WASHINGTON - 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’s successor must be an evangelizer 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 Washington - 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.
A few Vatican-watchers have described him as a possible candidate, but when asked about that, Wuerl said that “that would enter into the world of fantasy.”
That response conforms with conclave culture, which looks down on not only cardinals openly politicking but also 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.”
Thomas Melady, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who lives in the Washington archdiocese, said Wuerl has a reputation here and in Rome as someone who works behind the scenes rather than trying to seek headlines. “It’s quite evidence he’s a man of influence,” he said.
That said, Melady doesn’t expect Wuerl to be picked because of his age. “I think people want to get back to that atmosphere of John Paul II,” who was 58 when elected.
Wuerl said the most pressing job of the next pope will be to combat the “overwhelming” influence of secularism.
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 there 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.