Nuanced portrait of a rising Catholic star: Cardinal Wuerl

Nuanced portrait of a rising Catholic star: Cardinal Wuerl May 14, 2014

Well, darn. Someone in the media remembers that there are other Catholic leaders besides Pope Francis. For a recent profile in the Washington Post, it’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

The head of the influential Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., received a long-form, 1,500-word look in his hometown newspaper, The Washington Post. That in itself is a welcome change from wire style: The Associated Press has announced that most of its stories will henceforth run 300-500 words.

Blending a seasoned eye with a fluid writing style, Michelle Boorstein of the Post packs several sage observations into a few paragraphs:

With his unassuming and reserved style, Wuerl is not a well-known figure to the region’s growing number of Catholics, many of whom probably don’t realize that their leader is one of the world’s most influential bishops. Pope Benedict had already named the slender 73-year-old in 2010 to craft the church’s modern-day evangelization message, but Pope Francis in December further solidified Wuerl’s stature by picking him as the only new American on the powerful, 30-member Vatican body that selects bishops.

With popes typically replacing about a third of bishops every five years or so, Wuerl will play a key role in shaping the next generation of church leaders. As a careful insider, he is in some ways a surprising choice of partner for Francis, who makes constant news with spontaneous, often provocative comments and came to Rome without experience there.

But the pope’s and the archbishop’s contrasting personalities — one longtime bishop’s aide jokes that Wuerl has “cuff links on his pajamas” — could be seen as appropriate at a time when people seem to be seeking a spirituality both timeless and flexible.

The Post article paints Wuerl as a cautious diplomat, a “savvy and gifted administrator who knows how to get things done without a lot of drama.” That’s a big difference not only from Francis but, of course, from the flamboyant John Paul II. But if the reporter’s picture is accurate, Wuerl may help bridge the rift between church liberals and conservatives.

Boorstein (surprise, surprise) seems to lean a lot on the omnipresent priest-journalist Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, who offers quotes and anecdotes on Wuerl’s measured speech and self-effacing style. But she seems to have trouble figuring out how the archbishop will work in the influential position — the 30-member Congregation of Bishops, the pope’s brain trust for recommendations for new bishops.

She scans the numbers on Wuerl’s successes in raising millions for social service and for needy students. She also notes how he listens to parishioners, including a request for feedback on an upcoming archdiocesan synod — reaping 15,000 responses. But how will he do on the world stage?

Here, Boorstein is less exact. She quotes Wuerl asking young people if they pray, and saying that clergy “have to be with people in all of their struggles.” But she also reports that Wuerl in 2012 joined other bishops in decrying secularism. And she doesn’t say so, but Wuerl also signed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration — along with conservative Protestant and Eastern Orthodox leaders — calling for civil disobedience against laws for abortion and same-sex marriage.

Boorstein also makes us doubt how influential Wuerl is around the Vatican by revealing that he was replaced as writer for a “New Evangelization” document. He was assigned that task by Pope Benedict XVI, but after Benedict retired, Francis Francis wrote it himself. Francis apparently wanted a more positive tone than Wuerl sounded.

The Post article concludes that Wuerl has, well, not exactly mood swings — but that he alternates between a “deep concern” about secularization and an upbeat, optimistic outlook. “In some senses, it’s an echo of the vacillation that is occurring within the church as a whole,” Boorstein says.

The somewhat fuzzy picture of Wuerl may also stem from his often-nuanced way of voicing his beliefs. That very moderation may prove to be a significant contribution to the bishops’ group. And as Boorstein says, Wuerl and Francis show two distinct faces of Catholicism — challenging to blend, perhaps, but a fuller view than the narrow-band portrait in most stories about the Catholic Church.

Photo: Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., welcomes the Dalai Lama in 2011 to Washington, D.C.  Source: Rédacteur Tibet, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

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