly churchgoer from Syracuse, N.Y., visiting his children in the Washington area, said as he was walking into Mass that he found the idea of Wuerl leading the service “problematic.”

“It does kind of shake your faith when something like that’s been happening for half a century and they haven’t done anything about it. And they knew,” he said, shaking his head. But still he goes to every Sunday Mass.

“What are you supposed to do? Quit?” he said. The bells of the basilica caroled merrily overhead, and he climbed the steps to pray.