Cardinal Wuerl: Church Must Continue to ‘Speak the Truth and Minister With Love’

Synod father recaps the fall gathering focused on the family.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl leads a procession with a relic of St. John Paul II from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington on May 11, 2014.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl leads a procession with a relic of St. John Paul II from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington on May 11, 2014. (photo: Archdiocese of Washington via CNA)

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington participated in this fall’s synod on the family in Rome. In this interview with the Register, he discusses the major themes of the gathering and the takeaway lessons, including ministry to the divorced and remarried and accompaniment of families on their faith journeys.


Cardinal Wuerl, one of the themes that comes out in the final synod report is the need to accompany families in all their situations on the path to holiness. How can our parishes and people play an active role in this?

The importance of the family is something we have always been able to take for granted, probably because so many of us have experienced its blessings. But, sadly, we have seen a significant cultural change.

On any journey, it’s important to know where you are going and how to get there. All too often, contemporary culture says to go wherever you want, with the result of people getting lost. So one of the primary roles of the Church, including in our parishes and the lay faithful, is to point the right way, to provide the map and the various road signs, so people reach the right destination. We are called to fully proclaim the Catholic understanding of marriage and family, the Catholic vision of love, with clarity, and at the same time to meet each person and family where they are to draw them closer to the Lord.

One important component of accompaniment includes the effort of Christian families to support one another, to provide a good example, a positive witness, and also to be there to offer counsel and consolation. It is the laity — in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and recreational fields — who are on the front lines in the spiritual and temporal renewal of marriage and family.


In the U.S., we have made great strides in marriage preparation. Yet many marriage fail in the first few years, and many of the couples aren’t involve in the Church at all. How can a parish better integrate newly married couples into the life of the Church and support them?

Encounter, invitation, welcoming, integration, accompaniment — this is what we are called to do: to go out and meet others and walk with them in their and our pilgrim journey. Newly married couples receive the grace of married life, but grace works to improve on nature. It is necessary for them to be aware of and cooperate with this grace. That means, as with other areas, one of the chief needs is good catechesis rooted in the core of our faith and presented in an intelligible and inviting manner. Following the sometimes-bad catechesis of the ’70s and ’80s, today, most pastors recognize that we are dealing with a generation of people who have a diminished understanding of the faith and therefore appreciation for it. Combine this with secular attitudes which present marriage as temporary, and couples might easily begin to think their marriage has failed. Our response to this challenge must be better preparation before marriage and then continually to reach out after the wedding and lovingly accompany them throughout their journey of married life. Many parishes and dioceses offer programs to strengthen married couples and assist them during difficult times, including couple counseling, educational workshops, support groups, moments of prayer, marriage enrichment retreats and the Retrouvaille program.


The synod final report makes a reference that youth and family-life ministry must be connected. How do you envision that happening at the parish level?

Just as the Church is one body in Christ, each part interconnected to the others, so, too, is our Church ministry. From sacramental preparation to Catholic schools, youth ministry, young-adult ministry and family-life ministry to end-of-life ministries, none of it stands alone or in isolation. In a particular way, there is a real need for parents to stay engaged in the faith formation of their children. This includes praying and teaching the faith at home, and also asking their children to teach them, to explain what they learned in religious-education class. Older kids can also be mentors to the younger ones. Many parishes sponsor sports and scouting activities that teach about life, love, competition and solidarity. Included in this, also, are initiatives for the protection of children.


It is hard enough for two parents to raise children together. Is there a more active role that parishes can play in supporting Catholic single parents who are raising children?

Single-parent homes can arise in a variety of ways, whether from widowhood, divorce or, increasingly, birth outside of marriage. Whatever the reason, it is a pastoral concern of the Church that the children and the parent continue to receive the spiritual and material support they need. Sacramental preparation for the children and ongoing participation in parish life by the parent should be emphasized. In many parish schools, tuition assistance is available. There should also be in parishes a spirit of welcoming and inclusion, together with opportunities for prayer, social fellowship and meeting new people.


Let’s talk about the issue of divorce: Nearly one out of three Catholics ever married end up divorced. Psychologists say the trauma of divorce is akin to losing a loved one, but without the closure. Meanwhile, divorce-ministry personnel tell me that the pastoral care St. John Paul II promised in Familiaris Consortio is not being realized at the parish level.  What should a parish be doing to minister to the laity effectively and accompany them? Do you think we need to develop a “best pastoral practices” for how a parish and pastor care for the divorced?

