Cardinal Donald Wuerl is pictured during the 2015 Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is pictured during the 2015 Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The Vatican announced on Oct. 12 that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington. Cardinal Wuerl had served in that role since 2006. As required by Church law, the cardinal submitted his resignation to the pope in November 2015 after turning 75. The pope also announced that Cardinal Wuerl will serve as apostolic administrator for the Archdiocese of Washington until the installation of a new archbishop, whom the pontiff has not yet appointed.

“The Holy Father’s decision to provide new leadership to the Archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious and lay, to focus on healing and the future. It permits this local Church to move forward,” said Cardinal Wuerl in a statement.

In a personal letter to Cardinal Wuerl, Pope Francis noted that on Sept. 21 he had received the cardinal’s request for his resignation as archbishop of Washington.

“I am aware that this request rests on two pillars that have marked and continue to mark your ministry: to seek in all things the greater glory of God and to procure the good of the people entrusted to your care,” the pope said in his letter. “The shepherd knows that the well-being and the unity of the people of God are precious gifts that the Lord has implored and for which he gave his life.”

In recent weeks, Cardinal Wuerl had faced criticism, including protests and calls for his resignation, after the mid-August release of a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report describing clergy sexual abuse over the past seven decades in six dioceses in that state, including in Pittsburgh, which was led by then-Bishop Wuerl from 1988 until his appointment as archbishop of Washington.

Pope Francis in his letter to Cardinal Wuerl also noted, “You have sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”

After the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued, Cardinal Wuerl inaugurated a six-week “Season of Healing” in the Archdiocese of Washington to pray for and support abuse victims.

In a recent letter to priests of the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl indicated that he would meet with Pope Francis and ask the pontiff to accept his resignation, an action he said he would take “so that this archdiocesan Church we all love can move forward” and it can experience “a new beginning.”

In the statement that Cardinal Wuerl issued after his resignation was announced, he said, “Once again for any past errors in judgment, I apologize and ask for pardon. My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you the people of the Church of Washington.” 

The cardinal also thanked Pope Francis for what he had expressed in his letter, saying, “I am profoundly grateful for his devoted commitment to the well-being of the Archdiocese of Washington and also deeply touched by his gracious words of understanding.”

Cardinal Wuerl, a 77-year-old native of Pittsburgh, served as archbishop of Washington for the past 12 years. He earlier served as an auxiliary bishop of Seattle from 1986 until 1988, when he was named bishop of Pittsburgh, where he served for 18 years.

The Archdiocese of Washington is home to more than 655,000 Catholics, 139 parishes and 93 Catholic schools, located in Washington, D.C., and in the five surrounding Maryland counties of Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

A legacy of service

As archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl worked to expand educational opportunities for children and services to those in need, encouraged efforts to share the faith, championed the cause of religious freedom, led an effort to plan the Church’s future outreach, utilized traditional and new media to spread the Gospel, and welcomed two popes to the nation’s capital. He also established the Saint John Paul II Seminary, the first seminary in the United States named for that saint.

In a 2016 interview marking his 10thanniversary as archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl said he was inspired by “the faith of our people, strong faith that’s manifested at every level of the life of the Church… There’s a beautiful aspect of it, and that is the unity of this Church that is reflective of the faith of all the different cultures and ethnic groups that make up this Church.” 

When then-Archbishop Wuerl welcomed Pope Benedict XVI at the Papal Mass in the newly opened Nationals Park in Washington during that pope’s first pastoral visit to the United States in 2008, he said that the nearly 50,000 people there, including many from throughout the archdiocese, represented the face of the Catholic Church in the United States – people from many different backgrounds who shared one faith. 

Just seven years later, another pontiff traveled to Washington to begin his first visit to the United States, as Pope Francis came and celebrated the first canonization Mass held in this country. That 2015 visit by Pope Francis also included the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress, which was followed by the pope visiting Catholic Charities and meeting with the homeless and poor served by that agency.

