Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, has walked down the aisle at St. Mary of the Mount in Pittsburgh many times—as a child, a student, and a priest. But when he visited the parish last winter at the start of the Advent season, a beaming Wuerl stood before the community for the first time as a cardinal.
He seemed at peace in the small 19th-century church, nodding in the direction of former classmates and neighbors who lined the pews.
One of the most respected links between the pope and US Catholics, Wuerl is one of 18 American cardinals and one of 194 in the world. In 2011, he celebrates his 45th anniversary as a priest, his 25th as a bishop, and his fifth as leader of the Archdiocese of Washington.
“The word ‘cardinal’ means hinge, a very simple concept,” he said during his homily at St. Mary of the Mount. Wuerl explained that wherever he is, his mission is to be the link between the pope and parishioners.
Wuerl spent 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh before he was asked in 2006 to leave his hometown for the nation’s capital. His assignment to Washington might have had elements of personal disappointment, but he never let on. And it certainly came with a new profile.
“Whoever is the archbishop of Washington takes over the role as interlocutor for the Church on national and international politics,” says John Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “It makes you a big player.”
Wuerl’s move to Washington also brought an honor: Last fall, he secured membership in the most elite of Catholic circles—the College of Cardinals. Some 400 friends attended his November elevation in Rome. Wuerl had to leave his hometown to advance in the Church hierarchy; only certain cities are what are known as cardinalatial sees, and Pittsburgh isn’t one of them.
But even as he rises to a new place of influence within the Church, assimilating into Washington’s culture hasn’t proved easy. His trademark reserve has been perceived by some as chilly, and an aversion to playing to the press has contributed to a sometimes rocky stint here. He has feuded with DC Council leaders during their effort to pass a same-sex-marriage law. And unlike his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl doesn’t appear to relish the fundraisers and schmooze-fests that come with a job in the same area code as the White House.
“It’s been difficult for him to adjust to how political everything is in Washington,” says Ann Rodgers, a longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion reporter who knows Wuerl well. In his hometown, she says, he had a bigger role on a smaller stage: “Being the Catholic bishop is kind of like being the king of Pittsburgh. You outrank the mayor.”
Washington has many kings—the President, Supreme Court justices, congressional leaders, diplomats. So Wuerl is doing what Wuerl does best: working under the radar to breathe energy into the local Church through advocacy of core Catholic philosophies. He has cowritten a new book, The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition, published in February. He has launched a public-relations campaign called “The Light Is on for You,” with ads that appear on city buses to urge wayward Catholics back to church. Under Wuerl’s direction, the archdiocese is opening DC’s first seminary for college-age men this fall near Catholic University. And the cardinal has imposed a laser-like focus on the financial health of the diocese, including an increase in the tuition-assistance fund for schoolchildren.
Still, confidants wonder if, given a decades-long relationship with Pope Benedict XVI, Wuerl would prefer to finish his remaining years of service in the Vatican. Or Pittsburgh.
Wuerl assigns images to his dioceses—Pittsburgh is his mother, Washington his bride. He says a good bishop must love his diocese as a good husband or wife loves a spouse, even if the match is less than perfect. “You can’t say, ‘Well, I love you, but I wish you were a foot taller and I’m going to remind you of that every day,’ ” he says.
Still, there’s a wistful tone when he talks about Pittsburgh. The community there was more cohesive, he says. “Here the secular is the dominant voice. That is just the nature of Washington.”
Next: Wuerl gets a call from the Vatican