A true churchman

A story appropriate to the football playoffs:

It was Father Donald Wuerl’s first parish assignment as a young priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He would celebrate the 4:15 p.m. Mass on Sunday. But that didn’t mean the Mass would necessarily start at 4:15. Not during the football season in Steelers-crazed Pittsburgh.

“Everybody in the parish knew that 15 minutes after the game ended there would be Mass,” Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington D.C., recalled. “That was where I learned pastoral flexibility.”

The story is told early in “Something More Pastoral: The Mission of Bishop, Archbishop and Cardinal Donald Wuerl,” by Ann Rodgers and Mike Aquilina (Lambing Press, $13.95).

Cardinal Wuerl has become one of the most recognized figures of the Church in the United States. A prelate who worked for decades behind the scenes — his “coffee-break” diplomacy at the bishops’ semi-annual meetings to bring together diverse opinions and personalities are legendary — he has emerged as the public interpreter of Pope Francis.

Rodgers and Aquilina point out that “Cardinal Wuerl has become one of Pope Francis’ most trusted pastoral advisors, not only in formal positions ... but in private consultations that aren’t part of Pope Francis’ posted schedule.”

As such, Cardinal Wuerl has become a lightning rod for those critical of the Holy Father who are unwilling to criticize the Holy Father himself. He doesn’t care. He’s got a mission, Rodgers and Aquilina state, and it’s the mission of the Church, not someone’s petty agenda, that always takes precedent for him.

“The message of Pope Francis is to ‘tell people that God loves them, tell people that Jesus came so they can experience God’s love,’ he said. ‘Don’t start talking to them immediately about the things they are doing wrong. Invite them to experience God’s love, and then together, we can all try to get close to that love,’ Cardinal Wuerl explains.”

“It was Pope John Paul II who called for the New Evangelization of the secularized West, Pope Benedict who planned for it, and Pope Francis who is carrying it out,” they write. And Donald Wuerl has been an intimate part of all three papacies.

Rodgers and Aquilina deny that their book is a biography of Cardinal Wuerl, but like good journalists, they’ve made a fine first draft of history. Born in 1940, Donald Wuerl is the second son of a Pittsburgh railroad worker. He was ordained in 1966 and returned home from studies in Rome to celebrate that football Mass.

That would be his only parish assignment. Selected to be secretary to Pittsburgh Bishop John Wright, his world dramatically changed in April 1969 when Pope Paul VI named Bishop Wright a cardinal and appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. Father Wuerl accompanied Cardinal Wright to Rome where he began a career as a “Vatican insider” with a reputation back in the States as a man who knew how to get things done.

Rodgers and Aquilina trace his career from Rome, to auxiliary bishop in Seattle, to bishop of Pittsburgh, archbishop of Washington and cardinal. Their story — his story — is the story of the Church over the last 50 years.

True confession: I’m friends with Ann Rodgers and Mike Aquilina. I also worked with Father Wuerl when I was a young editor and for Bishop Wuerl in his last years in Pittsburgh. I’m not an objective reviewer.

But trust me. Get and read this book if you want to know the mind of Pope Francis. And the story of 50 years of the Church through the focus of an extraordinary churchman, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.