Archbishop Donald Wuerl will be the first host of Pope Benedict XVI when he visits the Archdiocese of Washington next month.
It will be the first papal visit to the U.S. capital since 1979. It’s Pope Benedict’s first visit to the United States since becoming Pope. Tens of thousands are expected to attend Mass with him in the new Nationals baseball stadium.
Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen spoke recently with Archbishop Wuerl.
What are your personal hopes and expectations for this momentous occasion?
I’m really excited that this can be a moment of renewal for the Church, certainly for the Church here in the United States, and for the whole country. This is the Vicar of Christ, the successor to Peter, the chief shepherd of the universal Church, and he is coming to us. His very presence gives us an opportunity to reflect on who we are: who we are as God’s people, and who we are as the Church gathered around Peter. That’s at the heart of our joy, the enthusiasm with which we’ll greet him, and some of the steps we’ve taken to prepare for his visit.
One of the most important things we’ve done — in addition to technical and logistical arrangements, such as getting permission to use a brand new stadium for the Mass — is we’ve stepped back and said: If we really want this to be a religious moment, all of us across the country, the whole Church and the whole of nations, need to do two things:
1. Reflect on who Peter is. So one thing we’ve done is put together a whole study guide for teachers, catechists, youth ministers, etc. It’s going to every diocese in the country. You can go on the website now and bring down all this educational and catechetical material that helps everyone renew in our hearts the question “Who is Peter, and what is his role in the Church? What exactly does he bring to the Church in Pope Benedict XVI?”
2. On the spiritual renewal side, building on that, we have provided talking points and homiletical material. We’ve invited people back to the sacrament of reconciliation; we’re distributing prayer cards, and brochures on the Pope’s encyclicals. The whole purpose is to say: This is a great moment to renew our faith and bring ourselves back as fully as we can back into the vibrant life of the Church.
Have you had any one-on-one discussions with the Pope about his visit?
No. All conversations have been through the regular channels, the offices in Rome. It’s very clear through all we’ve received, however, that the Holy Father is looking forward with enthusiasm to the visit.
Just in the short time he’ll be in Washington, he’ll have an opportunity to visit the president and other political leaders of the country, all the bishops of the United States; he’ll hold the Mass at Nationals Park, and we have people from all over the country coming to that Mass.
That Mass is the point at which he’ll be speaking to the Catholic faithful all over the country. That afternoon he’ll be at Catholic University, speaking to educators, and after that he will speak to interfaith leaders.
You mentioned his talk with Catholic educators. Do you know what his concerns and desires are for education in the United States?
The fact that he’ll meet with superintendents, or their equivalents from every diocese, says his talk will highlight the role of Catholic education in the Catholic Church. It says he will highlight something that’s a great blessing in the country, and that’s our Catholic school system. I would hope that’s a part of his message.
When did you last meet personally with the Pope?
It was last fall. I’m on the Council for the Synod, and with some regularity we go to Rome for our work, and usually in that context we meet with the Holy Father. I should have been there, but we had the Mass and the Rally for Life here. Because we had over 25,000 young people at that Mass I asked to be excused from that meeting in order to remain here. The Holy Father sent a message encouraging the young people at our gathering to be witnesses to the faith, and he thanked them for their testimony to the Gospel of Life.
Do you perceive a new level of bravery among yuoun Catholics to boldly live their faith for all to see?
I believe there is a renewal, and a very profound renewal and it’s relatively widespread. I say widespread in that it crosses lots of lines — age lines, cultural lines, ethnic lines. There’s an understanding among many of our young adults that Christ does have a unique message and that he offers something nobody else can offer us.
There is this spirit moving across our country. I see it in lots of signs. We have a focus on renewal of the sacrament of reconciliation, and the response has been phenomenal. I’m finding it in campus ministry programs. And just this morning we had a gathering of young men who are possibly being called to the priesthood. We had some 40 people. They were there exploring the question of whether God is calling them to be priests. These are signs of a renewal.
The popular media referred to Pope John Paul II as a “rock star” of sorts. He really connected with youth. Does Pope Benedict have that same ability?
One of the things remarkable about the ministry of this Holy Father is how he is able as a teacher of the faith to get his message across. It may not follow the style of any particular predecessor, but he speaks in pastoral tones, of basic themes — themes of revelation.
He teaches that God is love and the Church is an instrument of that love, and that hope is rooted in understanding that we’ve been renewed in Christ. Those are bedrocks of our faith, and he teaches them with flair.
He’s calling us, and young people are responding to it. He’s calling all of us to take hold of our faith and begin to appreciate it by understanding it all the more. He always calls us to live the faith.
When you met with the Pope last fall, die you talk about this visit?
I really don’t like to comment on conversations with the Holy Father. Suffice it to say that I expect great, great joy when he visits.
How are people of your archdiocese responding to this?
If I could sum it all up in one simple, graphic expression: They all want tickets to the Mass. Just about everyone I run into now, whether at confirmation of youngsters at parishes or when addressing a university, meeting with a corporate board, meeting with Catholic Charities — whatever, you name it — the first thing everyone says to me is, “Hello archbishop, do we have tickets?” I think that expresses the widespread enthusiasm.
What do you do about that? Obviously, not everyone can have tickets.
We’re trying to share the tickets with the Church across the country. We have 580,000 Catholics in this diocese alone, and the park only holds 44,000. We’re asking our parishes to plan to have an event focused on prayer and celebration in their own parishes and schools at the time of the Mass. We hope this will be televised in a way that they will be able to join in that way. By the way, this new park opens only two weeks before the Mass. So we’re praying about that.
What if you don’t get tickets, but you go to Washington hoping to see the Pope?
Some of the routes he will take during this visit will be announced, and he will use the popemobile some of the time. That means we will have an opportunity to say, “Here’s where you can see him. Here’s where he will pass by.”
Another thing: We’ve put together some highly attractive brochures that speak of the Pope’s message, so everyone will have some tangible evidence of his presence while he’s here. We have 100,000 brochures printed in English and Spanish, and 50,000 prayer cards. They will be everywhere.
Wayne Laugesen is based