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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.

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 language groups.

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. It’s 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. Isn’t 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 church.

Does the church have a communications problem here? Normally the firmness about rules comes across much better to the average person than the compassion.
It’s 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 don’t 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. That’s 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, there’s a tendency to focus just on the proclamation of principle, because it’s easy to talk about that with clarity in general terms. It’s much harder to define the pastoral connotation. That’s not say, however, that we should stop talking about principles. I’m convinced that the basic need today is to teach, to convince. If we don’t say who we are every chance we get, someone’s not going to hear it. If we don’t 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, ‘I’m here because I must do it,” but rather, ‘I understand what this is all about and I want to be there.’ That’s why a pastor of souls will say, ‘I’m just glad if they come with some regularity, so I can help them understand what it’s all about.’ Otherwise, if this was all about laws, we’d be issuing penalties for people who didn’t 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.
That’s 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 you’re right, it’s a very complex situation.

This synod marks the third time you’ve 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 that’s no longer the case. It’s not understood by everyone around the table. It’s 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. There’s a forum now for everybody to be engaged in the discussion. If it’s a little repetitious, well, so are a lot of conversations in which I take part. I didn’t see much change in my particular role. In the circoli minores, there’s 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 I’m going to talk about what I’m 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. It’s 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 it’s our time now, it’s our moment in the life of the church. Wherever we are, we’re called to proclaim and live out the Eucharist. We received it because for twenty centuries others proclaimed and lived it, and now it’s 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 church’s traditional posture. We have to teach the faith, and we have to explain it. It’s 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 individual’s 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 don’t believe there’s any movement for the Vatican or the pope to issue a new ruling for the universal church?
I didn’t hear any suggestion in the synod that something new is needed.

A synod is sometimes as important for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. How do you interpret the near-total silence on the old Latin Mass?
I believe the fact that this did not surface, that it was not a part of our discussions, means that it’s 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 we’ve always done Mass this way!’ Three generations have come and gone since the transition into the vernacular, and I think by now it’s no longer really an issue.

Does this mean there will be no ‘universal indult’ for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass?
I don’t know where that might be going. It’s 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 doesn’t mean by everybody, of course, but by the church universal.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted May 17, 2006

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