In an interview with Vatican Insider, the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, said that never before has he attended a Synod where discussions have been so free.

In an interview with Vatican Insider, the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, said that never before has he attended a Synod where discussions have been so free.

“We are not a small Church made up exclusively of the pure and faithful, the rule followed by the Christian community is the rule of love”. The statement comes from Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington and a member of the commission of ten Synod Fathers in charge of drafting the final report that will be voted on on 24 October. Cardinal Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1940. He was ordained a priest in 1966 and appointed bishop by John Paul II in 1986. After two years in Seattle he was transferred to his city of birth and in 2006, Benedict XVI appointed him head of the Diocese of Washington, creating him a cardinal in 2010. Vatican Insider met Wuerl at the Pontifical North American College, in Rome, on a cloudy Sunday afternoon that promised downpours of rain. In the interview, Cardinal Wuerl recounts his experience as a Synod Father, wards off suspicions raised by some cardinals about how the Synod is being conducted and explains how Francis was able to speak to the hearts of the American people during his recent visit to the US.

What has your experience as a Synod Father been of the new procedures?

The first Synod I assisted at … was the first Synod, in 1967. I was a secretary to the bishop in the United States who was  a member of the Synod. I have been in some way been associated with Synods but have been a member, a bishop member of seven Synods and so, I’m talking out of experience. This Synod, has given more time to the bishops to speak among themselves. The methodological change to allow language groups more time was a response on the part of the Pope to the request of bishops over years to reduce the amount of time we had to sit listening to one another and give more time for the free discussion in the language groups. Pope Francis did that on the recommendation of the Council of the Synod.

Why were these changes needed?

Now, instead of the majority of time being spent simply listening, you have the majority of time spent in discussion. But here’s another piece that I think has been a great step forward. The idea of having had two Synods, back to back, allowed for a continuation of discussion over two years that allowed for the input of the entire Church universal, so that when we came here for the beginning of the 2015 Synod we had an Instrumentum Laboris that represented all of this Church-wide discussion. And then we started this process of listening, with the language groups making their reports and remember: the moderator and the relator are elected and the relator has the task of summing up the conversation of the small group. In our small group, the relator brought it back, passed it round and said: ‘Is there anything in here that you don’t want me to say?’ That’s pretty democratic. Then, all 13 of those relators have to come together and begin to find the consensus out of all of those reports and again, it’s the same 13 elected people. Now we have a commission of ten, so nobody can say one person’s idea manipulated everybody else.

What is your view regarding the letter – that was also signed by three cardinals from the Roman Curia, who worked closely with the Pope – in which the honesty and transparency of the Synodal process established by the Pope was being called into question?

I will answer with a witty remark made to me by a US government official. He said: If this were a civil government, if this were the United States and heads of ministries, departments, the labour department, the defence department, opposed the President and said the President was manipulating the country, I don’t think they would get the same gentle response. I haven’t seen the letter, all we’ve seen is the published version of it, I just know that the charge of manipulation strikes me as absurd. With all of this process that we’re in, how do you manipulate 270 participants who are going to elect the people who are going to present the material and then bode on the material before it’s presented? How do you manipulate all of that? It says to me that these are people who are speaking from a very clouded vision. A vision that is not clear. If you suffer from jaundice, everything you see is yellow. That’s what’s happening. I’ll tell you a little story of when I was working here, this is years ago, on the corner of Via della Conciliazione, there was one of these ice cream, soft drink vendors. He was very anti-clerical. Every day I would walk by and I would say ‘buongiorno’ and he would stare at me. One day, as I came by he was standing right on the sidewalk and I said ‘buongiorno’ and he replied: “Why do you say ‘buongiorno’ to me every day? And I said: ‘Cesare, if I didn’t, you would say to your wife: ‘look at that priest he walks by and doesn’t even say ‘buongiorno’’. It’s all about how you look at things and I thought of that during this discussion. If you’ve already made up your mind, there’s nothing anyone can say that’s going to change your thinking. If you’re convinced that there’s some kind of plot, it doesn’t matter how free and open the discussions are, you’re always going to find something wrong with them.

