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Ghislane Howard, The Seven Works of Mercy: Burying the Dead

We Are Not Bystanders

An interview

Donald Wuerl


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painting by Ghislaine Howard of The Seven Works of Mercy

Alarmed by Jesus

An interview

Russell Moore speaks about the increasing relevance of the Sermon on the Mount, testifying to the truth about marriage and the marginalization of Christianity.

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  • Artie Menki

    Quite the words, but the rubber just doesn't hit the road in the Archdiocese of Washington where committees such as FAIR TRADE, PEACE, GLOBAL SOLIDARITY, HAITI, ENVIRONMENTAL MINISTRY, and HOLY LAND simply spin their wheels doing nothing. PATIENCE!?!?!?! As the Rev. MLK said, "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair."

  • MaryJo Mathey

    I am so glad tht Archbishop Wuerl is so close to the people at Plough. I just received a copy of the first issue oftheir new magazine, Plough. It is splendid in its coverage of many people whom I respect greatly. In every case I learned new things about them that reinforced my wanting to be a better person. The religious art is magnificent. The problem I face is whether to deface the magazine by cutting out these wonderful images, or not.

Plough: Does the Sermon on the Mount apply only to those with a special vocation, or to everyone?

Cardinal Wuerl: The Sermon on the Mount is the call to every disciple. If you are going to follow Jesus, if you are going to walk in his pathway, it tells you: “Here is how you do it; this is what is involved.”

It all begins with recognizing that the kingdom of God is coming into being right now. The Beatitudes all have this dual aspect to them: “Blessed are…because…” We are asked to be compassionate, to be merciful, to seek righteousness and justice, etc., because the kingdom is coming to be. We can actually help realize that kingdom, even though it is only in its beginning stage.

photo of donald wuerl

Donald Wuerl

What part of the Sermon on the Mount do you feel is most important today?

I think of Jesus’ teaching about salt and light. Matthew 5 is a wonderful presentation of the way of the kingdom, but it can’t just be accepted passively. We are not bystanders in realizing the kingdom; we are supposed to be active participants. Jesus says to us, “You are supposed to be salt of the earth, salt that gives flavor. You are supposed to be light; people should see through your actions that the kingdom is coming to be.”

Why is the church so involved in the works of mercy, of charity, of teaching, of social justice, and of social service? It is trying to be salt and light. So while the entire Sermon on the Mount is important, for me that is one of the most exciting parts.

How does that play out practically in everyday life?

That’s the question – how can we be salt and light? I think that is the emphasis of the New Evangelization. We must begin by recognizing the onslaught of secularism. I described it once as a tsunami that has washed across Western culture – actually, human culture – and taken with it the markers of identity: marriage and family, objective right and wrong, belief in God’s presence and in goodness in our lives.

The New Evangelization is the call for every one of us, every believer, to renew his or her faith personally – not just cognitively by reviewing what I believe in the creed, but prayerfully. In my own heart, I must ­effectively renew my relationship with the Lord Jesus.

That is the first step. The second is to be confident in the truth of the gospel. The words of Jesus, everything he said – these are the words of everlasting life. We need to stand confident in that truth, even in a world that tends to marginalize it.

Then the third element is to share it. If you believe in Jesus, if you love the Lord, if you try to follow his gospel, share it. That is the challenge of our age – we have been given this beautiful gift, and if we recognize it then we need to be able to share it. We are not bystanders.

What examples do you look to for inspiration?

Well, I guess I should start at the top – I think the example right now is Pope Francis. All over the world, Christians and other people see in him something wonderful. It is not some new teaching; he is saying the same thing that the church has said for two thousand years. But with him, people see someone doing it. He is living the gospel in a great simplicity that is drawing people from all over the world. They look at him and say, “This is the way it should be.”

I was at an ecumenical and interfaith gathering over a month ago, and Christians of different faith communities spoke as if Francis were everybody’s pope. What struck me particularly was the remark from one interfaith participant: “You know, he is showing all of us religious leaders how we are supposed to live our lives.”

Pope Francis is known for living without material excess, in the spirit of his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi and of Jesus’ words against serving wealth.

The Holy Father keeps reminding us to think how many people on this planet are hungry or live in abject poverty – you don’t have to go too far to find poverty, even here in our own United States. The Pope is saying, “Thank God for what you have. Praise the Lord for your gifts and capabilities. But now whatever you have, use it for the good of others.”

