The call came during a priest-council meeting in Pittsburgh. The rector of the seminary handed Wuerl a note. The nuncio—the Vatican’s diplomatic representative to the United States in Washington—was on the phone.
After years of rumors of his departure to other visible posts in big cities from Boston to Los Angeles, the time finally had come. The Vatican asked Wuerl to leave Pittsburgh for a smaller but more influential diocese. With nearly 603,000 Catholics, Washington is the country’s 32nd-largest diocese; Pittsburgh is the 26th.
Until then, “he was the perpetual bridesmaid,” says Rocco Palmo, editor of Whispers in the Loggia, a popular Web site covering Catholic news and politics.
Tall and lithe, Wuerl has—in some ways like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—an almost professorial disposition. He’s the author of 15 books and was groomed at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, regarded as the Harvard of the Catholic Church.
His is a voice that calls from the pulpit softly. There is no thunder. His homilies usually lack a personal anecdote that neatly ties together modern life and Catholic values.
Wuerl is seen as his predecessor’s foil. McCarrick, who retired, enjoyed the Washington social scene. A boisterous New Yorker, he wasn’t known for relishing the managerial aspects of his position. Allen describes McCarrick as “very charismatic, very media-savvy, very good at external relations.”
Wuerl is cerebral, introverted, and focused on getting things done. As archbishop of Washington, he manages more than 370 priests and 200 deacons, 140 parishes, and some 98 Catholic schools. The archdiocese, which includes DC and five Maryland counties, also employs thousands of people. (The Diocese of Arlington, encompassing 21 Virginia counties, is separate.)
“Cardinal Wuerl is much more hands-on in terms of really understanding the issues, the specific challenges and opportunities, that we face,” says Ed Orzechowski, who was president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington for the last 20 years.
After the massive snows of February 2010, Wuerl called Orzechowski to ask if Catholic Charities had the resources to cope with the storm. The archbishop told him he had the full financial support of the archdiocese—and then followed up with a $200,000 check to cover snow removal and other staffing costs.
Wuerl has faced tougher decisions on the education front. Under his leadership and due to budget constraints, seven Catholic schools in DC were transitioned to public charter schools, which means they’re no longer faith-based. Eleven other Catholic schools were closed.
Wuerl makes his home at a parish north of Dupont Circle. He rises at 5 am. He devotes 30 minutes daily to the treadmill and has adopted an early-news habit befitting his new locale: the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, and Washington Times.
“So I can have indigestion before I eat,” he says.
In person, Wuerl seems uninterested in discussing the high-profile events he has attended. He hosted the pope during his 2008 visit to Washington, which culminated in a Mass for 45,000 at Nationals Park. He took part in a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral the week of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. And he was House majority leader John Boehner’s guest at the 2011 State of the Union address.
Wuerl is much more eager to talk about his latest pastoral letter, a call for renewed faith in a secular world.
“Young people are being told you need to have money, you need to have power, you need to have sex, you need to have drugs,” Wuerl says. “This is what the entertainment industry is telling them. And many of them are saying there has to be more to life than that.”
Next: Wuerl's public fight against same-sex marriage