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Pope Francis gives Wuerl key position in Vatican

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, 72, of Washington, D.C., speaks to the media on Thursday, March 14, 2013, at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, about Pope Francis and his election by the conclave. Cardinal Wuerl was the Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988-2006.

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Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 11:30 p.m.

The appointment of Cardinal Donald Wuerl to the highly influential Vatican panel that oversees the selection of bishops is seen locally as a reflection of Pope Francis' wishes that church leaders be more pastoral or, in the pope's own words, “shepherds living with the smell of their sheep.”

Wuerl, 73, a Pittsburgh native and archbishop of Washington, was among 12 members appointed by Pope Francis on Monday to the Congregation for Bishops, which meets every second Thursday in Rome to review potential candidates for bishop and make recommendations to the pontiff.

The new members of the congregation, along with the pope's confirmation of 18 prelates who sit on the body, are viewed by Bishop David Zubik, who succeeded Wuerl as leader of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and dean emeritus at the Duquesne University School of Law, as the pope's way of laying the groundwork for a new generation of so-called “Francis bishops.”

“Pope Francis has said, ‘I want to have people who are very sensitive to the needs of the people, who identify with their flock,' ” Zubik said on Tuesday. “The pope wants the shepherds to know the smell of their sheep. Down-to-earth people, a people person very empathetic to people's suffering, to be there for the suffering and paying attention to the needs of the poor.”

Wuerl, according to the National Catholic Reporter, was the only new American named to the congregation. The pope reconfirmed Cardinal William Levada, another American moderate.

International reports labeled Wuerl as a major player in the election of Francis this year, a statement the cardinal downplayed in an interview with Trib Total Media in May.

Wuerl has refused all media requests for comment about his appointment to the congregation, said Chieko Noguchi, the cardinal's communications director.

“I think it was a great appointment, because Cardinal Wuerl is very knowledgeable, very mainstream,” Carardi said. “He is not one of the ‘culture warriors,' bishops who are politically active. He refused, for example, to use canon law to deny communion to politicians because they are not pro-life enough.”

Cafardi thinks Wuerl “will be instrumental in seeing that we get the kind of bishops who are close to their priests, close to their people.”

“The pope wants bishops who are very pastoral, not at all political. He wants bishops who ‘smell of their sheep,' in other words close to their people. Not careerists, not out for their own good, but out for the good of the people,” Cafardi said.

Zubik called Wuerl “a man of integrity” who will be committed to looking for the best possible candidates to lead the church throughout the world.

Francis did not confirm Cardinals Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali to the congregation, effectively removing them.

Burke, a Wisconsin native and former archbishop of St. Louis, was described in the New York Times as a “favorite of many conservative Catholics in the United States.” Rigali, whom the Times described as long being “a crucial player in shaping the American (church) hierarchy,” resigned under fire as archbishop of Philadelphia for his handling of priest abuse cases.

“The Congregation for Bishops is the most important congregation in the Vatican,” the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and noted church author, told the Times. “It decides who are going to be the bishops all over the world. This is what has the most direct impact on the life of the local church.”

Zubik said Wuerl will be tested in his new position.

“I think it will be very demanding going back and forth to Rome and balancing that with his responsibilities in Washington,” Zubik said.

Wuerl grew up on Mt. Washington, was ordained to the priesthood in 1966 and was ordained a bishop 20 years later. He served as an auxiliary bishop in Seattle until 1987 and spent the next 18 years as the leader of the Pittsburgh diocese. He was installed as the archbishop of Washington in 2006 and elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2010.

He had strong ties to the Vatican long before Monday, Cafardi said.

“He is an old Vatican hand. He worked there 10 years with Cardinal (John Joseph) Wright, so he knows how the system works,” Cafardi said. “He speaks Italian very well, which is always an advantage in the Vatican.”

Michael Hasch is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7820 or at

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