Besides the differences in opinion regarding possible solutions to the various problems at hand, a number of speeches seem to have indicated the emergence of a pastoral approach that is not just about proclaiming the doctrine. Is this correct?

In the Church, we have always said: You speak the teaching of the Church with clarity. And then as a pastor of souls, you work with the person, where that person is. The two go together. But in speaking, you have to be close enough to the person and talk to that person so you can understand what they’re hearing and that’s always been the tradition of the Church, speak the truth and minister with love. It’s like in most families: a father and mother try to speak very clearly to their children. But if they don’t understand you offer to help them understand, you don’t start by saying: ‘you are not a part of this family any longer’. And I think that’s at the heart of this discussion in the Synod. Truth and love are dimensions of the same divine reality. The Word,  the Truth, became flesh. The Pope is saying to us: ‘Go out’, but when you go out, encounter the person, don’t scold them. Listen to what they have to say so you can understand how you can speak that they might hear you. Don’t let’s go out and announce, let us try to walk with them, to bring them closer to Jesus. That’s what the pastor does. That’s what the good shepherd does. The Gospel today is: Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many. Why did he need to ransom us? Because we’re not living perfectly. I think basically this why so many people respond to Pope Francis. Catholics, non-Catholics, people of no faith. When he came to Washington, there was such an outpouring of affection for him and I kept hearing from people, even people who are not a part of the Catholic Church: ‘he sounds like Jesus. He invites us to try to get close to God. Isn’t that the purpose of ministry? I think in the long run, Pope Francis is going to be seen as God’s gift for this moment. People are seeing in this Pope an invitation to get closer to God. When I was rector of our seminary, I used to say to the priest on the stand: we will be able to say anything we want, give any direction to these students that we feel they need to have. And they’ll accept it only after they know that we really care for them and we really want the best for them. It’s God’s love that saves, not the Code of Canon Law. Law is to provide some framework for the Christian community but we’re not saved by those words in the law, we’re saved by Jesus on the Cross. If we have a Church just made up of the pure and the faithful, it’s going to be very small.

How do you think the Synod will conclude on the most controversial issue of all, in other words the potential adoption of a more open approach, towards remarried divorcees and their admittance to the sacraments, in certain conditions.

I don’t know right now, I don’t think anyone can foresee what the results will be but I would say that there has already been one very positive step. It’s very clear that pope Francis wants a Church in which the concerns of all are heard. I don’t know whether at the end of next week we will have agreements on specific pastoral steps but for me the great accomplishment of this Synod, was to say to the whole world, in the Catholic Church, the Pope was telling us there is room for discussion. The principle of God’s love and bringing people to God, is the norm. We need to understand how we bring people to God.

Thirty four years after the “Familiaris consortio”, a great deal has changed in terms of society and family life…

We spent the entire 2012 Synod trying to understand how the whole world has changed. Secularism, relativism, materialism, individualism. We talked about a tsunami of secularism that has totally changed the face of western culture. The Pope is that he has invited us to say: ‘let’s talk about that’. The sad part is that there is a small group that are saying we shouldn’t talk about this.

You recently welcomed the Pope in Washington. What in his messages struck you the most?

Francis was calling Americans to their own values. He wasn’t saying: ‘these are the things you do wrong’, he was saying: ‘you are the nation that says these are the values we should all follow and I thought it resonated with many, many people. He didn’t point a finger, he didn’t condemn, but he did remind us, we’re not living up to the things we want to be, we Americans. I thought it was also beautiful that he went directly from the capital of the United States, to the source of power in the country, to Catholic charities, to meet the homeless, the street people and all those people that we provide food for today. And they’re only six blocks away from the capital with all this power. He was reminding us of what we should be.

After the reality of his visit, the following week there was a return to that very polarisation which Francis had asked people to overcome, with controversy in the media over two meetings the Pope held at the Nunciature in Washington.

I thought that the Pope was calling us to the very best we could be and people were responding and then there was this issue, which clearly was reflective of another mind-set: that we should be fighting one another, that we should be finding reasons to condemn one another. It was a contrast between the Pope and his message and the polarised message.

Vatican Insider