Peter Jesserer Smith is the Washington correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He helped cover Pope Francis’s historic visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. Later that same year, he covered the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis by traveling to Jordan and Lebanon, representing the Register through Catholic Relief Services’s Egan Fellowship. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
One of the powerful, enduring legacies of St. John Paul II’s nearly 30-year pontificate, are the priests and bishops whose vocations were inspired and formed by the newly canonized saint's efforts: the JP2 Generation.
One young priest whose heart was captured by St. John Paul II from the very beginning he stepped out onto St. Peter’s balcony was a Father Donald Wuerl, today's Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington.
A few years later then-Father Wuerl found himself a collaborator in St. John Paul II’s reform of the priesthood: assisting in the mandated study of U.S. seminaries, and later (as bishop) at the synod on priestly formation that would lead to Pastores Dabo Vobis, the saint’s blueprint for how to form the next generation of shepherds for the Church. St. John Paul II made him an auxiliary bishop for the Seattle Archdiocese in 1986 to take over the decisions on liturgy, priestly and seminarian formation, and other key areas from Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. In 1988, he was made bishop of Pittsburgh, and then Archbishop of Washington in 2006 (and later cardinal) by Benedict XVI, where he established the Blessed John Paul II Seminary.
In the days leading up to the canonization of St. John Paul II, Cardinal Wuerl shared what St. John Paul II meant for him personally, as a priest, a bishop, and for the new generation of shepherds whose vocations the saint inspired with his words "be not afraid."
How did John Paul II leave his mark on you as a priest?
He left his mark in a number of ways, but first and probably the most significant was his complete identification of his vocation with the Church — with Christ in his Church. That was something I saw and appreciated so much in him, first as a young priest.
What memory stands out for you?
He stepped out in front of St. Peter’s Basilica for that first Mass, and he simply reminded us not to be afraid, and to open wide the doors of our hearts to Christ. And from that day on, every time I listened to him, heard him speak, or saw him, it was clear to me that he identified himself completely with Christ at work in his Church. He saw himself as trying to make that presence of Christ as visible, as audible, as tangible as possible. I think it was a great lesson, because what it says is those of us who are in priestly ministry — those who (as the Church teaches) are configured to Christ as to his Church — we have to see ourselves totally and completely in love with that Church. And that is what came across with John Paul II.
What about as bishop?
As a bishop — he ordained me a bishop in St. Peter’s basilica — and I will always have that image of John Paul II imposing hands — but what remains in my heart is the challenge to try to emulate him; and try to be like he was, when he exercised this wonderful witness to Christ, because he was totally identified in his heart with Christ and his Church. And I think the lesson was this: John Paul II identified Christ in his Church. He had no problem giving himself totally fully completely and entirely to the Church, which is the body of Christ.
How did John Paul II shape you in how you chose future priests as their bishop?
Remember that the synod on priestly formation took place in 1990. The synod called by John Paul II to deal with the formation of future priests. I was a part of that synod as a young bishop. And that synod followed on what had happened in the United States that came before: John Paul II had asked for a visit of all the seminaries in the United States. Bishop John Marshall — God rest him — was the apostolic visitor, and I was the general secretary for the synod. We had the chance to see our seminaries and work with them as they tried to shape programs that actually reflected what the Council called for in renewal of seminaries and priestly formation.
But it was John Paul II’s document, Pastores Dabo Vobis, which followed on the synod, which set the pattern for priestly formation not only in the United States, but around the world. That’s the document on which priestly formation has been based since it was published in 1992.
So we’re talking about a document that has been around for decades and that is what impacted me: being a part of that whole process he initiated to renew seminaries, being a part of the synod that produced the material for Pastores Da Vobis. That indelibly marked me and how I view priestly formation. That’s why in this Archdiocese, when I opened the new college seminary, it’s the John Paul II [seminary], because he was the model for how priests should be formed. He exhibited it in his own life, and he also gave the Church the structure from which to do it in the lives of others.
Many young men in the priesthood today say John Paul II directly inspired their vocation. Why is that the case?
One of the things that John Paul II did was he was able to reach young people with the joy…He was clearly a disciple of the Lord Jesus. He showed that. It came through in his joy, in his messages — it came through in the ways he offered the Mass — and I think that gave him entrée into the lives, minds, and hearts of young people.
I think they were inspired by him because there was a clarity of thought, a clarity or firmness of faith; he knows exactly what the Church teaches and he didn’t hesitate to proclaim it. But at the same time, he lovingly tried to embrace everybody, and to bring them to that message, if they were not fully embracing it. He was there for them, saying “let us walk together and get to close as Christ as we can.” I think that attracted lots and lots of young people. They were inspired by his example and his words.
What about World Youth Day?
World Youth Day had a lot to do with it. He touched young people everywhere around this planet. I think WYD was really an inspiration of the Holy Spirit — an act of genius — because it concentrated the focus on bringing people together around the vicar of Christ. I remember bringing a group of pilgrims from my diocese to one of these World Youth Days and I said, “what is it aside from the Pope that most impresses you.” And the response was, “to be with so many young people who believe like I do; to be with so many young people who share the faith.” Because there is a tendency today to downplay the manifestation of the faith, to downplay and even marginalize the faith, and John Paul was telling all these young people, “It’s great to be a believer.”
I remember at WYD in Denver, at the closing Mass and talk, he said to young people, “Never be ashamed of your faith.” And then he paused and he said, “That’s not exactly what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was ‘always be proud of your faith.’” And I think young people saw that in him, and felt empowered to profess, to live, to be a member of Church: and I think that led to a lot of them to say, “I want to be a priest.”
Thank you so much, Cardinal Wuerl. As a quick closing question, what sets apart the vocations inspired by John Paul II?
I think one of the things I see in so many of our young people who have followed the inspiration of John Paul II is an awareness that, to be a good follower of Christ, you have to know what Christ calls us to be, and to accept that challenge and try to live it. And they saw that in John Paul II.