Both papal visits hosted by Cardinal Wuerl were marked by large-scale efforts to help others. One day before Pope Francis arrived, Catholic Charities announced that more than 100,000 people had taken the Walk with Francis Pledge to pray, serve or act on behalf of those in need. To honor Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Washington, Catholics at local parishes and schools collected 227,837 pounds of food for the Archdiocesan Hunger to Hope Food Drive coordinated by Catholic Charities.

Under the cardinal’s leadership in Washington, Catholic Charities expanded its partnerships with parishes and community groups, and the archdiocese established a Department of Special Needs Ministries and an annual White Mass for people with disabilities and their families and friends. The department partnered with Catholic Charities and with Potomac Community Resources – which provides therapeutic, recreational, social and respite care programs for teens and adults with developmental differences – to help start five similar programs at parishes throughout the archdiocese, after the cardinal requested that outreach be replicated.

Blueprints for the future

Cardinal Wuerl marked the Archdiocese of Washington’s 75thanniversary in 2014 by convoking its first-ever Archdiocesan Synod, with the stated goal of “building the best Church we can be.” The Synod’s 200 participants from different backgrounds across the archdiocese drew on a widespread consultative effort – analyzing more than 15,000 suggestions from parish and regional listening sessions and online surveys – to chart a blueprint for the local Church’s future outreach in the key areas of worship, education, community, service and stewardship/administration.

A similar consultative and collaborative effort had unfolded in 2007, when then-Archbishop Wuerl called a Convocation for Catholic Education that brought together 500 educational leaders from throughout the archdiocese, who looked at current challenges facing Catholic schools and discussed the need for strategic planning to sustain Catholic schools for the future.

Following the convocation, task forces were formed, research was done into best practices, surveys were sent to 12,000 people, focus groups met, archdiocesan consultative groups reviewed proposals, and regional consultations were held. That extensive consultation and collaboration resulted in new archdiocesan Catholic School Policies in 2009 aimed at strengthening the Catholic identity, academic excellence, governance and affordability and accessibility of Catholic schools.

Through a revised offertory program, people at every parish throughout the archdiocese invest in Catholic education, including in 112 out of 139 parishes that entered into regional school sponsorship agreements. The Archdiocese of Washington awarded $6.1 million in tuition assistance for the 2018-19 school year, a more than seven-fold increase in annual tuition assistance since 2007.

Facing a financial crisis in 2007 with the archdiocese’s Center City Consortium of 12 Catholic schools in the District of Columbia, a study group of parents, principals, pastors and experts in education and finance convened that spring and after extensive consultation developed a new framework for Catholic education in the city. For the 2008-09 school year, a new Consortium of Catholic Academies included four of the schools, one of the schools stayed open as a parish school, and the seven other schools became part of a values-based public charter school network, so families in those neighborhoods would continue to have educational alternatives for their children.

Cardinal Wuerl championed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and Maryland’s BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) Scholarship Program, saying they provided vital educational opportunities and hope for a brighter future for children from low-income families.

Teacher of the faith

As the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl served as the chancellor of The Catholic University of America and worked with the university’s Board of Trustees to develop and adopt a new governance structure intended to permit greater lay participation in the affairs of the university.

Nationally known as a teacher of the faith, Cardinal Wuerl expanded the archdiocese’s communications outreach to include blogs, e-letters, and various social and multi-media platforms. 

Cardinal Wuerl wrote and spoke about the need for Catholics to remain vigilant against government measures that erode religious freedom and to stand in solidarity with Christians around the world facing persecution.

Just after the 2006 announcement that Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl had been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to serve as the new archbishop of Washington, Archbishop-designate Wuerl said in his new role he would “first and foremost be a teacher.” He added, “I want to proclaim the Good News that Christ is risen… I believe in the power of prayer, the power of faith, the power of God’s grace.”

