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from issue no. 02/03 - 2008

The US Catholics and the Pope seen from the Pontifical American College

An American seminarian in Rome


Memories of Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, in the context of the forthcoming journey of Benedict XVI to the United States


by Donald Wuerl


Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington

Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington

The special link with Rome
With very great joy and enthusiasm we welcome the Holy Father. We welcome him because he comes as the Successor of Peter, as the Vicar of Christ, and as the chief Shepherd of the Universal Church. We recognize in him the special bond that every Catholic has with Rome. The Bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter and, therefore, our link of continuity. He represents our connectedness with the apostles. Is this not the reason why all those years ago the North American College was founded? The North American College, as a seminary, was established so that the connectedness of every priest, of every Catholic, of the faithful with Peter, would always be something that was lived in their hearts.
One of the things that I most remember on arriving in Rome to begin my studies, back in 1963, was the bus ride bringing us students up into Saint Peter’s Square. The first stop we made was at the tomb of Saint Peter above which is built the great Basilica that recognizes the special place of Peter in the hearts of the faithful. To the right of the Basilica is the residence of the successor of Peter who still continues to speak the Gospel message to us today. So, we here in the United States and, particularly in Washington, are very excited about the Pope’s visit, because Peter is coming to be with us and our connectedness to the gospel of Jesus is verified in him.

My years in the College and Vatican Council II
I look back with nostalgia on those years. The Council began in 1962 and went on until 1965. I came to Rome in 1963, passing through the period of the Council, and I was ordained in 1966, so I had the experience of living as a student through those Council years. The bishop, and later cardinal, John Wright who sent me to Rome, was greatly involved in the work of the Council, so we, his seminarians, had a first hand sense that something very wonderful was happening in the Church. Since we studied theology in a class at the Gregorian University, we could at lunchtime (when we would come back to the seminary) hear the summary reports of what the Council Fathers spoke about that morning. There was a very real sense that the Church was undergoing a moment of renewal, of rededication, and of recommitment and I think that was a big part of my years as a student at the North American College. During those years, we were also reminded that while the Council was trying to refresh and renew the Church, this came about in the living continuity with the great Apostolic Tradition, and that is why the role particularly of Pope Paul VI was highlighted for us during those Council years. In other words, we were reminded that the bishops were all gathered around him, as the apostles around Peter, and that what we were witnessing was at the same time the renewal and the continuity of the Church.

A memorable episode that touched me deeply
Probably the most significant change came about with the promulgation of Sacrosantum Concilium. We had to begin to approach the liturgy differently. We learned in the seminary that we would, first of all, be able to concelebrate the Eucharist, and those of us who were ordained would not any longer have to celebrate Mass individually in all of the small altars in the crypt. The Council had established that we could concelebrate together around the same altar. I think that was probably the most visible, dramatic change, in how the liturgy was being renewed. We also began to hear how the vernacular would be used in the liturgy so that in the seminary we began to say solemn Vespers in English, whereas before that it had always been in Latin. So these are a couple of the instances where we actually experienced the Council changes as soon as they were introduced.
Probably, the most dramatic moment for me though was assisting at the solemn closing of the Council by Pope Paul VI. I was standing in that huge crowd of people watching all of the bishops process up to the altar, as I heard the Holy Father promulgate a number of Council decrees and announce the closing of the Council. And yes, this was probably the most dramatic moment visually speaking.

We were witness of the “ aggiornamento”, of the renovation
Our bishop had the practice of inviting us students to lunch on his visits to Rome during the course of the Council sessions. I remember him telling us very clearly that what we, as young seminarians, were witnessing was something that we ought to remember all our lives: that the Church was going through a process of renewal, but that that renewal was anchored in her history. And we had the privilege of living in Rome at a time when we could be eyewitnesses to this aggiornamento (updating) in the context of the Church’s two thousand year history. I never forgot that. All development and change must be seen in this continuity and in relation with the great Tradition we have received. Even if I had always cultivated a love for the history of the Church, I believe my interest in the writings of the Fathers of the Church goes back precisely to this Roman experience.

