New book inspired by beatification

WASHINGTON - As a 37-year-old priest, then-Father Donald W. Wuerl witnessed the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, as reportedly the only noncardinal allowed into that conclave. He was priest-secretary to U.S. Cardinal John Wright, who was then in frail health, and he assisted the churchman at the conclave.

That priest is now a cardinal and the archbishop of Washington. On May 1, he will be among the cardinals from throughout the world who will join Pope Benedict XVI in concelebrating the beatification Mass for Pope John Paul II.

On April 14, Cardinal Wuerl's latest book, The Gift of Blessed John Paul II: A Celebration of His Enduring Legacy, was published by the Word Among Us Press. Known himself as a teacher of the faith, Cardinal Wuerl in his new book examines the teachings of Pope John Paul and applies them to everyday life.

"The gift of John Paul was not just his words, but his message, his life, his witness," Cardinal Wuerl told the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper. "He never stopped being a man of faith, and he never stopped being what God called him to be, a man of God, as a priest, later as a bishop and eventually as the pope."

In 1978, then-Father Wuerl watched as the newly elected pope appeared on the balcony above St. Peter's Square, and later as Pope John Paul gave his first homily and said the words, "Open wide the doors for Christ."

In the introduction to his new book, Cardinal Wuerl recalls that moment and its impact: "The image was a dramatic one - the doors being broken off their hinges to make way for Christ into our hearts and into our world."

Cardinal Wuerl also describes how the new pope's words "Be not afraid!" became a rallying cry, as he encouraged people to find hope and meaning in their lives through Christ.

Those phrases became a touchstone for the papacy. Pope John Paul's first encyclical letter the next year, "Redemptor Hominis" ("The Redeemer of Man") began with the phrase: "The redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history."

Cardinal Wuerl noted that Pope John Paul brought this message to the world at a time of much confusion and doubt.

"He stepped onto the world stage and onto the platform of St. Peter's Basilica to remind the whole world that we don't have to be afraid, there is truth, that God loves us, that Jesus is the way. And then for two and one-half decades, he went all over the world repeating that life-giving proclamation, 'Be not afraid, the risen Christ is with us.'"

Before coming to Washington, the cardinal was an auxiliary bishop of Seattle. He was ordained to the episcopacy in 1986 by Pope John Paul at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The new bishop received from the pope his personal miter, one he had worn on a pastoral visit to Holland.

For Bishop Wuerl, that miter remained "a powerful bond" with the pope. The bishop was then named to lead his home Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1988, and was appointed as Washington's archbishop in 2006, the year after Pope John Paul's death. In fall of 2010, Pope Benedict elevated Cardinal Wuerl to the College of Cardinals.

In 2003, then-Bishop Wuerl returned to Rome to concelebrate Pope John Paul's Mass marking the 25th anniversary of his pontificate.

"We all knew his health was failing, and I wanted to have one more chance to celebrate Mass with him," Cardinal Wuerl said.

During his years as a bishop, Cardinal Wuerl wrote articles and gave talks about Pope John Paul II's encyclicals and apostolic exhortations soon after they were issued. Known for his work on behalf of Catholic education, the cardinal wrote "The Teaching of Christ" and "The Catholic Way," both best-selling catechisms for adults, and he co-wrote the new Doubleday book "The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition."

Cardinal Wuerl also participated in two of the Synods of Bishops that formed the basis of Pope John Paul's apostolic exhortations on the formation of priests and the church in America.

Soon after the sainthood cause for Pope John Paul was launched, Cardinal Wuerl began reworking his articles and talks about the pope's writings, with the view of writing a book that would provide "a systematic presentation of his teaching."

In the book, Cardinal Wuerl notes how Pope John Paul, whose travels took him around the world to address millions of people, had the special ability to make each man and woman in the audience feel as if he had spoken directly to them. In a similar way, the cardinal hopes that the readers of "The Gift of Blessed John Paul II," will "find something in the book that speaks to them."

Pope John Paul's 14 encyclicals and his seven apostolic exhortations that followed Synods of Bishops touched on "almost every aspect of human experience and the life of the church," said Cardinal Wuerl. "Those documents alone earn him the title 'Great.' There is no pontificate in the history of the church that has produced the corpus of teaching that is the work of Pope John Paul II."

"What comes across more than anything else" in the pope's writings "is his pastoral heart. ... He's a pastor of souls," the cardinal said.

He added that writing his book reminded him of his affection for Pope John Paul, whose "life, ministry and teaching I was privileged to witness firsthand as a priest and bishop. In a way, this book is really a work of love."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011