At his installation Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the shepherd’s staff was passed to Archbishop Wuerl, and he told his new family of faith in the Archdiocese of Washington, “I pledge with all of my heart and energy to make this journey of faith with you and for you.”

Cardinal Wuerl said that as a bishop, he has the special responsibility to “teach, teach and teach,” whether that be in helping people apply their faith to everyday life, or in Washington, to challenging political issues.

His column in the Archdiocese of Washington’s newspaper, the Catholic Standard, was titled, “The Teaching of Christ,” the same title as the best-selling adult catechism that he edited. He wrote books on living the faith in today’s world, the Mass, the Creed, the sacraments, Catholic marriage, and the sacrifice of martyrs through the centuries and in contemporary times. His pastoral letters examined Catholic education, sharing the faith, Catholic identity, the role of the Church, the sin of racism, and God’s mercy found in the sacrament of Confession.

As a teacher of the faith, he preached from the pulpit of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and during Masses at parishes throughout the archdiocese. His teaching as archbishop of Washington appeared in television and radio spots, in blogs and e-letters, and in social media and videos.

Cardinal Wuerl made evangelizing and teaching through online and social media tools a priority, and the Archdiocese of Washington became the leading diocesan presence on Facebook and Twitter. In 2012, he began his blog, Seek First the Kingdom, and in that same year, he began writing an e-letter as a way to directly communicate with the faithful on a range of topics and issues important to the life of the Church. 

The call to be Christ’s witnesses

In his 2010 pastoral letter on the New Evangelization, then-Archbishop Wuerl encouraged Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington to take up the call to be witnesses of Christ today, “in all that we say and do.”

In that pastoral, Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision,Washington’s archbishop said today’s Catholics are called to renew their own love for Christ and then to share their faith with others who may have drifted away from the faith or never heard the Gospel message. 

Two years later, Cardinal Wuerl served as the relator general and helped direct the Synod on the New Evangelization convoked by Pope Benedict XVI. Over the years, the cardinal had served on seven synods of bishops, including the 2014-15 synods under Pope Francis on marriage and the family.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, evangelization efforts included Light the City, in which pairs of young adults carrying candles invited people walking in downtown Washington on a Saturday evening to come inside St. Matthew’s Cathedral to pray. 

In his pastoral letter, the cardinal said evangelization can involve reaching out to a family member, a friend or coworker. “Every moment becomes a new opportunity to connect another person with the abundant springtime that God promises,” the cardinal wrote.

In 2018, the seeds of faith planted that way helped inspire more than 1,300 people in the archdiocese to become Catholic at the Easter Vigil.

Two popes welcomed to Washington

When Pope Benedict XVI arrived for the April 2008 Papal Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, the crowd of about 50,000 people from throughout the United States and across the Archdiocese of Washington offered enthusiastic applause. Moments later, the pope stood near the altar, smiled warmly and lifted his outstretched arms toward the congregation, as if to embrace them. 

For that morning, the newly opened ballpark became an outdoor cathedral, with a Mass that was at times joyous and reverent. The music was provided by a 250-voice Papal Mass Choir, an 80-voice Gospel Choir, a 175-voice Children’s Choir, and a 65-voice Intercultural Choir that sang in Spanish, French and Zulu. World famous mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a Washington native, sang, as did Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, who sang “Panis Angelicus” during the Communion meditation.

The ballpark that nearly shook with excitement at the pope’s arrival was marked by respectful silence during the consecration. At the beginning of Mass, then-Archbishop Donald Wuerl welcomed the Holy Father to Washington, saying, “We look to you for renewed inspiration to continue the challenge to make all things new in Christ, our hope.”

In his homily, Pope Benedict XVI echoed that theme of the papal visit, saying, “Those who have hope must live different lives! By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way toward that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to his Church and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior.”

Pope Benedict’s first stop on his only pastoral visit to the United States also included a White House welcome, prayer with the nation’s bishops at the National Shrine’s Crypt Church, a gathering at The Catholic University of America with the nation’s Catholic educational leaders, meeting and praying with abuse survivors at the Apostolic Nunciature, and an interfaith prayer service at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, now the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.

