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Wuerl tells faithful all Catholics are responsible for schools

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, the former bishop of Pittsburgh, stepped off the liturgical stage and into a crowd of Catholic educators on Tuesday like a congressman in the heat of election season. Everyone had something to say.

“Hello there. So good to see you,” he said, embracing hands to his left, exchanging pleasantries on his right.

His black cassock piped in scarlet swished down the carpeted aisle in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center as Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik ushered Wuerl through school officials, who thanked him and lobbied him in equal measure.

The event, this year's National Catholic Educational Association convention, presented Wuerl, who served as leader of the Pittsburgh diocese for 18 years, with a brief homecoming.

“Yes, it's wonderful to be back in Pittsburgh,” said Wuerl, 73, a native of Mt. Washington. “It's always good to be home.”

Down-to-earth and engaging, the cardinal shook hands and embraced passers-by as they latched onto him in droves.

He returned to the Diocese of Pittsburgh just long enough to tour the Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry on Sunday.

He was back in Washington on Tuesday night.

At the conference, which attracted 6,000 registered guests, Wuerl stressed changes in Catholic education and the upcoming canonization in the Vatican of John Paul II, which Wuerl will attend.

Supporting a school through an individual parish is a bygone idea, he said.

“If you just try to keep the buildings open ... it won't work,” Wuerl said. “Education is the task of all of us.”

Drawing from his experience as archbishop in the capital, Wuerl said he is seeing strong support for consolidation as schools re-imagine themselves for the 21st century. He credited Zubik for recognizing growth in Cranberry, where the population nearly doubled from 1990 to 2010 to more than 28,000 and where the diocese's newest high school will open this fall.

“We all have a certain sense of nostalgia that attaches itself to places — to buildings — but the church is not about buildings,” Zubik said. “It's about advancing the mission of Jesus Christ.”

That mission is in the spotlight this week as Rome prepares for the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, who ordained Wuerl as a bishop in 1986 at St. Peter's Basilica.

“What we're seeing is this wonderful period of time — nearly 50 years from the calling of the Second Vatican Council to the charge to update the practice of the church in total conformity on through John Paul II — in which the church has moved forward and faced so much,” Wuerl said.

Diocesan schools are down by about 800 students this year from last, when enrollment was about 21,000 in preschool to 12th grade.

Being forthright and open with parents and parishioners about enrollment and consolidations can help ease the minds of those reluctant to move on, Zubik said. “Schools are not just the responsibility of the parish or parents with children in the school,” Wuerl said. “We are all — as Catholics — responsible for the health of regional schools.”

In his keynote address, Wuerl acknowledged the frequent closure of older schools, particularly in urban areas.

Catholic elementary and secondary school enrollment is down 20 percent from a decade ago with fewer than 2 million students nationwide, according to NCEA statistics. Executive Vice President Patrick Lofton said growth is more common in the Southeast and further West.

“Cardinal Wuerl is a teacher at heart and a longtime supporter and leader for our organization,” Lofton said. “It worked out just beautifully that this year's event fell in the home of a favored son of the city.”

Wuerl left Pittsburgh in 2006 to become the archbishop of Washington. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI appointed him to the College of Cardinals in 2010. He served as NCEA board chairman from 2006 to 2010.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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