Even if divorce has not happened to us personally, I dare say we’ve all be touched by divorce — and the pain of divorce — in one way or another. We all know someone, perhaps a family member or friend, who has been divorced or who is a child of divorce. In some way, we all have experience in helping someone struggling in a wounded or dysfunctional marriage or to pick up the pieces after a broken marriage.

When we speak of pastoral ministry, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each situation, each person, each couple is different, even if the Gospel teaching on marriage and family is one and unchanging. The best pastoral practice is to remember God’s saving mercy and his liberating truth. We speak the truth with love, taking into account the limitation of real, actual, concrete situations and of what each person is able to do, capable of doing.

It is important that we help persons who are divorced to understand that they continue to belong to the Church family. They are our sisters and brothers, and we should encourage them to continue to be involved in the life of the Church. Our task is not to scold, but, rather, to sustain them in faith and hope and to lovingly help them to live as fully as possible the Catholic faith. With a consideration of the circumstances, if they have reason to question the sacramental validity of their marriage, assistance can be offered to begin that process. Pope Francis has recently revised the rules governing the annulment procedures, and dioceses across the country have begun to implement those changes.

Added to that, we can expect the Holy Father to take further pastoral steps to support and sustain married couples and families in their lives, bring hope and healing to those who find themselves in difficult situations and encourage a civilization of love that values and fosters marriage and children, including urging Christian families to bear witness to God’s saving love and grace.


How do we make sure that action is taken to truly care for the individuals and families who have experienced divorce? And what other concrete pastoral means of accompaniment are available to assist divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, and how can this accompaniment be improved?

Pastoral solutions to difficult and sometimes intractable problems do not come easy. However, with the synod, we witnessed a new openness in how the Church looks at pastoral problems, issues and practices today. Pope Francis asks us to trust in the Spirit, to be open to new pastoral possibilities, always within the context of the Church’s received Tradition, and to avoid the rigidity that can close us to sharing God’s mercy. A civil remarriage after divorce adds another pastoral dimension because of the unchanging truth of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, but it is no less true that a Catholic in a second civil marriage continues to have a home in the Church. We do not abandon him or her, just as we do not abandon anyone who struggles to fully live the teaching of the Church, but instead go to them in their particular situation, listen to them, talk with them and, appealing to the Spirit of mercy, helping them to experience the love of Christ.


On the topic of persons who have entered into a civil remarriage after divorce and do not have a declaration of nullity: In concrete terms, what are we talking about when we talk about the “internal forum,” and how do you see pastors using this as a tool to help Catholics in those situations?

Within the synod, there was discussion about the need for better clarity in our terminology, and so, right away, we must explain what is meant by speaking with a pastor in the “internal forum.” A perhaps oversimplified definition is that it involves personal, private spiritual guidance and counseling toward the goal of individual inner discernment, as opposed to public acts, the “external forum.” Homilies, classroom instruction and similar activities play an important role in helping people to learn, know and grow in the faith, and legal structures such as marriage tribunals are important in determining the sacramental validity of a putative marriage. However, the one-on-one, hands-on personal interaction in the privacy of an office or the confessional is essential if we are to minister to people in their individual situations and help them to understand in the context of their own personal situations how to live the faith more vibrantly and grow in the proper formation of conscience.


Of course, there is a lot of speculation that priests may use the internal forum to counsel Catholics in divorced-and-remarried situations without annulment to receive Communion. Is that really possible for a priest to do that in the internal forum, or is this an issue you think that Pope Francis will have to clarify for the Church?

The message of the synod, like the message of the Church as a whole on all matters, is one of mercy, not moral indifferentism. The teaching on conscience and the role of the Church in the formation of consciences is not changed. Neither was it suggested that the internal forum, or other subjective discernment, be a substitute for the objective tribunal process. The synod was clear that in these conversations with a pastor, the person’s discernment could not properly be contrary to the truth and charity of the Gospel as taught by the Church. Certainly in all of this, we welcome the Holy Father in offering the light of God to help those in difficult situations to find their way.


As the synod concluded, you commented in a pair of interviews that, moving forward, the Code of Canon Law would no longer serve as the “framework” or “frame of reference” for pastoral responses. Could you elaborate on what you meant by this, in terms of when and how the Code of Canon Law would be supplanted as a framework? How might this play out in practical terms?

In the governance of the Church, it is important to have a set of rules and norms. Following our archdiocesan synod last year in Washington, we instituted various statutes to guide our efforts. Yet it is also important to understand that these rules exist to serve our Gospel mission, not frustrate it.

In promulgating the current code, Pope John Paul II reiterated that it is not intended to be a substitute for faith, grace and especially charity. Instead, there is a primacy of these things. Canon law is at the service of the Gospel. It’s God’s love that saves, not the Code of Canon Law. Law provides order in the Church’s activities, but we’re not saved by those words in the law — we’re saved by Jesus on the cross. The point here, really, is that we should not have an overly legalistic approach that looks only at the printed words on the page and does not see the person in front of us. That does not mean ignoring canon law, but interpreting and applying canon law in light of the Gospel.

In the Church, we have always said: You speak the teaching of the Church with clarity. And then, as a pastor of souls, you work with the person, where that person is. The two go together. That’s always been the Tradition of the Church: Speak the truth and minister with love. If those struggling with Catholic teaching have a perception of being alienated permanently and essentially from the Church, this raises a barrier in the effort to live it in real, concrete situations.


The synod document discusses the need to show welcome, but it is no secret that, many times, a person may arrive at and leave a Catholic Mass on Sunday without anyone from the church noticing them or introducing them to the pastor or parish leaders. How do we overcome this?

One of my routine practices is to stand at the back of the church after Mass to greet people, and I know that most other priests do as well. It is important for priests, but also for ushers and other lay ministers and parishioners who are simply coming to Mass, to greet the people around them. A simple “good morning” really does go far. And that “hello” can form the beginning of a conversation after Mass which becomes a friendship.


How does the Church — our dioceses, parishes and faithful — address the issue of loneliness and isolation that many people, young and old, experience today?

The Church is supposed to be a community, a family. Parishes, because they are closer to people and traditionally established in neighborhoods, play a particular role, but it really does fall to all of us at every level. Among the fruits of preparing for Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, in addition to our ongoing process of self-examination to determine how to be the best Church we can be, have been a variety of initiatives to better be that Church of encounter that the Holy Father asks us to be. This has included reinvigorating parish welcoming and hospitality programs and training for evangelizers to go out into the world to invite people to come to church. One of these is our “Light the City” campaign. There are also crucial ministries to the homebound, the hospitalized and those in jail. Whether it is street evangelization or within the parish itself or the faithful as individuals or as families, it is important to see the persons who might be alone in our neighborhoods or at work or on the street, to reach out and encounter them, and then let them know that God loves them and the Church is with them.


Do you see how we can better connect the wisdom of the elderly in our parishes, certainly the grandparents of the parish community, to our youth, young adults and young families? How can both enrich each other and make our parishes’ faith stronger? 

There are a variety of ways, and I would like to mention a couple of them. Each year in Washington, we have a special liturgy for married couples who are celebrating a major anniversary. It is a wonderful thing to see an elderly couple who have been married for 40, 50, 60 years. They offer us an invaluable witness. Those who are a little more senior in age serve our younger people and enrich our lives in many other ways that often may go unnoticed, such as teaching religious education.


Ultimately, what needs to happen if we Catholics are to make Pope Francis and the synod’s vision for the vocation of the family in the modern world a reality in our Catholic communities, parishes and families?

The synod invites us to recognize that Christian families themselves are called to be active agents of the Church’s mission of evangelization. Families and their members are called to share the Good News of God’s plan for humanity, to help care for and form other families, and especially to accompany families that are wounded or struggling. This is an integral part of their vocation and mission.

This means that people and families need to be formed and equipped to live out this calling and mission. This requires better witness and better catechesis for all Christians in the “gospel of the family” and the family’s role in the divine plan. This begins in infancy, with mother and father displaying their love for one another. It calls for marriage preparation which is deeper and more effective, again with remote formation beginning at an early age, and also more intensive proximate formation for engaged couples. And it requires ongoing formation and support for couples who have married and for parents in their role as educators in the faith. Accompaniment of the family does not apply only to those who are wounded or challenged by hardship.  It is essential that we treat the wounded, but even better is that we seek to prevent the wounds and hardship in the first place.


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

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