Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Seeking Capital's "New Beginning," The Cardinal Eyes His Exit

For more than three decades, he's been squarely in medias res – first a John Paul II "teaching bishop," then Benedict XVI's first top US appointee and, finally, "something more pastoral" under Francis.

By turns he's managed decline and overseen growth, served as a healer or lightning rod depending on the need of the moment, been Relator of a Roman Synod, a member of the Congregation for Bishops – and along the way, become the only Stateside prelate ever to host two papal visits....

And for all that, what no one could've imagined is that the long, storied run would end like this.

Battered by the confluence of two sudden storms – the historic downfall of his predecessor, then the equally stunning blow of a grand jury's claim that he mishandled abuse cases at the helm of his hometown church – Cardinal Donald Wuerl has effectively set his departure as archbishop of Washington in motion, telling his priests in a letter released Tuesday night that he would go to Rome "in the very near future" to discuss his long-pending retirement with the Pope "so that this archdiocesan church we all love can move forward."

Nearly three years since submitting his required exit letter on his 75th birthday, as previously reported, Wuerl's succession process had initially been expected through the first half of this year, but was suddenly short-circuited owing to the allegation of abuse of a minor levied in January against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, which led to the retired prelate's removal from ministry on the charge's finding as credible and substantiated in June.

Given the gravity of the situation – and the simple reality that the 750,000-member capital church had largely been spared from prior abuse storms, and thus wasn't prepared for the fallout – it was ostensibly deemed that a change of leadership would've further destabilized the scene, plunging a new archbishop's tenure into crisis at its outset. What wasn't anticipated, however, was the seismic impact of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, whose blistering treatment of several – but not all – of the cases Wuerl oversaw during his 18 years as bishop of his native Pittsburgh (1988-2006) proved sufficient to blow a hole in the narrative the future cardinal long burnished of having purged the ranks of abusers a decade before the Dallas Norms made "zero tolerance" national law.

As the ferocious blowback to the August findings saw Wuerl become the report's de facto public face as the top active hierarch mentioned, the cardinal's name was quickly removed from Pittsburgh’s newest diocesan high school complex, but not before the sign outside it was vandalized.

Indeed, even more than what's unfolded in the ever-politicized spotlight of the capital and the broader Catholic conversation, the sunset of Wuerl’s glistening legacy in the Steel City is arguably the roughest cut of all. Having been a near-omnipresent figure during his tenure there – hosting a catechetical TV show, drumming up broad support for Catholic schools and, all around, enjoying a civic prominence on a par with a generation of mayors – since his 2006 departure for Washington, Wuerl has effectively served from afar as Pittsburgh's "Über-Bishop," still returning home to preside at major events, most recently celebrating last year's cathedral funeral for Dan Rooney: the daily communicant, Steelers owner and US ambassador to Ireland, a close friend of the cardinal's whose backing was a mainstay for practically every charitable work of the local church and beyond.

As for what's next, there'll be time for that in due course. For now, however, much as it's become increasingly obvious that the abuse storms have drastically recast the calculus for the process which will produce Wuerl's DC successor, beyond the need for healing, the even longer-frame challenge facing the capital church is its reality of extraordinary growth – the archdiocese boomed by roughly a third since 2006, the parishes of the archdiocese's Maryland suburbs boast a reality that's far more Southeast than Northeast, not a few requiring a dozen weekend Masses across several languages, with schools that are as packed as the tuition is high. Accordingly, even if the seventh archbishop will have a "baptism by fire" in arriving to more than enough tensions to soothe on the ecclesial and political fronts, the pick's ability to plan for the future arguably remains his most significant task at hand.

In terms of potentialities, it's likewise too early for that – for one, too many key players remain too shocked at the turn of events to fully process what's happened...

...yet what's more, an occurrence that didn't come to pass in 2002 but already has this time – namely, a markedly shifted power dynamic at the top of the nation's largest religious body – is only beginning to sink in, its full effect still to become clear.

All that said, below is the text of Wuerl's letter, released last night through the diocesan channels:

Dear Brother Priest,

On Monday, September 3, prior to our annual Labor Day gathering, we had an opportunity to pray together and, as I was asked by our Holy Father Pope Francis, to discern the best course of action for me to pursue as we face new revelations of the extent of the horror of the clergy abuse of children and the failures in episcopal oversight. At issue is how to begin effectively to bring a new level of healing to survivors who have personally suffered so much and to the faithful entrusted to our care who have also been wounded by the shame of these terrible actions and have questions about their bishop’s ability to provide the necessary leadership.

It was clear that some decision, sooner rather than later, on my part is an essential aspect so that this archdiocesan Church we all love can move forward. As a fruit of our discernment I intend, in the very near future, to go to Rome to meet with our Holy Father about the resignation I presented nearly three years ago, November 12, 2015.

Our discernment here, I believe, has indicated the way forward to bring healing and a new beginning at the service of this Church. I am particularly grateful for your patience and respect for this time of discernment.

I ask you please to include me in your prayers.

Faithfully in Christ,

Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington