Cardinal Wuerl Discusses His Parish-Based Road Map for ‘Amoris Laetitia’

The Archdiocese of Washington’s new pastoral plan envisions the parish as the center of the family apostolate, where all persons and families, have a role.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Cardinal Donald Wuerl (photo: 2015 photo, Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Donald Wuerl has advanced the discussion on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) with a first-of-its-kind pastoral plan that affirms the Church’s unchanging doctrine and provides a wealth of parish-based pastoral approaches for clergy, parish staff, religious and lay faithful to take up.

In this interview with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith, Cardinal Wuerl explains how the pastoral plan for the Archdiocese of Washington, “Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family,” envisions the parish as becoming a true “family of families.” He explains why he realized the local Church needed to do more than restate its objective teaching: It needed to provide a road map for how the faithful, through the parish, could concretely take up the Church’s call to accompany the family, and be accompanied by the Church, on the journey together toward Jesus Christ.


Cardinal Wuerl, is there a personal encounter that drove home why your people needed a concrete plan on how to live out this vision of Amoris Laetitia and discover the joy of the family?

Let me give you one experience, just one of many, because as you’ll note, Part 2 [of the pastoral plan] is “The Way of Faith and the Contemporary Culture.” Since the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization, presided over by Pope Benedict — and I had the privilege of being the relator [for the synod] — I have become more and more aware of how the “secular tsunami,” as I call it, has simply washed across all the values in our culture. And when I talk with young people, all the way up to [those in] their mid-40s, who have drunk so deeply from that secular well, [I realize] they don’t understand our words the same way we do.

I’ll give you an example. I sat with a group of young couples, and we talked about the importance of marriage. They were all married, so it was an easy subject to get into. But when I talked about the understanding of permanent commitment, one of them said, “Well, of course, cardinal, we take these promises as a permanent commitment, until it doesn’t work anymore.”

And that part struck me: the whole sentence “of course, cardinal, we take this to be permanent, until it doesn’t work anymore.” We are understanding the word “permanent” in two different ways. But I don’t think that was unusual.

So much of the language we in the Church use is rooted in the truth of Revelation. We use words like “grace”; we use words like the “presence of God working within us”; we use words like “transcendence.” And those words, for many, many people have no meaning at all. And that was evident in the Synod on the New Evangelization, and I think it was also evident in the first synod on marriage.

The 2014 synod was all about: What are we dealing with out there? Over and over and over again, I heard — and at first, I thought it would be people from North America and Europe, and then I heard from everybody — that “secularism has changed the way so many of our people think.”

So that led me to appreciate all the more Amoris Laetitia’s teaching. The teaching is absolutely clear on what is the Catholic understanding of marriage, and it is a beautiful presentation. But then, in Chapter 2 [of Amoris Laetitia], it says, all right, this is our teaching, and this is the contemporary culture in which it’s being heard or not heard, understood or not understood at all. And that led me to think that our pastoral plan has to be all about what was at the heart of Amoris Laetitia: meeting people where they are and accompanying them, so that while we are walking with them, we might be able to help them experience, all the more, the beautiful meaning of our teaching.

As Pope Francis keeps highlighting, it’s not the words alone that do it. In fact, it’s more than the words — it’s the witness. That made me think all the way back to Blessed Paul VI. He said, and I quoted him at the synod in 2012, “Modern man listens to witnesses, before teachers. If he listens to a teacher, it is because he is a witness.” That’s what Amoris Laetitia is saying.

We have to live our faith. We have to bear witness to it in our actions and then work with, walk with people who have no idea of the beauty of what we are talking about. So that’s what the whole way of accompaniment is all about.

We accompany the hurting, the distracted, the anonymous. These are the people of our age, our day, of our culture. These aren’t people who say, “No, I understand fully. I just don’t believe” or “I don’t accept the idea of sacramentality” — they have been so distracted, they have been so caught up, they don’t know what we are talking about.


I noted your emphasis that we can’t just restate the doctrine, but we must show how it is lived out and help people live it out, too, even though we are all in “irregular,” imperfect situations.

