Nearly everywhere he travels, whether by commuter plane or jet, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, inevitably engages in conversation with non-Catholics curious about the Catholic Church and its beliefs.
Usually, the topic turns to Pope Francis, who non-Catholics believe, because of his direct, concise and even folksy transmittal of the Gospel message, is someone different from his predecessors.
“One of the great contributions of Pope Francis is the joy he brings,” said Cardinal Wuerl, who was in New Orleans Feb. 17 to address students and faculty of Notre Dame Seminary on the “new evangelization” that was called for by Pope John Paul II. “His ability to communicate the message in such clear and credible language is wonderful. He has said multiple times the Gospel is not supposed to be that complex, and the presentation of it has to be in the words of the spirit of Jesus.
“He clearly has the heart of a pastor, and it’s his ability to show that that I think is the reason people are attracted to him. He hasn’t changed anything at all in the teaching, but he is showing us how to do it.”
Cardinal Wuerl spoke for more than an hour about how best to pass on the Catholic faith to those who may have drifted from the church or those whose own catechetical formation may have been lacking. He used Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” as his focus.
“Joy is not giggling, joy is not a lighthearted response, although that is a form of joy,” Cardinal Wuerl told the seminarians in a question-and-answer session after his talk. “The joy we’re talking about is that profound satisfaction in knowing that you’re loved, that you’re loved by God. The pope said, ‘I may be a sinner, but I am embraced by the love of God.’”
A morning prayer
Asked how to cultivate that joy as a gift of the Holy Spirit, Cardinal Wuerl said a simple first step is to begin each day with a prayer offering the day’s coming joys, sorrows and challenges to God.
“I want this day to be for you (Lord), and you’re going to have to get me through,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “Mother Tecla (Merlo), the foundress of the Daughters of St. Paul, had a beautiful reflection about this: ‘You may not always be happy, but you can be at peace.’”
While Pope Francis has not changed “any of the great received teachings in the church,” Cardinal Wuerl said he is “revitalizing those teachings and highlighting how you ‘do’ the Gospel – how you live the Gospel.”
The words of Jesus that the pope emphasizes in his homilies and talks are all action words such as “go,” “invite,” “welcome,” “embrace” and “be there for and with others.”
That is why even as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis stressed the necessity of the church going out to the streets with a welcoming message.
Outreach to the streets
“Already we can see as a hallmark in his papacy the emphasis that the church ‘go out’ into the world, to not stay wrapped up within herself but to go out and give to the people the beauty of the Gospel, the amazement of the encounter with Jesus Christ,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “I think we are going to have, as we move forward, a time of blessing, a time of renewal, of looking to the future to bring that new evangelization to the hearts of people we know.”
If the new evangelization is to be effective, he said, it must include a renewal of personal faith, confidence in telling the truth and faith-sharing.
Christ as God incarnate
“Christian life is defined by an encounter with Jesus,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “The Gospel that Jesus Christ came to reveal is not information about God, but rather God himself in our midst. God made himself visible, audible, tangible. In return, all he asks is our love.”
The only “living witness to the Lord Jesus” is the church itself, Cardinal Wuerl said, and only through the uninterrupted tradition stretching back to the apostles “can we be sure of the integrity and the validity of the Christian faith.”
The Eucharist is “the very heart of the church’s life,” he said. The Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization also identified penance as “the sacrament of the new evangelization.”
“Apart from the Eucharist, there simply is no greater gift that the church can give her people than the gift of reconciliation,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “The light of God’s love, of God’s mercy, of God’s forgiveness, is always on, and we can always come home to God and to the church, if we have been away for a long time, or even if we have been there all along but recognize our need to find new life in Christ through this sacrament of healing and hope.”
Cardinal Wuerl said the church parish is where the new evangelization takes place.
“Our message should be one that inspires others joyfully to follow us along the path to the kingdom of God,” he said.
Cardinal Wuerl is the former Archbishop of Pittsburgh, and he ordained Father James Wehner, the rector of Notre Dame Seminary, to the priesthood in 1995.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.