Monday, October 25, 2010

Washington's most capable leader

It was at Bishop John Wright’s home in Pittsburgh that I met a personable young man about the time of his ordination to the priesthood. Now that man, still young in looks and enthusiasm as he observes his 70th birthday November 12, has been named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI. Donald W. Wuerl was already the Archbishop of Washington.

Wuerl was a valued assistant to Bishop Wright in his native Pittsburgh. When Wright was given the red hat and made head of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, Fr. Wuerl accompanied him as secretary. He become acquainted with every aspect of church leadership, even as he wrote books and articles and looked after an ailing boss.

Cardinal Wright was a long-time friend. When he was Bishop of Worcester, Mass., he introduced me to the managing editor of The Worcester Telegram. Frank Murphy then hired me as a copy editor. Eventually Wright became the Bishop of Pittsburgh, taking with him the editor of Worcester’s diocesan newspaper, Jack Deedy. After Deedy resigned from the Pittsburgh diocesan paper to join Commonweal, Wright phoned me from a Trappist monastery he was visiting to offer me the Pittsburgh job. It was an exciting prospect. I told Bishop Wright that he would have to ask Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, my boss at the time, to release me from a contract. Shehan said No.

In 1968, when Wuerl was a member of the committee sponsoring a Pax Romana symposium in Pittsburgh, I was invited (yikes!) to be a reactor to the Jesuit theologian Fr. Bernard Lonergan and the Jesuit philosopher Fr. Martin D’Arcy.

During the years that followed I often spoke with Wuerl during visits with Wright in Rome and even in Baltimore. After Wright’s death Wuerl came to dinner at my home in Chicago, bringing the Cardinal’s red zuchetta for my son, John Wright Wall. Afterward my daughter, Marie, a college student at the time, said she had never met a priest who was so enthusiastic about priesthood.

It was like a satisfying chapter in a novel when Wuerl became the Bishop of Pittsburgh, the resident of that home where mentoring mattered.

In many ways Cardinal Wuerl reminds me of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, whose position as general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference gave him a broad view of church and opened friendships in high places. These are probably the two Americans best-prepared by experience and single-minded devotion to lead the entire church.

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