Friday, October 12, 2018

In the Capital, The Cardinal Resigns... Yet For Now, The Cardinal Remains

Six days since the Holy See began tackling Crisis 2.0 in earnest – and amid an epic, months-long storm for the US' longest-serving diocesan bishop – at Roman Noon this Friday the Pope granted the retirement of Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington, nearly three years after the capital prelate reached the canonical age of 75, and after weeks of public candor on his wish to be released from the role.

At the same time, in a uniquely personal way, Francis has designated Wuerl – who'll turn 78 next month – as apostolic administrator of the 750,000-member fold spanning the District and its Maryland suburbs pending the Pope's choice of his successor, which isn't expected to come for at least several months, most likely in the New Year.

While prior speculation saw the cardinal's resignation coming in tandem with the appointment of another prelate as the DC church's interim head to allow some "breathing space" from the roiled scene in the wake of twin controversies over abuse and the handling of cases, as Rome's chosen caretaker, Wuerl will unusually retain the full powers of the archbishop during an open-ended vacancy; under normal circumstances, a departing bishop is only named administrator once his successor has been chosen, in which case the transition only lasts two months.

In the temporary role, the cardinal – who hasn't made public appearances over the last month – is likely to carry out some degree of deck-clearing in terms of difficult calls, so that the next archbishop won't be saddled with making tough or unpopular decisions at the outset of his tenure.

As for the process itself, here it bears recalling how it wasn't until the final weeks of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's succession in early 2006 that Wuerl – then nearly two decades in as bishop of his native Pittsburgh – surfaced as a contender for the capital seat. Along the same lines, as the state of the DC archdiocese has been upended by McCarrick's historic June downfall amid allegations of sexual abuse of minors, alongside revelations of a history of harassment of seminarians and young priests – then compounded by the bruising fallout of Wuerl's presence in August's Pennsylvania grand-jury report on abuse in the state's six dioceses, led by Pittsburgh – the standard consultation is expected to run deeper than usual, with a priority for a healer added in to the already formidable need both for a pastor who can unite a bitterly polarized fold, and a sound administrator able to plan for the ongoing, almost staggering growth of what's rapidly become one of US Catholicism's most energetic and diverse outposts, which'll soon be twice the size of the church Wuerl himself inherited a dozen years ago.

While all bets are off on the outcome – at least, for now – given its unique mix of circumstances and demands, what'll unfold is virtually certain to be Francis' most high-stakes American appointment of his entire pontificate. Accordingly, as early indications go, the talent scouts are prepared to dig deep into the Stateside bench to find the optimal choice – and in one form or another, we could well end up with a surprise. (At the same time, it bears recalling that Wuerl would have a doubly impactful voice on Francis' pick, both in his preparation of the report on the state of the archdiocese, then at the process' close as the senior US member of the Congregation for Bishops. Then again, in both his earlier major Stateside picks – Chicago in 2014 and Newark in 2016 – Papa Bergoglio circumvented the global body of cardinals normally tasked with making a recommendation, choosing instead to take his own soundings and make the selections by himself.)

Having released his own letter to the faithful repeatedly begging forgiveness for his own lapses and those of church leadership, the day's even more notable missive was the one Wuerl received: an extraordinary personal word from Francis – a practically unheard of gesture by a pontiff on the resignation of a prelate, let alone one under the shadow of a crisis, but nonetheless a striking sign of the Pope's enduring regard for his close confidant.

Released by the Washington Chancery with this morning's announcement, below is the English translation of the Pope's text:
To our Venerable Brother
Archbishop of Washington

On September 21st I received your request that I accept your resignation from the pastoral governance of the Archdiocese 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 shepherd knows that the wellbeing and the unity of the People of God are precious gifts that the Lord has implored and for which he gave his life. He paid a very high price for this unity and our mission is to take care that the people not only remain united, but become witnesses of the Gospel “That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17.21). This is the horizon from which we are continually invited to discern all our actions.

I recognize in your request the heart of the shepherd who, by widening his vision to recognize a greater good that can benefit the whole body (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 235), prioritizes actions that support, stimulate and make the unity and mission of the Church grow above every kind of sterile division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed (cf. Mt 26.31).

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.

In this way, you make clear the intent to put God’s Project first, before any kind of personal project, including what could be considered as good for the Church. Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his Church.

In accepting your resignation, I ask you to remain as Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese until the appointment of your successor.

Dear brother, I make my own the words of Sirach: “You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not be lost” (2.8). May the Virgin Mary protect you with her mantle and may the strength of the Holy Spirit give you the grace to know how to continue to serve him in this new time that the Lord gives you.

Vatican City, October 12, 2018