Life itself, the human condition is irregular! That’s what the Fall is all about. It ruptured everything. That’s why I say it’s not enough just to say the words again. During the first synod, the one in 2014, when we were talking about all the problems, one cardinal said, “If saying it over again is how we solve the problem, why don’t we just give them the page numbers from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and we can all go home?” He was making obviously a dramatic point, but it’s not just enough to say the teaching; we have to help them to understand.

The best understanding is when they see in us, whether it’s marriage, or whether it’s morality in every phase — honesty, truthfulness — [lived out]. They have to see it in the person bearing witness to it, if they’re going to take the words. As young people say, you can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. That’s where we Catholics, all of us who believe, who really love this teaching [come in], and we recognize we aren’t living up to the fullness of the Revelation “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” but we are doing our best. And the encounter with people struggling, who have no idea what we are talking about, that encounter begins by having them hear us and then see in us something of what we are talking about. That’s the accompaniment. If you ask me, the heart and soul of this whole [pastoral plan] is the encouragement to accompany. And in the accompaniment, we both get closer to Jesus.


In the pastoral plan, you point out individualism is at the heart of this “throwaway culture.” It undermines marriage and the family. The whole model of accompaniment emphasized in this plan is integrated into the experience of parish community. Do you see parish life as the “family of families,” with the accompaniment you outlined in this plan, as the antidote to the individualism that pervades many of our experiences of faith and our atomized society?

That’s why so much of this pastoral plan concentrates on the parish. As the Pope says, we are a family of families. The parish is a family of families.

I visited one of our Catholic centers at one of the state universities, and I met with a whole group of young Catholics on campus. I said, “What is it the Church can bring to you? If I have to go in October and answer the Pope’s question on how to help young people embrace the faith, what is it you are looking for?”

One of them said, “Cardinal, help us to feel like we are part of a spiritual family. Help us to understand we are part of a community of faith. Help us to be welcomed.” I was really moved by that — and all the others around were shaking their heads in agreement with this young man.

That’s what’s missing today. And the response to it is: We are not saved individually; we are saved in and through the Church. The parish is the experience of the Church. If we can help people in any way get connected or reconnected to the parish, then we are helping them on the journey.


Can you elaborate on why accompanying people in their individual situations through pastoral approaches, rooted in sound doctrine, is so necessary as opposed to offering simple and easy answers?

Because from the very beginning of our experience as the Church, we have always understood that, yes, there is the proclamation of faith, but the proclamation of the faith is only part of the Church’s ministry. The rest of the ministry is embracing the person and helping them accept the proclamation. That’s where Amoris Laetitia brings back the balance. Both of these elements are absolutely essential.

We cannot change, because then we would having nothing to proclaim. Our claim to be able to proclaim is we have received the truth, the Revelation. But it’s not enough to proclaim, then walk away. We have to embrace and help people to come to understand — given where they are coming from — what it is we are saying. That’s accompaniment.

Pastoral ministry, the pastoral ministry of the Church from the very beginning includes both. You can’t just separate one from the other. That’s the richness of Amoris Laetitia. It says they are both interwoven and absolutely essential.


The pastoral plan emphasizes that the family apostolate belongs to all of us in the Church, in the parish. How do you move from this pastoral plan, this vision, to a lived pastoral culture, where each parish is truly “a family of families,” accompanying each other in all situations on a journey to the Lord Jesus?

The starting point is to [state] that is the objective. You can never achieve anything if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve. So the starting point is to say: Folks, we, the expression “the Church” — that is the parish — have to understand all of us are all involved in this welcoming, supporting, prayerful, sacramental experience of Jesus. The only way we are going to make that actually happen is to say, first of all, that is the goal. That is the goal — now how do we in our parish do things that help us towards the goal? Half of the pastoral implementation plan [offers] suggestions we received, from every sector of this archdiocese, on things you can do. I was amazed when I sat and listened to people say: “Cardinal, here are some things we have done in our parish, here are some things that worked, and here are some things that flopped totally.”

But that’s what has emerged as the second part of this [pastoral plan’s] implementation: all these suggestions on how you try to achieve the goal. But the purpose of this document was to say: Folks, we do have a goal. This is the goal.

The goal is the integration of all of our faithful, all of those who share at various stages of their experience, in the faith. Let’s do this in a way where we know we have a home, and we know we have a teaching, and we know we have a love for one another — and now let’s try to make this work.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.