Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of the Catholic archdiocese of Washington, faces a cascade of daily challenges that many senior diplomats and corporate executives would recognize. He has to manage a complex organization, respond to different constituencies, allocate scarce resources, deal with crises, and master details while keeping in mind the big picture — which, for him, includes the big guy upstairs.
As one of the top religious leaders in the United States, Wuerl tries to run his archdiocese in a way that reflects, and is rooted in, his faith. And like any hands-on leader, he believes it is critical to understand — and experience — the day-to-day life of his organization.
“The bishop’s role is to be in his diocese. He is head of the church. He is not head of central administration alone. He is the shepherd of the entire flock,” Wuerl said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.
“You have to get out to the parishes, the schools, the Catholic charities and other social organizations. It is important to get out of the office and into the life stream of the parishes,” he said. “As a bishop, the people who are entrusted to your pastoral care are your family. The church has to be able to provide for them. Your primary responsibility is helping the people entrusted to your care grow closer to Christ. As a bishop that is your responsibility as well, and it should be the thing that preoccupies you.”
Kindly, approachable and direct, Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh and is the sixth archbishop of Washington, which includes the District of Columbia and five Maryland counties. He studied at the Athenaeum of Ohio and earned graduate degrees from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the Gregorian University in Rome, later receiving a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Thomas in Rome. Wuerl was ordained a priest on Dec. 17, 1966, and ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II on Jan. 6, 1986.
As Wuerl talks about his life, it’s clear that three cities have shaped him most profoundly.
First, there is his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he was born, grew up, began his life as a priest at St. Rosalia Parish, and then served as a bishop for 18 years until his appointment to Washington. “Serving as the bishop of Pittsburgh was a wonderful experience,” he said. “Not many bishops get the opportunity to go back to be bishop where they grew up.”
Wuerl’s life has also been shaped by Rome, the geographic and spiritual home of the Catholic Church. He attended graduate school there and worked as a secretary to Cardinal John Wright, who headed up the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy from 1969 to 1979.
The archbishop vividly recalls his first visit to Rome and Vatican City. “Rome is whole another world. For a Catholic, it carries with it so much of the experiences of the Church. I remember first walking into St. Peter’s Square and feeling goose bumps,” he said.
As an assistant to Cardinal Wright, who was ill at the time, Wuerl was one of only three non-cardinals to attend the conclave that selected John Paul II to be the pope, making him the first non-Italian to hold the position in more than 400 years.
“That was such an historic moment,” Wuerl recalled, noting that he will always remember John Paul II’s papal installation mass when he challenged all people to live without fear. “That was a transformative moment for the whole world and began a ministry that took him everywhere.”
Today, Wuerl’s own journey has taken him to Washington, the third city in his life. He first came to know D.C. as a student, later visiting often during his years as the bishop of Pittsburgh. “My first impression of Washington as a student was a good one. I was struck by not only the great academic opportunities but the wealth of cultural opportunities,” Wuerl said. “As a student here, I became very familiar with … the National Gallery. I just loved going there. I also loved visiting the Library of Congress.”
He also remembers visiting the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is now a basilica and the largest Catholic church in the United States. “Experiencing the faith in that setting was another awakening. People came from all over the country, and from all over the world, to visit the shrine. I became more aware of the amazing universality of the Church, the breadth of the Church,” he said.
Wuerl, who was installed as archbishop in June 2006, is nationally known for his teaching, writing and advocacy for Catholic education. He is the author of a number of books and articles, including two best-selling catechisms, “The Teaching of Christ” and “The Catholic Way.” Wuerl also created and hosted a television program in 1990 called “The Teaching of Christ.” As the archbishop of Washington, he is chancellor of Catholic University and chairman of the board of directors for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Today, there are about 67 million Roman Catholics in the United States who live in 195 archdioceses and dioceses across the country. Leading them are 269 active U.S. bishops, and within this group there are 29 archbishops.
Although much smaller than the archdioceses of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the Washington archdiocese is considered one of the most important in the United States given its location in the nation’s capital. Sprawling and diverse, it is home to 580,000 Catholics — almost 200,000 of whom are of Hispanic ancestry, while about 100,000 are of African and Caribbean descent.
