Cardinal Wuerl: Break Your Silence and Save the Middle-East Christians

The archbishop of Washington says Christians must raise their voices and build bridges in their hometowns with diaspora Middle-Eastern Christians.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl delivers his homily at the Mass of the Holy Spirit at The Catholic University of America on Aug. 28.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl delivers his homily at the Mass of the Holy Spirit at The Catholic University of America on Aug. 28. (photo: Ed Pfueller/Catholic University)

WASHINGTON — “Why a silence?” With those words at The Catholic University of America’s Mass of the Holy Spirit, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington challenged U.S. Catholics to search their consciences and ask themselves what they were doing in the face of the atrocities being committed in the Middle East.

In this interview with the Register, Cardinal Wuerl explains further why Christians “cannot remain silent” and must “raise our voices.” He also addressed why Christians must show solidarity marked not only by prayer, but also concrete action, particularly in aiding the victims.

The cardinal also shared his thoughts about the importance of the In Defense of Christians summit, held Sept. 9-11 in Washington, and how Catholics can build solid relationships at the parish level with the churches of Middle-East diaspora Christians.


Cardinal Wuerl, what inspired you to speak out at CUA about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East before the IDC summit in Washington?

My comments at Catholic University of America came a week before the summit, and they were actually spontaneous. I didn’t have anything prepared when I went to that Mass, because that Mass was to open the new [academic] year and to invite the campus students to reflect on the gift of the Holy Spirit in their life and why they were there.

But so much had been happening in the Middle East — with so much on my mind and my heart — that, as I sat there, particularly after Communion, and saw all of these young people, I realized that they probably hear almost nothing about what is going on in the Middle East to their sisters and brothers in the faith.


What happened then?

I was just moved to say something, and that led to my comment that we really cannot remain silent. What we are witnessing in the Middle East is nothing less than atrocity, atrocity writ large. Families, whole communities, whole towns being driven out of their ancestral homes, all in the name of some sort of religious fanaticism. And I think everybody is agreed that these are extremists, terrorists, and they are simply attacking, destroying, killing — we have pictures of people being decapitated and crucified. But most of the world has remained ignorant of this: [We have] the silence of those people who are normally quite vociferous, when some real or perceived injustice is taking place.

And so I think this is what led me to say, "Where are all these voices? Where are the parliaments and congresses? Where are the voices on campuses around the United States? Where are the community leaders? Why aren’t we hearing this on talk shows and the late-night radio programs, in editorial columns and op-ed pieces? Why is there such a silence?"

 

Is this silence the reason you became involved with the In Defense of Christians summit?

That was one of the reasons why, much earlier, I had lent my support to this summit. The early start of this was almost two years ago, when I was invited to meet with a group of men here in the Washington area, many of whom were Maronite, and they were just very upset with the way in which … all of these Christian groups were being treated. That led to them taking on the idea of a summit.

They put together a really impressive group: They had Cardinal [Leonardo] Sandri come from the Vatican, but then they had the patriarchs — the Maronite patriarch, the Melkite patriarch, the Syriac patriarch — they had the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church; they had the bishop general of the Coptic Church; they had the Orthodox-Antiochan archbishop, and then they also then had representatives of a whole variety of Christian churches, many of whom are not in communion with the Holy See. But together they all stood and said: "This is wrong; what is happening is wrong."

 

What was one of the most beautiful moments of the IDC summit?

The ecumenical Christian prayer service. It was the first day of the session. In that whole regency ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, I was told there were 1,000 people there. And then to have all of the different leaders of different faith communities simply pray — each praying in his own tradition, out of the liturgical tradition of that community. But for me, I found the most important thing was that we were all standing there together saying, "This is wrong, what’s happening in the Middle East."

My hope is that somehow more and more attention will be brought to bear, and light will shine on what’s happening.

 

What is being done to promote closer relations with the Christian diaspora? I’ve spoken with many diaspora Catholics who feel invisible within the larger Church here.

Let me put it in this frame of reference: I think, for many of our laypeople, their experience of the Church is what goes on in their parish and what goes on in their diocese. So I wouldn’t be surprised if people don’t know of this whole array of Eastern Churches. I grew up in a part of the world where we had them as part of the matrix of our community, as part of the life of our community. But I can see where someone would feel a bit isolated if all of their neighbors are not aware of who they are and their relationship to the Church.

One of the things the summit did — or tried to do — was show, by having all of those Catholic patriarchs standing together, “We are all part of one Church.”

 

How can we Catholics at the parish level make relationships and build bridges with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters of the Middle-East diaspora?

I have always found that, in the Prayer of the Faithful, there are opportunities to pray. And we can include there our brothers and sisters who are present to us but represent other ancient faith traditions. Just the awareness of that is the beginning of some new understanding.

But I think also one of the interesting things that can happen on the parish level — if there is, for example, a Melkite, Maronite, Syriac or one of the expressions of other diaspora communities in the neighborhood — is to have one of the representatives come and speak in the parish about who they are. So often there are all kinds of good parish education programs going on, and pastors and directors of education programs are looking for topics. This would be a very good one to have, and I’d think you’d probably find many parishioners would be interested.

 

What about joint activities between the churches?

Well, I think you would have to start with introducing them to each other. … But then, when you’re doing a food drive, restocking the food pantry, you can do that with all of the Catholic churches in the neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be just with the Latin [rite] ones. But first, there would have to be some awareness of who they are at the level of the parishioners.

 

Winter is coming to Iraq, and some of the 150,000 Christian refugees in Kurdistan have just one month to get out of the schools they’ve been sheltering in. What are the bishops doing to address this need?

We had a call for two weeks in a row for the Catholic Relief Services collection. One of the most coordinated ways of bringing immediate physical relief to people who are suffering in different parts of the world is through Catholic Relief Services. One of the reasons for that is we’ve been at this for so many decades, and we have people on the ground almost everywhere in the world. So the money that is collected here can be translated into what is actually needed there. Sometimes, you’re talking about water and food for people being driven out of parts of Iraq, and sometimes it takes the form of clothing, of health care, of medicine. But CRS is on the ground — what they need are the resources.

 

How would you and the bishops like the faithful to show solidarity with Middle-East Christians here and abroad?

There are a couple of ways in which that can be done: one, raising our voices and letting people know we are aware of what is happening there. When we get material from our own conference of bishops, I think it would be very helpful if people in the parish, parishioners, would read it, share it and let everyone know what’s happening.

Another way they can be of enormous support is in prayer: We must never forget that prayer works. We need to be praying for those who are suffering. It’s one way we can reach across the boundaries of time and boundaries of space to be in real solidarity with them, but it has to be followed up by raising our voices and providing for their immediate material needs.

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.

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