Posted May 17, 2006
Interview with Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburg, Pa., relator at
the Bishops Synod on the Eucharist, Oct. 2 to 23, 2005.
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
NCR Rome correspondent
At the Bishops Synod on the Eucharist, Oct. 2 to 23, 2005, few
bishops were as busy as Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who, for the third time,
was tapped as a relator, or secretary, for one of the small
Wuerl is no stranger to the Vatican scene, having served in
Rome from 1969 to 1979 as secretary to Cardinal John Wright, who was the
prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. Allen sat down with Wuerl on Oct. 24
for an interview shortly before he returned to Pittsburgh.
NCR: It seems that the synod aimed to mix doctrinal firmness
with pastoral compassion. Is that right?
WUERL: Yes, because this is so much a part of the way the church has
understood her role from the beginning. The task of the church, and thus of her
pastors, is to proclaim the fullness of her teaching, of revelation and the
teaching that expounds it. Its also the role of the same pastor of souls,
however, to meet people where they are, and to gradually lead them to a full
acceptance of that truth. In the pulpit, a pastor must be the source of
complete, clear, and authentic teaching, of who we are called to be. Yet in
dealing with the faithful one-on-one, in counseling, in confession, and so on,
he meets them where they are. After all, who can say that I fully, 100 percent,
live the teaching of the church every day? Maybe Mother Teresa, maybe John Paul
II, but certainly not the rest of us mortals. Isnt this the role of the
priest? He needs to explain, This is what the church says, this is why we
should embrace it, but he also has to show greater understanding for
people. The synod reflects that constant teaching and practice of the
Does the church have a communications problem here? Normally the
firmness about rules comes across much better to the average person than the
Its a perplexing issue. The modern means of social communications
come out of a distinct culture, one which needs instant answers and sound
bites. Back home, my staff always tells me that I dont use sound bites
well. When faced with a question, I always want to start with a major and a
minor premise and then come to a conclusion. They tell me nobody wants to hear
that. Thats one problem. Another problem is that sometimes the church
simply presents its principles, expecting that the compassionate application of
those principles will happen on a one-to-one basis. In news coverage, however,
theres a tendency to focus just on the proclamation of principle, because
its easy to talk about that with clarity in general terms. Its much
harder to define the pastoral connotation. Thats not say, however, that
we should stop talking about principles. Im convinced that the basic need
today is to teach, to convince. If we dont say who we are every chance we
get, someones not going to hear it. If we dont say it, people will
begin to forget. ...
It also has to be understood that church teaching is not the same thing
as law, even though we have a Code of Canon Law. For example, the church
calls us to participate in the Eucharist every Sunday, and there are canons to
support that, but the goal is not to have people say, Im here
because I must do it, but rather, I understand what this is all
about and I want to be there. Thats why a pastor of souls will say,
Im just glad if they come with some regularity, so I can help them
understand what its all about. Otherwise, if this was all about
laws, wed be issuing penalties for people who didnt come.
Surely part of the problem is differing cultural understandings of
law. In Anglo-Saxon cultures, if you feel compassion for a particular group,
you change the law to advance their interests. In the more classical
perspective of the Holy See, law represents an unchanging ideal, and compassion
is expressed in application.
Thats a classic problem. At the foundation of modern positive law
in the United States from the time of Oliver Wendell Holmes is the idea that
law is not a reflection of a natural order, but simply the best ordering of
civil society that this society has been able to come up with for now. Positive
civil law has been detached from its underlying moral context, which was the
previous understanding of law all the way back to the Ten Commandments. So
youre right, its a very complex situation.
This synod marks the third time youve served as relator
for one of the small groups. What differences did you notice?
Because of the reduction from four weeks to three the work was more
concentrated, though that was less true in the circoli minores. I also
noticed that we are rapidly losing what might be called a usable common
language. Latin has not been conserved as a universal language for all in the
synod. For a long time, Italian was it, but at least in the groups I worked
with thats no longer the case. Its not understood by everyone
around the table. Its not a major hurdle, but it does make things more
difficult. In general, it seemed to me that very, very quickly in this synod
there was a sense of consensus, of cohesion, around the main lines of just
about everything. I also found the free discussions in the evening very
healthy, very open. Theres a forum now for everybody to be engaged in the
discussion. If its a little repetitious, well, so are a lot of
conversations in which I take part. I didnt see much change in my
particular role. In the circoli minores, theres a built-in dynamic
of trying to arrive at propositions around which a consensus can be built. As
relator, you have to listen and then produce at the end of each session
a summary of the discussion to which everyone can agree. Then you present that
summary to the assembly. Basically, you have to be a good scribe.
In your view, what are the big ideas of this synod?
Just this morning I was working on my homily for this Sunday in
Pittsburgh, which marks the close of the Eucharistic year in Pittsburgh, and
Im going to talk about what Im bringing back from the synod. For
me, there are three main points:
- The core mystery of the Eucharist is the same today as it was under
the apostles. Its as Paul describes it in his epistle to the Romans, that
we are adopted children of God because of the death and resurrection of Christ,
which happens again in the Eucharist. This synod came together to say that we
must present this anew, we have to say it and say it.
- The synod also gave us the chance to listen to the experiences of
every father there, of every participant there. It brought home the
universality of this church. We came from many different lands, languages,
ethnic groups and so on, but when it came to the faith, we are one. There was a
bedrock awareness of that in the synod.
- Finally, I got the sense that its our time now, its our
moment in the life of the church. Wherever we are, were called to
proclaim and live out the Eucharist. We received it because for twenty
centuries others proclaimed and lived it, and now its our turn to help
future generations enter into the same mystery.
Proposition 46, on Catholic politicians and legislators, seems like a
vindication of the approach of the American bishops, and especially the
commission led by Cardinal McCarrick. Do you see it that way?
I saw what I would take to be the churchs traditional posture. We
have to teach the faith, and we have to explain it. Its always been a
part of that same tradition, however, that only in very specific circumstances,
and with great prudence, can a judgment be made about an individuals
worthiness for communion.
So the synod affirmed the American approach?
What we saw in that proposition is very reflective of what the American
bishops said, and both reflect long-standing Catholic tradition.
You dont believe theres any movement for the Vatican or
the pope to issue a new ruling for the universal church?
I didnt hear any suggestion in the synod that something new is
A synod is sometimes as important for what it doesnt say as for
what it does. How do you interpret the near-total silence on the old Latin
I believe the fact that this did not surface, that it was not a part of
our discussions, means that its a settled issue. I was reminded of a
story a pastor told me about a 12-year-old who was talking with his parent, and
the parent was talking about the beauty of the Latin Mass. The 12-year-old
responded, But weve always done Mass this way! Three
generations have come and gone since the transition into the vernacular, and I
think by now its no longer really an issue.
Does this mean there will be no universal indult for
celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass?
I dont know where that might be going. Its a very specific
response to a specific case. On the level of overall principle for the whole
church all these years after the close of the council, however, I think the
question of language and liturgy has been answered. ... The overall perspective
of the synod is that Vatican II brought about a renewal and reform of the
liturgy that, historically speaking, has been embraced by the church universal.
That doesnt mean by everybody, of course, but by the church
National Catholic Reporter, Posted May 17,