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from issue no. 06 - 2011

The return to the simplicity of the Catholic faith

The Apostles’ Creed, the Sacrament of Confession, the adoration of the Eucharist, the invitation to the separated to return to the Church.

Conversation with the Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl

Interview with Cardinal Donald Wuerl by Giovanni Cubeddu

We met Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, on 29 June at the pastoral center of the diocese


Cardinal Wuerl at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington <BR>[© Getty Images]

Cardinal Wuerl at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington
[© Getty Images]

Your Eminence, you’re the bishop of such an important diocese and capital city, that is still the “capital city of the world”. Reading your pastoral letters I was struck by the fact that you always reach out to the people who “have drifted away”. This really seems to be your main concern.

DONALD WUERL: This is what the New Evangelization is all about and why we here in the Archdiocese of Washington have made the New Evangelization our focus. It’s the lens through which we want to see everything we’re doing, inviting people back to the faith and inviting young people to begin to appreciate, understand and live our Catholic faith.

The reason I did my pastoral letter on the New Evangelization last year (Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision) was precisely because there is a generation of Catholics who are baptized but not practicing the faith. These are for the most part Catholics who were very poorly catechized during the ’70s and ’80s and part of the ’90s. We had in the United States a period of time when there was not a clear focus on what was being taught and on the catechetical and theological textbooks being provided for the instruction of our young people. The result is that, together with the influence of the cultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, many Catholics simply stopped coming to church. They think of themselves as Catholics but they don’t participate in the life of the Church. When Pope John Paul II began speaking so insistently on the need for a New Evangelization, and we began to realize how important inviting people back is, and then when Pope Benedict XVI established the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, we determined in this archdiocese that evangelization was going to be the focus of all of our efforts. We want to make sure that those who have drifted away are invited back again. One example is the confession initiative that we named “The Light is On for You”. In our effort to renew the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we have offered confession in all the parishes in the archdiocese during Lent for five consecutive years. We simply let everybody in the community know – Catholic, non-Catholic, everybody – that confession is something that Catholics do and that in every one of our churches on every Wednesday evening during Lent, there would be a priest waiting to hear confessions from 6:30 to 8 p.m., to welcome you back. Thus we would advertize the invitation to come home on the Metro (train), on radio, on buses, on billboards. Now, other dioceses around the country and in Canada have picked this up.

You are always very straightforward in your catechesis. Writing to the clergy, the religious and the laity of the archdiocese (pastoral letter God’s Mercy and Loving Presence) you re-launched “The Light is On for You” and also advised the people of your archdiocese to attend Eucharistic adoration together, following the example of St Alphonse Maria de Liguori, whom you also mention in your letters. So, it was like saying “the sacraments are the answer for us”.

Absolutely, and when we, the bishops of the United States, gathered some years ago, we said we needed to determine the priorities of the Church in our country. The very first of the priorities that all of the bishops agreed upon is teaching, catechizing, evangelizing around the sacraments, bringing people back to the sacraments. It makes such common sense. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, when he prepared to return to his Father in glory, established a Church that would look like him, that would be spiritual and visible, that would have the Holy Spirit and yet be made up of human beings. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the Church as the Great Sacrament. Jesus established the sacraments so that He would be able to touch us, we could touch Him. Among all these great moments of encounter the Eucharist is at the summit. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We knew that when we would do this, He would be there. I think our young people are realizing not only is it simple, it’s true. What we’re asking our young people today to do is what Peter replied when Jesus said to the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” That’s the question we are asking our young people today, “Who do you say Jesus is?” Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. We’re helping our young people today to make that same profession of faith – to say to Christ, “You are the Son of God, I believe that”. We’re finding a response of our young people. It’s not complex. When Jesus spoke it wasn’t hard to understand. I think what happens is that the faith response gets overlaid with a point of reference that is secular. So our young people today are just asking, “Tell us about Jesus, tell us about His Gospel”.

In your  pastoral letter God’s Mercy and the Sacrament of Penance you mentioned that the “new creation” is simply a man who is redeemed.

