Wuerl says pope's teachings will live on
Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl witnessed the metamorphosis of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla into Pope John Paul II, carrying back dozens of personal blessings from the Vicar of Christ over the years.
On Saturday, he recalled both the public and the personal sides of the departed Holy Father with a mix of joy and sorrow during evening Mass at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland.
Standing near a portrait of a younger, healthy pope swaddled in purple silk, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh bishop donned his miter and told a congregation of more than 300 Roman Catholics that their profound sadness should be "tempered by the realization of his extraordinary life and his profound ministry."
Those were the public sides of the pontiff -- the 264th pope who helped trigger an internal revolt against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe; his forgiveness of the man who tried to assassinate him; his address in a synagogue that made him the first pope ever to visit a Jewish congregation and his decision years later to become the first Holy Father to step into a mosque; the dozens of pilgrimages to nations around the world, many of their governments hostile to the faith, such as Cuba.
Wuerl called those moments "snapshots from a quarter-century of a pope some are already calling 'John Paul the Great.'"
But Wuerl also has been a witness to the private, pastoral side of the pope.
The bishop remembered his days as a priest fresh from Mt. Washington nearly three decades ago, when he served as Vatican secretary to the ailing Cardinal John Wright, prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy.
Part of a crew that vetted materials entering the conclave, then-Rev. Wuerl was one of the few American priests allowed to toil in the election of the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years.
Shortly afterward, the vibrant pope paid a visit to the Vatican apartment of Cardinal Wright, who was recovering from surgery.
"I recall so vividly the Holy Father's energy, stamina and the athletic strides with which he entered the room," said Wuerl. "I treasure as well the photo of that day and his warm, paternal embrace and encouragement."
After Pope John Paul II made Wuerl bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, the bishop often returned to Rome on church business. The pontiff told Wuerl he mispronounced his own last name -- it needed the hard Germanic "V," not the soft American "W" -- and he gave him the nickname "Pittsburgh."
Since Wuerl became synonymous with hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Western Pennsylvania, he began to ask the pope a favor before he went back home.
"I would always ask him when I was to leave: 'Could I bring back to the Diocese of Pittsburgh, my community, your blessing?' And he would always, always reply: 'With all my heart.' There were many times, from this very chair, that I would relay his blessings to you.
"But I won't be able to do that anymore."
Wuerl said he believes the city returned the blessing in 2004, when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a choir of Christian, Jewish and Muslim singers performed for the pope in Rome. No longer the energetic, bounding pontiff, the Holy Father had to be ushered into the room in a wheelchair to greet the Pittsburgh performers.
"But his spirit was still there," said Wuerl.
That's the spirit of the man who will remain long after future popes come and go, Wuerl said.
"His earthly life is now finished. His teaching, however, will go on: 'Be not afraid!' May God grant him eternal rest and peace."
There will be little rest and peace for Wuerl over the next few weeks. The bishop has begun planning special Masses that will commemorate the pope's funeral, the advent of the conclave and the day the white smoke rises in Rome, signifying the selection of John Paul's successor.