Applause resounded through St. Paul Cathedral as Cardinal Donald Wuerl entered, and it continued as he slowly processed up the aisle, stopping often to greet old friends in the pews.
Applause continued to break out at every possible opportunity for Pittsburgh's favorite son in the College of Cardinals, including a standing ovation for his homily. Cardinal Wuerl, 70, is a Mount Washington native who was bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh for 18 years before his transfer to Washington, D.C., in 2006. On Nov. 20, Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal. Sunday's Mass of Thanksgiving in Oakland was a liturgical welcome home party.
"I give thanks to God for the face of Christ I have seen in you," Cardinal Wuerl told a cathedral packed not only with Catholics, but with representatives of other denominations and faiths. The procession was led by three rabbis and included two Orthodox bishops.
"I give thanks for your faith, your support of my ministry and for your kindness to me," Cardinal Wuerl said.
His return began Saturday, with a late-night visit to the Pittsburgh Creche at U.S. Steel Plaza on Grant Street. The landmark display of the only authorized replica of the Vatican creche began during his tenure, but he made it an ecumenical project that is embraced and supported by many of the city's churches. On Sunday morning, he celebrated Mass at his childhood parish, St. Mary of the Mount on Mount Washington.
At the Oakland cathedral, he was vested in Advent purple, with only a scarlet skull cap setting him apart from Bishop David Zubik, his longtime assistant and successor. By right, the tall "bishop's chair" in the cathedral belonged to Bishop Zubik, but he gleefully offered it to his mentor.
"Your Eminence," he addressed Cardinal Wuerl. "How sweet the sound. We've been waiting a long time to call you Your Eminence."
He continued that the cathedral was packed to see the "local boy made good," but said that didn't merely refer to his new rank as a cardinal. "You did so much good for us over the course of 18 years," he said.
Later, Bishop Zubik presented Cardinal Wuerl with the inaugural "Church Alive" award from the diocese, saying "you brought us through many challenges that the contemporary church continues to face ... with your strength, integrity, prayer and truth."
Although Bishop Zubik didn't recount the stories, within a few months of becoming bishop here in 1988 Bishop Wuerl met with victims of clergy sex abuse and told his priests that no one who molested a minor would be returned to ministry here.
Later, when the Vatican's highest court ordered him to reinstate such a priest, he fought back and won. He had inherited a multimillion-dollar deficit but had the diocese in the black within two years. And, as the priest shortage loomed in the early 1990s, he closed and merged many parishes in a reorganization that was unpopular at the time but has made it much easier for current lay leaders to make decisions to close unneeded church buildings.
After receiving his award, Cardinal Wuerl presented the Diocese of Pittsburgh with the bishop's ring he had worn for 25 years before Pope Benedict gave him a cardinal's ring. It had originally been given by Pope Paul VI in 1965 to then-Bishop John Wright, Cardinal Wuerl's mentor, for his participation in Vatican II. Cardinal Wright, who died in 1979, left the ring to then-Father Wuerl. Cardinal Wuerl said he believed the ring's proper home was in Pittsburgh.
In his homily, he spoke of the church's mission to carry out Jesus' work on earth until he comes again.
"Pittsburgh's claim to be someplace special is precisely her people ... who all come together regularly to do good things," he said.
When he went to Rome to become a cardinal, the seminary room where he stayed contained a statue of the Apostle John as an old man, years after all of the other apostles are believed to have died. The role of the church is to carry on the witness of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, just as John did, he said.
"Every time I passed that statue, I seemed to hear it say, 'I did my part. Now it's your turn,' " he said.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published December 13, 2010 5:00 AM