Saint Paul tells us that the struggle within us is the old person still wanting to hold on and the new person and the new creation coming through, the person in grace, the person who is being redeemed in grace. Isn’t that part of what Jesus came to do? To restore everything that was broken. The new creation, the creation of grace, is the kingdom – the presence of God, of peace, of love, of justice, of compassion, of healing. The new creation begins for each one of us in baptism. Everybody is a creature of the new creation. It’s just that the old creation is still struggling to hold us and the new creation is trying to break through all of that. Each one of us is a citizen of the kingdom. And the kingdom is coming to be right now, every time a believer, a follower of Christ, acts in kindness, love, truth and justice. All of those actions of living out the presence of Christ in us is what’s bringing the kingdom to be. I was once asked by a man who identified himself as an atheist, “What do you people bring to the world?” “You people”, meaning the Church. I said to him, “What do you think the world would be like if for these past centuries, for these past millennia, we hadn’t been told of the Ten Commandments? If we hadn’t been told we’re obliged to treat one another with dignity, if we hadn’t been told we are called to love one another and to care for the least of our brethren? What do you think the world would be like?” And he replied, much to his credit, “It would be a mess.” These are all signs of the kingdom breaking into the world.

One of the joys of being a bishop is you get to move all over the diocese. In parishes around this local Church I see people living their faith, trying to be a follower of Christ, raising their children, trying to help their children to follow Christ’s way. Here we see people caring for the elderly and the sick, responding to the needy, trying to do all the things that Jesus said.

Cardinal Wuerl in prayer before the chains of St Peter, kept in the Roman Basilica of St Peter in Chains, on the occasion of his taking possession, Sunday 8 May 2011 [© Piotr Spalek/Catholic Press Photo/CNS Photo]

Cardinal Wuerl in prayer before the chains of St Peter, kept in the Roman Basilica of St Peter in Chains, on the occasion of his taking possession, Sunday 8 May 2011 [© Piotr Spalek/Catholic Press Photo/CNS Photo]

Like the American clergy, the Archbishop of Washington seems to be in between opposite forces. On the one hand, let me quote a statement of the US bishops (taken from In support of the Catechetical Ministry): “We live in an increasingly secular and materialistic society”, on the other hand you have Hispanic, black and Asian minorities with a different approach…

Yes, but I think one of the things we recognize and that our Holy Father, when he was here three years ago in 2008, reminded us is “the three barriers to the proclamation of the Gospel in the United States are secularism, materialism and individualism”. All of that is increasingly evident in our culture. Much of what we hear about as American culture is generated by the entertainment and the information industries. Once you get into the world of people in parishes, the world of people where they work, there is still an awful lot of basic Christian value. We rarely hear about it in the media. Those values are bleached out. Anything that has to do with religion, faith, the spirituality of people is bleached out and we’re tempted to believe that what we see on television or hear on the radio or read in newspapers is really the whole story. It’s not. But on the other hand as you point out, we have all the immigrants coming in now. We have Mass in this Archdiocese in twenty languages every weekend… twenty! We are blessed by what I think is a reflection of the whole Church Universal being present here in this capital city of the United States. The immigrants bring with them a richness of faith. Many of them bring with them a sense of community, a sense of family, which is so badly needed in our secular United States. We’re witnessing the introduction of what’s called “same-sex marriage”, as if marriage were not already objectively the verifiable reality of a man and a woman coming together, pledging to live in communion and generate and raise children. Immigrants bring with them a sense of community, of Church communion. Their experience of the faith is one that includes the Church and therefore a teaching office, apostolic Tradition and bishops, the successors to the Apostles. This is in opposition to the Protestant heritage in the United States that says, “It’s me and God, Jesus is my savior, and I don’t need more”. The Catholic Church has always said, “Jesus established a family, a faith family”. Part of what we’re facing with the influx of immigrants is the need to support the traditional family values and communal values.

The U.S. bishops’ quotation underlines that a democratic set of values is one thing, whereas the Catholic faith is another. Taking into account this clear distinction, how do you relate with civil powers?

Well, I think there are two things that you have to keep in mind. One, this is a pluralistic democratic society. And two, that as a bishop of the Catholic Church, I have a message to bring to that pluralistic democratic society. At my installation five years ago, I said in the homily, part of the responsibility of the Church in the nation’s capital, in this capital of the world, is to announce the Gospel in the midst of all the other voices. We don’t condemn other voices, but we do expect to have the freedom for our voice to be heard. My experience in Washington is, if you are prepared to dialogue, to discuss and to listen, then you can sometimes get a chance to bring the Gospel to the discussion. It is very important for the Church to be present. It has to be present in the on-going efforts that are the political, social and cultural environment. We just have to be true to ourselves. We have to be faithful to the Gospel, clear in saying what it is and what it is not, what’s right and what’s wrong. An example of that is the voice of the archdiocese in the pro-life movement and why we’re so proud of having a youth rally and Mass for life every year. 35,000 young people were here last year – 20,000 at the Mass at the Verizon Center; 10,000 at the D.C. Armory, and another 5,000 in churches all over this archdiocese. The voice of the Church through all of these young people was simply saying in this political world in which we live, that human life is a gift from God.

