Pittsburghers express admiration and respect as Wuerl heads to new post

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Knowing that he, too, would soon leave the city where he'd begun his life as a priest, Bishop Donald Wuerl stood Saturday before Carlow University graduates and urged them to carry forward the light of Catholic faith and tradition.

Then after concluding Mass at a baccalaureate service for graduates and their families, friends and instructors, he lingered in the back of St. Paul Cathedral, to greet each of more than 300 people who'd attended. Warm and personal with each person who passed by, the bishop gave no sign that he had been called to meet new challenges in another city, the university's president said.

"It was a very large group for him to be so engaged," Dr. Mary Hines, president of Carlow, recalled yesterday. "He probably knew at the time he wasn't going to be here [much longer] and it must have been bittersweet for him.''

News of Bishop Wuerl's appointment as archbishop of Washington, D.C., was bittersweet as well for clergy, congregants, community leaders and folks who clustered outside churches in yesterday's drizzle to contemplate his departure.

Over and over, many of them said, Washington's gain is Pittsburgh's loss. One after another, they expressed their joy for him and their hope for his impact on political leaders with whom he'll mingle in the nation's capital.

They praised his skills as a teacher who made his weekly television show seem like an intimate one-on-one conversation, a social leader who stepped up to address homelessness, gang violence and mental-health needs, a pioneer who supported ecumenical activities.

A few complained that the bishop had been too liberal because he had not refused communion to politicians who supported abortion rights. But most acknowledged sorrow at losing a man who wasn't afraid to make tough decisions, who retained their devotion and respect as he presided during times of parish and school closings, pedophilia scandals and other potentially divisive issues.

"We're all very sorry to see him leave,'' said Dolores Berndt, 75, who took a bus from her home in the North Hills to attend yesterday's noon Mass at St. Mary of Mercy Church, Downtown. "He has meant an awful lot to us.''

Here's what other Pittsburghers were saying yesterday about Bishop Wuerl's appointment:

"He was one of the first to take a stand on pedophilia and he went up against Rome. It was a very brave thing to do as a new bishop. He's a wonderful symbol of the best of the priesthood." -- Carole Clifford, Downtown, who prayed for his ministry while serving as a lector at yesterday's Mass at St. Mary of Mercy.


"He was supportive particularly of Carlow and its mission to educate women. He recognizes that you educate families when you educate women.'' -- Dr. Hines.


"His homilies were thoughtful, helpful. He brought complicated subjects down to the street level.'' -- Attorney Frank Rapp of New Kensington.


"It was not the best financial situation he came into and he turned that around. But he kept everyone together and moving forward. He brought together people of all faiths and backgrounds. He could be America's archbishop now." -- Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor, whose son is also a Catholic priest.


"He taught me about having the wider perspective ... about sending people where they need to go and not necessarily where they want to go, and doing it in a manner that is gracious but firm. That's a tricky kind of thing." -- the Rev. Frank Almade, pastor of St. John Vianney, Allentown, and St. Mary of the Mount, Mount Washington.


"The whole pedophilia thing was a challenge. But he didn't back down. He said, 'We will face this as adults, head-on, with prayer and determination and we will get through it.' When we went through reorganization and revitalization, he didn't back down. He knew what needed to happen for the church to survive.'' -- the Rev. Samuel Esposito, pastor of Good Samaritan parish, Ambridge.


"He has that political ability to understand complex issues and to come at issues with a compassionate heart. He's not afraid to make difficult decisions. He makes them based on a reflective, contemplative look. He doesn't shoot from the hip. He listens and he can change his mind.'' -- Sister Margaret Hannan, president of the Sisters of Mercy and former longtime chancellor to the bishop.


"Being able to laugh together, to share together -- when Bishop Wuerl is present at a meeting, he helps to set a climate. He knows how to make people feel welcome. There's always an interest, a genuine friendship, and then there are follow-up phone calls to say, 'Wasn't that a wonderful service?' or 'A great time to be together.' We will miss him." -- Longtime friend Bishop Donald McCoid of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


"Over the years, I have profoundly appreciated Bishop Wuerl's deep personal friendship and his affection for Pittsburgh Episcopalians as well as his extraordinary leadership in our ecumenical efforts here in southwest Pennsylvania." -- Bishop Robert Duncan of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.


"He has been an extraordinary supporter of many of the activities at our Holocaust Center. He was a mover and a shaker [in the Religious Leadership Forum, a gathering of rabbinic, Christian, Catholic and Islamic leaders in Pittsburgh]. He's been really ahead of the game in building relations among different faith communities." -- Dr. Edie Naveh, director of the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.


"Although he will be missed for his energetic and fruitful leadership, we know that he will bring to the faithful in Washington all of his energy and dedication for the increase of the Kingdom of God." -- Metropolitan Basil, head of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh.


"While we will miss [his] leadership in our region, Pope Benedict XVI has made a very wise choice for the church in Washington, D.C., and our nation." -- Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg.


Staff writer Steve Levin contributed. Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.


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