Thursday, November 02, 2006

Up and Running in DC: The Wuerl Machine

That sound you hear in the distance is one of the most storied work ethics of the modern American episcopate, all revved up on a new stage.

Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington has become a something of a legend for his meticulous, driven attention to practically everything in the office. The hard-charging administrative style -- schedule divvied up into 10-minute blocks, detailed command of figures large and small, lots of homework for aides and ordinary both -- inspires confidence and credibility, as Benedict XVI's most prominent American appointee to date doesn't expect anything of others that he doesn't demand of himself. But it's also been known to cause exhaustion among those trying to keep up with the onetime daily lap-swimmer, so much so that, while discussing one name in the mix for Wuerl's former diocese of Pittsburgh, I was advised that the use of the word "workhorse" in describing any potential Wuerl successor would cause a fit of agita at the offices he headed for 18 years.

Suffice it to say, the archbishop's vigor is a hallmark proper to him. And, true to form, the new head of the church in the nation's capital has begun to impose his stamp on its life and activities in, as one friend said, "Wuerl Time" -- a cadence being felt both within and outside the DC Pastoral Center.

Two months ago, Wuerl called in his catechetical crowd and said he desired a workshop for the archdiocese's religious ed folk. They were expecting a 2007 timetable. The archbishop, however, wanted it this year. And so it happened; an expected turnout of 1,700 became a crowd of 2,300 last Saturday for the convocation, held at the District's Renaissance Hotel.
"Religious education is a lifelong process," Archbishop Wuerl said. Paying special recognition to parents who serve as a child's first catechist, the archbishop also outlined the responsibility of bishops, priests, deacons, teachers, catechists and volunteers. "There is a longing of the human heart, a yearning for communion with God," he added.

Now is the time for teaching the faith, the prelate said. "We live in an age of hope." Urging all present to open their hearts to Christ, he said, "God will grace His Church in everyone who is prepared."

Archbishop Wuerl described several instances while on trips when fellow travelers wanted to discuss the Catholic faith with a priest. He noted that even among Catholics, there is a desire to clearly know what the Church proclaims. "We're challenged to awaken people to awareness" of faith and knowledge, Archbishop Wuerl said. "Many of the people we work with today simply drifted away," he said. "They are not angry at the Church; they simply don't know what it is we have to say."

In addition to witnessing the faith, the catechist or teacher ought to tell the story of Jesus with conviction while passing down the tradition of faith, the archbishop said. This is possible, he said, because of the faithful's connection to the apostles through their bishops, also referred to as apostolic succession.

Elsewhere in the see, Wuerl got the "first welcome [he's] ever received in a pub," speaking earlier in the month at a Theology on Tap:
It was the new Washington archbishop's first Theology on Tap and the standing-room-only crowd appeared enthusiastic to hear what he had to say. The gathering, sponsored by the archdiocese's Young Adult Ministry, was held at Ireland's Four Fields, a pub in Washington.

During his talk, the archbishop answered the question, "What does the Church have to say to me?" He began saying the Church gives answers to questions such as, "How shall I live? What are the values I'm going to use to live my life?" Either you answer those questions by default, Archbishop Wuerl said, or you listen to your heart and find answers out of your Christian identity. Then he asked, "What makes the Church worth listening to?" He said, "We need to take the time to reflect" on the bigger picture. The Church brings "2,000 years of reflection on the human condition guided by words of Jesus brought to us though the Spirit."

The Church does not tell people what they can do, but rather, what they ought to do, Archbishop Wuerl said, and he gave the examples of embryonic stem cell research and violence. "Who would want a society to say, 'you can kill one person for the good of another?'" he said. "We're stewards of life." On violence, the archbishop noted, "We turn to the Church" to define "moral parameters." Jesus "gave us purpose and understanding to our lives. I have chosen to follow Him when I make the big decisions in life. The Church brings the echo of His voice," Archbishop Wuerl said.

After the talk, the archbishop opened the evening up to questions, noting the listeners might have "alternate views or positions." The first question regarded what the Church says about Catholics' relationship with Muslims. The archbishop noted that because the world has become much smaller and people have become more familiar with each other, we "bump into each other in our views or ideology." But, he continued, there are "fringe elements" of the two religions that are "true of both." He said that what the Church will have to do is focus on is the "commonality rooted in human nature. We're made in the image of God. We need to hold each other to that and isolate the fringe elements...We all share the same human nature. The moral law that grows out of that is the one thing that holds us together."

In the office, the first set of Wuerl's administrative changes took effect on Monday. Among these are the return of Msgr Barry Knestout to chancery work, now at the helm of the Washington chancery's Secretariat for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns. Knestout served for many years as personal secretary to the late Cardinal James Hickey; many of you will remember him as the dead-ringer for his predecessor in that post, now Bishop Lori of Bridgeport.

Also, newly-elevated Msgr James Watkins took the reins of the archdiocesan Office for Worship. Watkins' attention to detail is no secret in the District; in planning Wuerl's installation liturgy in June, he amassed an impressive 71 pages of preparatory notes.

Suffice it to say, these changes aren't the last, with the archbishop investing more responsibilities in his deans and other areas of the administration -- not to mention the increasing buzz surrounding the potential promotion of vicar-general Bishop Kevin Farrell to the diocese of Dallas.

As always, stay tuned.