A painting of two mourners sitting before a grave covered with flowers. View Larger
Pieter Brueghel the Younger: The Works of Mercy
Detail of The Works of Mercy by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

There is a widespread perception that Pope Francis will change the church’s teachings, for instance on marriage and sexuality. What is your reaction?

I too hear those comments – they are all over the news­papers, radio, and television. My response – and I think it is totally verifiable by listening to what the Pope is actually saying – is always that he is not changing any of the church’s teachings. Listen to what he is saying! It is what the church has always said. What Francis is showing us is that it is not enough just to proclaim: you have to live it.

In the Catholic understanding, it falls to the priest or the bishop to announce the fullness of the church’s teaching in all of its clarity. You recite those Beatitudes from the pulpit, and you don’t water them down. But when you come out of the pulpit, you have to meet people where they are – you try to walk with them so that both of you can get closer to the Lord Jesus. I think that is what the Pope is saying. We are not all perfect; we need to encourage one another along the path. Some people unfortunately see this through their own lens and read more into it.

What should we expect from the second year of Francis’s pontificate?

This first year has been a year of excitement for the world, because people are seeing the power of the gospel to attract. Going into this second year, I think we are probably going to see some of the fruit of his commitment to restructure the Curia. Remember, the Curia exists to help him carry out his ministry, and he is saying, “Isn’t it time we re-look at all of that to see how well it is working?”

Pope Francis appointed you to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, which is responsible for advising him in the selection of new bishops. Has he spoken to you about which qualities to look for in a candidate?

I am particularly pleased that you focus on what Francis actually says! Last month [February], he met with all the members of the Congregation for Bishops and told us: “When you present someone to me who you think should be named a bishop, he has to be a pastor at heart. The task of a bishop is to be a pastor of souls. He obviously has to know the faith, but then he has to be the shepherd of a flock.”

Then the Pope added this: “The five virtues of a good bishop are: he has to patient, patient, patient, and patient – and he has to have patience with those who tell him to be more patient.” We can’t give up on people that we are trying to bring to God; we have to just keep at it, just as Jesus did.

As Archbishop of Washington, you experience at close hand the intersection of faith and politics. In a rapidly secularizing society, what is the place of Christianity in the public square?

That is the challenge: how do you proclaim the message of Jesus so that it can be heard by people who may not be disposed to hear it? The task of the church is to teach – both with our words and with our example. Jesus is the model of that. He taught tirelessly, and he showed his disciples through his life how to take his words and live them.

Our task today is to take the gospel seriously ourselves and live it in all its beauty. Then we won’t have to confront other people – what they need to see is that we are convinced ourselves. This is a quiet witness, but a witness that will begin to make an impact.

Here in the nation’s capital, politics is the very fabric of the city – it eats, drinks, sleeps, breathes politics. I don’t need to get involved in the politics in order to be heard announcing the truth, the right, the good, the gospel.

When you meet face to face with a politician who professes Christianity but whose politics do not match the church’s teachings, what do you say to him or her?

I always have to remind both of us that my job is to be a pastor of souls. I am not going to tell people how they should vote. But I am going to tell them what the gospel challenges them to do and be. And I will call them to act according to what they themselves say they are. That, I believe, is the church’s role.

You have worked with the Bruderhof, the Anabaptist community behind Plough, since the 1990s. How can we build up the unity of the church across the divisions in Christianity?

That is a very important task. Imagine how powerful our witness would be if we all proclaimed the gospel with one voice in a world that is so secular, so material. I think we must start by continually nurturing the respect we have for one another, just like the two of us are doing now by sitting together talking about what is very dear to both of us: the gospel of Jesus Christ. The closer we come together, knowing and respecting each other, the more effective our ministry will be.

I would like to say how much I appreciate the work of the Bruderhof. As you mentioned, our friendship goes back many years, rooted in what we share: a very simple, basic love of the Lord. It’s a respectful relationship, even though we see things very differently – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be coming from two different perspectives! But I appreciate the openness and the fraternity. One thing we can say: we both want to seek first the kingdom of God.

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Contributed By photo of Cardinal Donald Wuerl Donald Wuerl

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, DC, has been recognized for his dedication to the teaching ministry and has authored numerous articles and books.

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