The Washington archdiocese includes about 140 parishes and runs nearly 100 Catholic schools that educate some 30,000 children. It manages five health care centers, three Catholic hospitals, seven day-care centers, and three Catholic colleges and universities. In addition, the archdiocese runs 27 centers for social services such as Catholic Charities and Victory Housing — making it one of the largest social service providers in the region.
Every year in fact, thousands of people in the Washington area receive counseling, shelter, adoption and foster assistance, health care, immigration and legal aid, and affordable housing from the archdiocese. The annual budget of the archdiocese is about million for the central offices, plus the various individual agency budgets.
Wuerl oversees this vast enterprise. His job, he said, is to keep the archdiocese running effectively while attending to the spiritual needs of the people.
“The role of the bishop is to teach the faith. The Second Vatican Council makes it clear that the primary task of the bishop is to preach the Gospel, to teach the faith. The faith has to be passed on — it has to be shared, in its fullness, its integrity and with authority,” he explained. “The bishop represents the continuity of the Gospel from the lips of Jesus to our ears today. This is the bishop’s primary task — over all the years, over all the centuries, bishop after bishop after bishop.”
To teach the Gospel to his Catholic followers, Wuerl uses his sermons, writings and public statements to articulate the Catholic faith — in addition to supervising the religious curriculum in his archdiocese.
“I take very seriously the call of the bishop to teach, to lead, and to sanctify. These are the three challenges that are actually given to the Church. Teaching is identifiably the primary task of the bishop,” he said.
Wuerl is especially passionate about Catholic education, which he believes provides important opportunities for young people in Washington. “We are up to our necks right now trying to salvage as much Catholic education as possible in the archdiocese, and particularly in the District,” he said.
“We have the best education program in the District. Our track record is impeccable. If we can get kids in our schools and keep them there, we can get them to a point that they can compete with any other kid in high school. But we’re struggling for the resources to be able to do that,” he lamented.
To that end, the archbishop continues to urge Congress to reauthorize D.C. Opportunity scholarships, which are voucher programs that allow middle- and low-income children to attend private schools, including Catholic ones.
“This is a program that is working. We’re fighting like mad just to get that program reauthorized. I think it is a matter of absolute justice,” he stressed.
But sheer organizational management is also a part of Wuerl’s job, as the archbishop ensures that the schools, churches and social service agencies in his archdiocese operate effectively and in a way that is consistent with the Church’s mission.
“The hardest part is to find the support system to keep all the ministry going. You spend a lot of time dealing with the structures, the finances, the flow of paper that makes the ministry possible,” Wuerl said.
“Part of the work of the bishop is helping keep those places going, which means you spend a lot of time doing work you never expected to do,” he continued. “There is a lot of advocacy, of telling stories, of encouraging people to work for the good of the schools. One thing a bishop does is go to a lot of fundraisers. You go to event after event after event and they are all raising money for wonderful causes.”
In the face of intense demands on his time, Wuerl organizes his life so that it is centered on his faith. He gets up early every day and sets aside several hours for prayer, exercise, reading and writing — all of which must be done by 8 a.m., when his official day begins.
“You have to work at it. You have to build into your life a framework,” he said, noting that a constant in his daily routine is saying mass.
Wuerl acknowledged that it is difficult for people of all faiths, including Catholics, to maintain an active spiritual dimension in their lives. “Life is very hectic today. People are working, raising kids, paying bills and mortgages, trying to help out in their community. People drift away from the Church. We are inviting them back, inviting them to remember they have a relationship with God,” he said. “You can forget that because you are so busy and you need, every so often, to be invited back.”
Amid his many day-to-day challenges, Wuerl was invigorated by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington last April. Working with the papal nuncio, Wuerl hosted the pope as he visited the White House, addressed Catholic educators, and met with U.S. bishops as well as leaders of other faiths.
“The pope never stopped smiling from the time the door of his plane opened until the time he left Washington,” Wuerl recalled.
Wuerl especially remembers the mass that Pope Benedict celebrated in front of 50,000 people at Nationals Park on a spectacular spring day. “At the mass, we wanted the pope to see the face of the church of Washington, which is an incredibly diverse and rich face, with people from all around the world. We wanted him to hear the voice of the church in the music and in the readings.”
Wuerl said the pope was deeply moved by the service and told him as he was leaving the stadium that “this liturgy was a true prayer.”
“That was exactly what we wanted to do. Mission accomplished.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.