But the centerpiece of the pope’s visit to Washington was that Mass at Nationals Park. Afterward as the pope prepared to leave, he thanked Archbishop Wuerl, saying, “That liturgy was a true prayer!”

After Pope Benedict XVI elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 2010, Cardinal Wuerl said the Holy Father’s placing a red hat on his head signified the special tie that he as a cardinal now has with the pope, and also the special tie that his family of faith, the Church in Washington, has with the Church in Rome. The honor reflected the importance of the nation’s capital and the faith of the people there, Cardinal Wuerl said.

Being a cardinal, like being a priest or bishop, means “you’re here to serve,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “The purpose of all this is service… The color of the hat and vestment is intended to remind us that cardinals should be prepared to shed blood to serve” Christ and the Church, said Washington’s new cardinal.

After participating in the 2013 Conclave that elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Wuerl later reflected on the worldwide popularity of the first pope from the Americas, saying that the pontiff not only proclaims the Gospel, but through his simple, loving gestures to those on the margins, like the poor, immigrants, prisoners, people with disabilities and the elderly, he shows people how to “do the Gospel,” how to live it.

During his September 2015 pastoral visit to Washington – the first stop on his first visit to the United States – Pope Francis did just that.

Making history as the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis encouraged lawmakers to work together for the common good, on behalf of the poor and immigrants, and in defense of human life and the environment. “The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States,” the pope said.

Then right afterward, the Holy Father visited the poor and homeless served by Catholic Charities, and the volunteers and staff members engaged in that work. 

One day earlier, Pope Francis celebrated a Canonization Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for Saint Junípero Serra, the famous 18thcentury Franciscan missionary to California. The pope said Father Serra’s motto, “Keep moving forward!” – should inspire today’s Catholics to be missionary disciples and witness to their faith in their everyday lives.

Other highlights of Pope Francis’s stop in Washington included an address to U.S. Catholic bishops at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, and visits to the Little Sisters of the Poor at their Jeanne Jugan Residence for the elderly.

And the men studying for the priesthood at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Saint John Paul II Seminary had a special visitor who spoke to them about vocations – Pope Francis, who encouraged the 49 seminarians to love, pray to, worship, and above all, adore Jesus.

Another key to the priesthood, the pope said, is to go to bed tired each night, from serving God and his people. The pontiff left a simple handwritten message: “May the seminarians of Saint John Paul II Seminary grow daily in their love for Jesus and be his witnesses to the world. And please, pray for me. Don’t forget!! – Francis.”

Training the next generation of priests

Cardinal Wuerl founded the seminary in 2011 to train the next generation of priests who would serve the Archdiocese of Washington, naming it after Pope John Paul II in the year that pope was beatified. Three years later, the expanded seminary – which by then included 20 additional student rooms and was filled to capacity – was renamed the Saint John Paul II Seminary following that pontiff’s canonization. 

The cardinal said that in a special way, the future priests being trained there would represent a living legacy to Saint John Paul II, who through his life and ministry carried the faith to the ends of the earth, and who “called on us to open wide the doors of our hearts to Christ.”

Later, at a May 2016 Mass marking the seminary’s fifth anniversary, the cardinal noted the seminarians had a special link to three popes and priestly role models: Saint John Paul II; Pope Benedict XVI, whose altar from the 2008 Papal Mass at Nationals Park now graces the seminary’s chapel; and Pope Francis, who had visited them the previous fall.

And in June 2017, Cardinal Wuerl ordained the first three priests for the archdiocese from the original class that had studied at the Saint John Paul II Seminary, marking another special milestone for the seminary.