The Immaculate Conception and the North American College
What we recognize in the origins of the North American College is the desire, both on the part of the Holy Father and also the American bishops, to provide a place of formation for future priests who would return to the United States with two specific benefits. First of all an excellent theological preparation, thanks to the opportunity of frequenting Roman Universities. In the second place, naturally, a formation in the setting of the Pope’s presence. Each seminarian would thus develop a personal affective experience and appreciation of Peter.
The foundation of the College is connected with the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It seemed very appropriate that the College would be placed under the protection of Our Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception. And she continues to have that particular role as patroness of the North American College, patroness of the Church in the United States, and patroness of our National Shrine in Washington. This tie is very strong, and connects the whole history of the College with its beginnings.
This said, the purpose of the college is that of providing well-prepared priests who can return to their country to serve Christ and His Church.
When a student leaves the North American College, at the end of his studies, he is entered in the register that records his residence with this formulaic phrase: reversus in Patriam ad predicandam evangelium. This is how the entry for a student’s name is closed, meaning that the student was ordained and then returned to his country to preach the Gospel. That is what the purpose of the College was from the beginning and what it continues to be for all the students of today. This year, when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the apparition of Lourdes, we are reminded that all this happens under the careful and loving watch of Mary.

1899. Pope Leo XIII condemns “americanism”
What we were experiencing then in America was something that was probably being experienced elsewhere in the world. Historically there had always been some tensions between members of local churches and the Holy See. I think that the decision [of the Pope to publish the letter on “americanism”, Testem benevolentiae ed.] was taken to make sure that there was an intellectual and an affective bond among priests and therefore their flocks, and Rome. Part of the decision to establish the College grew out of the idea that conflicts could be avoided if our people and our priests had a personal and affective tie to the Holy See and to the person of the Pope. And this brings us back to the reason why we are so excited about the visit of Pope Benedict. His message, made concrete by his presence here, is: Peter is with you, and you are united to Jesus Christ through Peter. It was the purpose of setting up the College all those years ago, to avoid any possibility of fragmenting the Church from within.

Benedict XVI and Donald Wuerl,  
29 June 2006, during the consigning 
of the pallia to the new archbishops

Benedict XVI and Donald Wuerl, 29 June 2006, during the consigning of the pallia to the new archbishops

The Pope’s gifts
I think there will be a number of areas where we will clearly see the fruits of the Pope’s visit. First, there is already underway in the United States – for a number of years now – a whole catechetical renewal. The bishops in the United States have worked very diligently over the past ten years to prepare and provide catechetical materials that help better inform our faithful, especially our young people. We are witnessing a reflowering of faith in the Church in the United States: a renewal of the catechetical effort that makes it evident that in many of our young people there is a growing awareness of the need to be a part of the Church.
In the second place, there is specifically a growth of a new interest in the faith on the part of young Americans. Recently I had an opportunity to participate in an initiative called Theology on tap in which young adults are invited to come to a tavern. That time there were about three hundred and fifty young college-age students and we talked about the faith and what it means to them. The visit of the Holy Father is going to strengthen this renewal, this outreach of the Church to our young people.
Finally, the third area in which we will see the fruits of the Holy Father’s visit will certainly be a reinforcing among our priests of their connectedness with him and with the Apostolic Tradition. Our priests work very hard indeed! And with fewer priests than before, they work all the harder. But we also have in our vocational programs today an increasing number of young people, in this archdiocese we have seventy young men who are in our formation programs for priesthood, and the Holy Father is a source of inspiration and a guide for all of them. He will be of great encouragement.
So then these are the three specific fruits that we will see: a renewal of our commitment to our catechetical efforts, a renewal of faith among our young people, and a confirming of our priests in their ministry.

Is it easier to be a seminarian today than in my times?
When I was in the seminary our formation program was much more regulated. We were subject to strict rules and timetables. Nevertheless, I am grateful to God that I experienced that style of formation. It was highly regulated but we were the beneficiaries of a great tradition of formation and tradition. Today things have changed so much in our culture that formation is implemented in a very different way, even though still very demanding. But it is the appropriate one for where we are today. I can’t imagine that we would be able to address all the issues we are faced with today if we did not have all the highly developed formation programs we have. However I look back with great nostalgia and love to the North American College and appreciate the way we were formed in those years.
I wouldn’t turn the clock back. Formation today is well carried out. And I encourage young men to come and experience today the call to a vocation. I would like to invite all young men to come and try to respond to the call of God, just as I did so many years ago. I had the joy of responding to the call of Jesus Christ and experiencing priestly formation and finally of my ordination. I invite whoever is on the path of considering a vocation to do so in today’s context of priestly formation: you can live in the North American College, make considerations and be formed in the priesthood under the wonderful protection of the Immaculate Conception.


(Conversation with Giovanni Cubeddu revised by the author)


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