Cardinal Wuerl was interviewed by journalist Carlos Lozada during a “Religion in America” discussion on Sept. 21 hosted by the Washington Post as part of its Coffee@WaPo series.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Cardinal Wuerl was interviewed by journalist Carlos Lozada during a “Religion in America” discussion on Sept. 21 hosted by the Washington Post as part of its Coffee@WaPo series.

Interviewed at the Washington Post one day before Pope Francis arrived in the nation’s capital, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said the media’s overall portrayal of the pope seems accurate, and his public and private persona are one and the same.

“He has a transparency to him that comes across,” the cardinal said, noting that is true whether the pope is amid a crowd of 30,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, or when “you visit him one on one.”

The cardinal was interviewed by Carlos Lozada, the Post’s associate editor and nonfiction book critic, during a discussion on “Religion in America,” as part of the newspaper’s regular Coffee@WaPo series in which newsmakers discuss current issues and take questions from readers in the audience and via social media.

The cardinal’s interview was followed by a panel discussion with four prominent U.S. Catholics, including two members of Congress – Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.); Chris Matthews, the host of “Hardball” on MSNBC; and Francis Rooney, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Cardinal Wuerl said one sign that Pope Francis would be different was the name he chose as pontiff, right after the conclave of cardinals elected him. “He chose the name Francis, who was the saint of the poor. Right after being elected, the cardinal next to him said (to him), ‘Don’t forget the poor.’”

Asked about the “Francis effect,” the cardinal said, “From my perspective, the group most strongly impacted are young adults in their 20s and 30s who are finding in him the answers to many of their questions” about life. Cardinal Wuerl pointed out that many of the 1,300 people across the Archdiocese of Washington who became full members of the Catholic Church at this year’s Easter Vigil were from that age group.

Cardinal Wuerl said Pope Francis has not changed any Church teaching or spoken out against any of the great traditions of the Church, but he has emphasized God’s love and mercy. “He keeps saying there’s room for everybody in the Church. You don’t have to be perfect,” the cardinal said, noting that Pope Francis in his interview with America magazine described himself as “a sinner embraced by the love of God.”

“He’s saying, ‘Go out and meet people where they are. When you encounter them, accompany them, and maybe you’ll both get closer to God,’” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Asked about the impact of Pope Francis’s quote, “Who am I to judge?” about homosexuals sincerely seeking God, the cardinal said, “The welcoming of every human being is part of the great tradition of the Church. We encounter every person with respect. The Church also proclaims there is a moral order, a purpose of marriage, right and wrong.” The Catholic Church, while welcoming everyone, will continue to proclaim the truth of its teachings, the cardinal said. “Not everything everybody does can be blessed,” he added.

Cardinal Wuerl said disagreements on how to carry out Church teaching are not new and have always been part of the Church’s history. “The disagreement on issues is not on what we believe, but on how we live it out in the world,” he said.

He noted how at last year’s Synod of bishops on the family, Pope Francis encouraged participants to “come together, speak with clarity, listen with humility and be open to the Holy Spirit.”

“That’s a posture Church leadership should have,” the cardinal added.

Emphasizing the key role that religions can offer in building up the common good, Cardinal Wuerl said a key challenge that people of faith face in today’s secular culture is confronting the attitude that “religion should be kept inside the sanctuary, don’t bring it out into the public forum or in a discussion of the life of the country.”

Asked about the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Wuerl said that issue largely “is something that happened a long time ago,” and the Church has taken strong measures to protect children, including requiring background checks for staff and volunteers working with minors, and mandatory reporting of suspected abuse to law enforcement officials. He said other institutions, like public schools, should adopt similar “zero tolerance” measures. The cardinal also noted that Pope Francis has established a commission to strengthen the worldwide Church’s efforts in this area, including facilitating the removal of bishops who failed to carry out their child protection responsibilities.

Reflecting on the pope’s recent encyclical on ecology, Cardinal Wuerl said Pope Francis offered empirical evidence on threats to the environment, while underscoring the need for people to enter into a dialogue on how to address these challenges and work together toward sustainable development that protects the environment for future generations. The cardinal said Pope Francis emphasized that safeguarding human life and dignity should be at the center of any discussion on care for our common home, the Earth.

Cardinal Wuerl said that he himself took to heart and prayed over Pope Francis’s admonition to members of the Roman Curia, when the Holy Father challenged them to emphasize pastoral care in their administrative duties. A good thing for any pastor or bishop to ask is, “Am I serving others, doing it for them?” as they carry out their duties, said Cardinal Wuerl. He noted that bishops are  responsible for proclaiming the Gospel to their flock, as they oversee the administration of the Church’s educational, charitable and health care outreach.

When asked about the “Francis effect” on him personally, Cardinal Wuerl said the pope’s example has been a reminder to him of the importance of seeing how the Church’s institutions can reach as many people as possible who are in need.

In the panel discussion following the interview with Cardinal Wuerl, Rep. Sanchez praised the impact Pope Francis is having. “People want to know him. He is drawing people to the Church, and they want to hear what he is saying… He is open to hearing people. He’s opening up and allowing us to have a dialogue.”

Rep. Harris, who noted that he attended a Jesuit school, said that Pope Francis as a Jesuit is displaying the hallmark of a Jesuit education, looking at both sides of an argument.

Ambassador Rooney pointed out that the pontiff reflects the Latin American bishops’ emphasis on a “preferential option for the poor.”

Pope Francis, added Rep. Sanchez, “does bring so much of the Latin American and Hispanic experience. We’re very dedicated to our families, our communities. We’re multi-generational,” she said.

Comparing Pope Francis to recent popes, Rep. Sanchez said, “The last three popes, they each brought something to the table. That’s what a leader does.”

Pope Francis, she said, is addressing issues that the young are very concerned about, like the environment, and also reaching out to those who feel left behind or excluded. “He has brought a message that’s important to me – having mercy and compassion and bringing people back to the fold,” she said.

The pontiff, she added, has underscored the need for people with differing stances on issues to look at what they have in common, and work together to do good in the world.

Rep. Harris pointed out that Pope John Paul II, like Pope Francis now, had broad appeal to young people. He noted that, “The Church has always been a church of mercy and forgiveness. The doctrine isn’t going to change.”

The Maryland congressman noted that legislators were looking forward to Pope Francis offering them moral guidance in his Sept. 24 address to the joint meeting of Congress. “He is coming as a religious leader… He has a message that is congruent in many aspects to what America is about and what it should be doing.”

Matthews praised Pope Francis for making “gay people feel much less excluded,” for emphasizing forgiveness for women who’ve had abortions, and for making the annulment process easier for divorced Catholics. The TV host also commended the pontiff for his ecology encyclical, saying, “I think the environment is a life issue. If life is important, we better protect the planet.”

Rep. Harris said he has been influenced by the pope’s pleas on behalf of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. The pontiff’s emphasis on social justice “helping those most in need” has inspired Rep. Sanchez, and she said that reminds her what should be at the heart of her own public service.

Responding to a question on how, following on the Catholic Church’s upcoming Year of Mercy, the United States can be more merciful, Rep. Harris said sentencing reform should be a priority, considering how the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Rep. Sanchez responded that, “Comprehensive immigration reform is a moral imperative for our nation.”