WASHINGTON — When Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington learned that Pope Benedict XVI would resign, like every other Catholic in the world, he found himself thrust into an unprecedented period in Church history.
But it was especially novel for Cardinal Wuerl, who, for the first time, made his way to Rome to join with the Church’s other 114 cardinal electors in preparing for the conclave and then retreating together into the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope.
During an exclusive interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Cardinal Wuerl recalled those tumultuous weeks and discussed strategies that might be employed to limit the Pope’s foreign travel and address some of the other new challenges of the contemporary Petrine ministry.
What was your reaction to the news that Pope Benedict XVI would resign?
My first reaction was shock. But once I began to reflect on what he said, the more sense it made.
He just didn’t have the energy to continue.
Later on, I thought about how the [Petrine] ministry might be exercised in the future. One of the things that is so demanding about being pope today — and this began with John Paul lI — is the travel, the physical presence.
I wonder if there isn’t another way to be present, with all [the new technology] that is now available to us. There will always be moments, like World Youth Day, when his presence will be required. But he could magnify his presence with video messages, for example.
Imagine if the pro-life vigil at the [Basilica of the] National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception included a two-minute video of the Pope praying with us.
We also have to stop expecting that he will continually give substantive talks whenever he has an audience.
Isn’t it enough for him to say, "I am glad you are here"?
All of this could emphasize a more pastoral side of his office.
Before the conclave, the U.S. cardinals hosted several well-attended press conferences to explain what was going on, and then those meetings were halted because of concern "about leaks of confidential proceedings reported in Italian newspapers," according to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spokesman. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York later said that Church leaders should "respond and engage the press" when they can. Is the U.S. cardinals’ open approach one silver lining of the abuse crisis?
I liked the idea of being able to communicate with our people back home.
One positive element that has emerged from the whole modern age — not just the abuse crisis — is that the Church is learning that we need to have direct, immediate communication, without having it filtered through someone else.
The Church in the U.S. tends to be very open. We publish financials. We are learning that if an issue comes up it’s better to talk about it; and if you don’t, someone else will frame the discussion. The Church universal is learning that.
But all conversation during [the general congregations and conclave] had to be kept confidential. [The process of choosing a new pope] is not like an American political campaign, and the hardest thing before the conclave was to communicate that fact.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit.
What was it like to prepare for the conclave?
During one of the general congregation coffee breaks, I told an elderly cardinal who couldn’t vote, "I find this challenging."
But he said, "Don’t worry. When you are in the chapel, and silence descends, and you focus on prayer, the Spirit will speak to your heart. And then you will know."
It turned out to be absolutely true. Before [the conclave], the closest that I have come to experiencing this was ordination. At a certain point, as you are preparing for ordination, you know this is what God is asking you to do. You know it in the quiet of your heart. This is what the conclave was like.
The process [of discernment was] affirmed when Pope Francis stepped out onto the loggia. The fact that he was the right choice was evident. He brings a simplicity, a pastoral tone. There are tens of thousands of people, and he says, "Buona sera (Good evening)." I came away so joyful.
Then the inaugural Mass was basically a parish Mass for half a million people. His homily was a call to service, to love God and one another, to love the environment. You couldn’t ask for a simpler or more powerful message.
An Argentinian priest who worked closely with Pope Francis while he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires acknowledged his distinctive pastoral style, but said that the archbishop did not insist that his priests do the same.
You have your style; I have mine. When we come to substance, there is no discussion. We all accept the faith.
I don’t think he is going to be forcing people to act the way he acts, but he will encourage us by his example.