The first freedom

Another hallmark of Cardinal Wuerl’s service in Washington was his support for religious freedom. In 2009, then-Archbishop Wuerl helped push open the doors of the reconstructed 1667 Brick Chapel in Historic St. Mary’s City, which stands as a symbol of Maryland’s status as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States. After the first Catholic Mass was celebrated at St. Clement’s Island in 1634, the early Catholic colonists along with settlers from other faiths helped establish Maryland as a haven for religious liberty, and the colony’s 1649 Toleration Act was a forerunner to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

Noting that the original chapel had been locked in 1704 by order of the royal governor, Archbishop Wuerl said its story highlights the importance of remaining vigilant to threats against religious liberty, the first freedom. 

That conviction led Cardinal Wuerl in 2012 to join other religious groups in filing a legal challenge against the HHS mandate that would require Catholic institutions to violate their faith by providing employee health insurance coverage for abortion inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures. That same year, Cardinal Wuerl celebrated a Mass for a standing-room crowd at the National Shrine for the Fortnight for Freedom. 

As the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl called on people of good will to oppose government efforts that would erode religious freedom and limit the practice of religion to houses of worship, and also to stand in solidarity with Christians around the world, especially in the Middle East, who are facing persecution because of their faith.

In his 2015 pastoral letter, Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge, the cardinal wrote, “we must remain true to who we are,” people of prayer who defend their religious freedom to live out their faith through educational, health care and social service ministries that serve the common good of society.

Milestones and blessings

Cardinal Wuerl marked a year of milestones in 2016, with the 30thanniversary of his ordination as a bishop on Epiphany Sunday in January, the 10thanniversary of his installation as archbishop of Washington on June 22, and the 50thanniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on Dec. 17.

In 2017, the cardinal issued a pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, saying the sin of racism must be recognized, confronted and overcome. Saying the time had come to “right a wrong,” in 2018 he blessed and dedicated commemorative bronze plaques honoring unknown enslaved men, women and children buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington. That spring, the plaques were installed in the archdiocese’s five major Catholic cemeteries.

Cardinal Wuerl blessed and dedicated the Trinity Dome Mosaic in 2017, marking the completion of the artwork for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States. The mosaic depicts the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, joined by Mary as the Immaculate Conception, connected by a procession of angels, along with 17 saints with a special connection to the Americas or to the National Shrine itself. Calling it the basilica’s “crowning jewel,” the cardinal wrote that the artwork offers a visual reminder “of God’s presence, love and grace in our lives.”

The archbishop of Washington serves as chairman of the National Shrine’s Board of Trustees. In that role, Cardinal Wuerl oversaw the completion and blessing of the basilica’s three principal domes: the Redemption Dome in 2006, the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome in 2007 and the Trinity Dome in 2017.

In 2018, Cardinal Wuerl issued a pastoral plan, Sharing the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family for parishes to expand outreach to people in different stages of married and family life. He said he hoped the plan would help “each parish to renew its efforts to share the joy of marriage and family life, and also its dedication to try to be there for all who may be facing difficulties, so that we – as Christ’s Church – can accompany them on the journey.”

Words of gratitude

In a letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Washington issued on Oct. 12 after the Vatican had announced that Pope Francis had accepted his resignation as archbishop, Cardinal Wuerl wrote, “As I conclude my ministry as shepherd of this Church, I carry with me profound gratitude for the grace to work side by side with you who manifest so beautifully and consistently the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have been privileged to recognize because of you a Church alive in the work of the Holy Spirit. Dear brothers and sisters all you have to do is look around at all the extraordinary things you do in the name of Christ. It has been an enormous blessing for me to experience a small part of your depth of faith, commitment in hope and expression of God’s love.”

The cardinal also noted, “Finally, as my time trying to serve you well as your archbishop draws to an end, I want you to know of my love for all of you. I love our priests and religious who serve so joyfully and generously, I love you, the lay faithful, who manifest the kingdom in our parishes and in so many diverse and fruitful ministries. The resignation is my way of trying to express my great and abiding love for you the people of this archdiocese. As I now close this chapter in my life I want you to know that my heart is indeed filled with the love of Jesus for you.”