In your country the debates regarding the healthcare reform are still ongoing. The Church cannot endorse people who are in favor of abortion, but that’s quite different from opposing a law that provides people with social assistance or healthcare they could never afford. Sometimes it seems that the Catholic Church in the United States is only committed to pro-life, in a battle against the government.

Sometimes that’s the way it’s portrayed, that the Catholic Church is only interested in trying to abolish abortion. The largest caregiver apart from the government in the United States is the Catholic Church. We’re at all levels of healthcare, social service ministry, caring for the homeless, feeding the poor through food banks and parish food pantries. We’re also the largest entity after the government involved in education, especially of the poor and needy. The Catholic Church is involved in so much that is a part of Jesus’ command that we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. We’re doing that. But we’re not always depicted that way, we don’t get recognition for it. In 2007 the American bishops issued the document Faithful Citizenship that is a guide for Catholics going into the election process, I think that document contains much solid teaching. It enjoyed the overriding consensus of the bishops in the United States. Faithful Citizenship says to Catholics and to anyone else who reads it, there is a range of issues and you have to look at all of them. Jesus calls us to care for the woman as she has her child, but then to be of assistance to both mother and child as well as to provide for the elderly, for people who need assistance. All of these things are part of the great frame of reference of the Catholic social justice ministry.

The Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl after a prayer meeting at the Old Saint Mary’s Catholic Church <BR>[© Getty Images]

The Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl after a prayer meeting at the Old Saint Mary’s Catholic Church
[© Getty Images]

Today is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. I attended the early morning Mass with the Franciscan friars at the Monastery of the Holy Land here in Washington, DC, and I was told in the homily that the meaning of this feast is that the Lord made major saints out of two unlikely personalities, a fisherman and a persecutor.

This is the way the Lord works. Who would have thought … the rock on which Christ would build his Church would be a rustic, impetuous fisherman. And yet with the grace of God he became the rock on which the Church rests. And there was Paul, persecuting the Church, and with the grace of God he became the channel for the revelation that the Church and Jesus are one. When Saulasked, “Who are you”,  the voice replied to him, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”. The Church and Christ are one. Paul was the vehicle of that revelation. This morning when we celebrated Mass, I said that you can’t celebrate Saints Peter and Paul without recognizing that we have a tie to Rome. When I had the great privilege of taking possession of my titular church St Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli) in Rome, I reminded all of the people who had come that we all have a special bond, every Catholic has a bond with Peter. We all have this tie because he is the touchstone of our faith. He lives today, he has the name Benedict today, but he is the one we turn to when we want to know what it is that Jesus says to us.

As Archbishop of Washington, what is your dearest experience?

For me, right now, I think the most joyful aspect of the Church today is the realization that we are in the midst of the New Evangelization. We are like that early Church, going out and telling people for the first time who Jesus is. He is risen, He is with us. Many of the people today are hearing this for the first time. They think they’ve heard it, they think they knew it, but they are hearing it maybe for the first time. The excitement is that the Church today is opening up to a whole new future and that is the reason to be filled with joy. I think 50 years from now, people will look back and say those were the days when the whole renewal of the Church was beginning.

In one of your periodical columns you recently wrote: “It was not all that long ago that after an Easter Sunday celebration a man came up to me to ask whether I truly meant what he heard me say in the Easter homily: ‘You said Jesus came back from the dead in his body, not just in his influence’”.

He has risen. In some schools, people may have been taught that the resurrection was more of a way of speaking, and that He was risen in his influence. We say, “No, no! He is risen in His body.” A university student in one of my classes once said, “You said that Jesus came back from the dead.” I replied, “Yes, because that is what the Church believes.” And he said, “Yes, but you said body and…”. “That is what the resurrection is,” I told him. He didn’t know the Church believed that. Now he does. This is part of the excitement of telling young people who Jesus really is. All you need is the Apostles’ Creed. When I am in Rome, I always stay at the North American College because that is the seminary I went to and that is where the Washington DC seminarians are. Each time I visit, I take all of the DC seminarians to St Peter’s Basilica. We have a 7:00 a.m. Mass and then we come up from the crypt and stand at the confessional altar to say the Apostles’ Creed together. I tell them, “It is all right here.”

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