Friday, November 16, 2007

Wuerly-Bird Gets the Pope... and Talks The Visit

Especially in the church, not many people celebrate their birthday with a press conference.

But on his 67th birthday Monday, Archbishop Donald Wuerl had barely entered a media room at the bishops' hotel when a phalanx of cameras (above) unexpectedly swarmed the DC prelate, who (given Cardinal Edward Egan's absence) got the spotlight to himself in addressing the just-confirmed April papal visit.

As the beaming archbishop beamed zipped through question after question before the formally-scheduled presser, longtime Wuerl-watchers said they hadn't seen The Don so happy in quite some time. The birthday prelate had only been advised hours before that the Washington nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi would formally announce the coming PopeTrip in his opening remarks to the November meeting, a break from Vatican protocol that served to shock most of the rest of the packed ballroom where the news went public.

The most prominent US appointee to date of B16's pontificate, Wuerl will serve as the Pope's first host during the five-day jaunt... and began laying out his expectations for the journey in the archdiocesan paper:
"There is so much renewal going on - among our young people, in the whole Church," [Wuerl] said. "His visit will be a reaffirmation of that. But also I'd like to think it's going to be a way of just re-energizing us."

He said he believes the emphasis of the pope's trip will be "on the renewal of the faith life of the Church."...

"This visit will be an opportunity for all of us in the Church in Washington to show the Holy Father our affection, to show him our profound loyalty, but also to demonstrate to him how alive the Church in Washington is, how profoundly faith-filled the Church is."...

At a midday press conference Nov. 12 and speaking informally to reporters before and after it, Archbishop Wuerl said that in visiting the nation's capital "the Holy Father is attempting to speak to the Church throughout the United States."

He said that when it was first announced last summer that the pope was considering a U.N. visit next spring, "it seemed appropriate to invite him to Washington."

He noted that Washington is the home of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' national offices, of the Catholic University of America - the bishops' national university - and of the National Shrine.

The fact that the pope would make Washington his first stop "says to me that he sees this as a center representing the entire Church in the United States," he said.

He said the pope's plan to address representatives of Catholic higher education at Catholic University highlights the importance of faith formation and Catholic education in the life of the Church.

The archbishop said preparing for the papal visit "will be a lot of work, but it'll be joyful work, because we'll be welcoming the head of the Church. We'll be welcoming the successor to Peter, and he will come here to say to all of us, 'Be strong in your faith. ... Be a light of the Gospel to this country.'"

"I think the theme that I would reflect on for the archdiocese, and therefore for his visit to the Church, is ... we can make everything new in Christ if we really put our heart into it," he said.

Asked how ticket distribution would be handled for the stadium Mass, Archbishop Wuerl said he didn't know yet.

"I suspect there will be more people who want to see and be with the pope than there are places at the stadium. ... We have to take into account that there will be people coming from all over the country," he said. "They will not see this as a Washington event. They will see it as a national event."

"I think that we have to make sure that people - especially our young people - get a chance to see him," he added. "That's going to take some planning on our part, but I think the principle we want to work from is (that) we want to make sure the coming generation of Catholic young people get a chance to see him."

Since Pope Benedict's election in 2005, a recurring theme of his papacy has been a call to an increasingly secularized Europe to return to its Christian roots.

Archbishop Wuerl said the challenge of secularization will be an important part of the context for the U.S. visit as well.

"That is the context. I believe the context for the Church today is this background, a highly secularized, very here-and-now-focused world," he said. "The task of the Church is to remind us that there's more. It's not by bread alone that we live, there's more. And the 'more' is our relationship with God."
Unaware that he was seeking out the insight of one of the heated question's lead combatants, a TV hand in the pre-conference scrum asked Wuerl if, a la Brazil, the Pope would offer some pointed words for US prelates in barring politicians who conflict with church teaching from the Eucharist.

In reply, the archbishop offered that Benedict would have "wider issues" to discuss. Benedict, he said, is coming "to talk about the faith."

* * *
On a related note, it's no secret that a bunch of places are rather bummed over their absence from next April's papal itinerary. Within minutes of Monday's formal announcement of the plans, it didn't take long for the Boston media to blare "Pope Snubs Hub" or something of the kind on their sites -- further stoking the outrage by playing up B16's choice of Yankee Stadium for his final public appearance.

It seems that this whole "Why not us?" exercise is yet another commentary on the impact and legacy of John Paul II. While, before the fall of 1979, the previous 263 Roman pontiffs had spent a combined 14 hours in North America, the late Great's travels so transformed the Petrine ministry in the public eye that, now, everyone expects a pop-in. In other words, the exception has become perceived as the norm.

Among other spots wondering why they won't be getting a wheels-down from Papa Ratzi is, of course, here in Philadelphia. Candidly, it didn't help matters that, for weeks on end, the hometown media had been running with unfounded speculation that this city was a possible stop -- even though, in truth, a papal dinner of soft pretzels and cheesesteaks was never in the cards in any credible sense (...a reality which, it must be said, two months of exclusive PopeVisit coverage on these pages consistently reflected).

Whatever the case, today's Daily News called on your narrator to help explain why the River City didn't make the cut.

It's always a gift to lend an assist to my alma mater, the paper whose format and ethic influenced these pages more than any other, and especially to Gar Joseph's weekly Clout, the Philly political crowd's answer to Whispers. Even so, however, one of Joseph's surmises in the final product was a bit off-base.

"One big difference between John Paul's [1979] visit" and the next papal trip, he wrote, "is that Philly had clout with the former and has none with [Benedict]."

Sure, it could be (and has been) said that we Phillyans are a bit used to being spoilt, especially in the ecclesiastical realm. Lest anyone be misled, however, "no clout" in this pontificate could hardly be the case.

For starters, this Pope's unprecedented appointment of a Philly Pharaoh to the Congregation for Bishops (as the august body's only resident American, to boot), and a native son's 24 year-long wait for the red hat finally at an end are, especially when taken together, nothing to thumb one's nose at.

What's more, the former Cardinal Ratzinger's ties to the city stretch back decades. The future pontiff headlined a days-long 1989 moral theology conference at St Charles Borromeo Seminary, and one of his cherished "family" of CDF aides was local boy Msgr Thomas Herron, who died of pancreatic cancer a year before his Boss' election.

(Having returned home as a beloved pastor and seminary professor in the patristics, in Herron's final months the Pope-to-be kept close tabs on his good friend's condition, staying in close touch to keep him comforted and encouraged. If there's one personal sadness to Benedict's passing over, it's that he won't be able to take a private moment at Herron's place of rest -- a tradition his Bavarian upbringing cherishes, one the burden of his office now prohibits, at least not without an attendant circus of security and logistics.)

Sure, nothing will ever equal the Krol-Wojtyla bond (without which, it could be said, the Krakowian mightn't have landed on Peter's chair) and, in his 81st year, B16 -- who last came to these shores a decade ago -- doesn't have the same knack for seeming omnipresence. But where it counts, American Catholicism's Last Empire is still holding its own and then some in the Vatican shuffle... even without a PopeStop... and even, so they say, with a certain enfant terrible still in residence.

Bottom line: if this town was really were off its game, we'd have no reason to put a biretta on Billy Penn.

PHOTO: AP/Steve Ruark