Appreciation: Wuerl a man of discretion who quietly fixed what was broken
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On his visits to Rome, before repairing to the Spartan dormitory at the North American College, Bishop Donald Wuerl would end his day in St. Peter's Square, usually with other young priests or seminarians, to recite the Apostles Creed.
"It says who we are as Catholics," he explained.
But before doing so, at least on this occasion, the ordinarily restrained bishop became expansive.
"See that window over there? That was my window," he said, pointing to the Palazzo delle Congregazioni, a corner building just outside the circle of columns that defines the square. "Almost 40 years ago, when I worked for Cardinal Wright."
John Cardinal Wright, an outsize figure who had led the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese during the days of Vatican II, took the newly ordained Donald Wuerl with him to the Vatican to work at the Congregation for the Clergy. Cardinal Wright was known for his love of pomp -- a prince of the church displaying every trace of his royalty.
Young Donald Wuerl was the quiet protege, an assistant known for both competence and discretion. He was the kind of man who attracted silent attention, the kind given to men in the church who learn the system, the kind who know that the Apostles Creed, several hundred years older than the similar Nicene Creed, is the one to say in Rome.
He is a man of details in a world in which details make the difference. Yet, for so many years, much as he did from that window just beyond the square in which cardinals walked, Donald Wuerl spent his years at the edges of power, quietly fixing what was broken, quietly waiting.
Theologically conservative and politically pragmatic, Bishop Wuerl never walked the Diocese of Pittsburgh into a controversy that reached beyond the rarefied confines of church politics. For 18 years he tended to the management aspects of a bishopric: closing or consolidating parochial schools; combining parishes; balancing a diocesan budget in an era of want.
Those moves were controversial.
The closure of one school, Risen Lord, ignited a resistance so loud that at one point Bishop Wuerl allowed the Rev. Kris Stubna, his director of diocesan education, to refuse transfers by some students to another Catholic school until their parents apologized and attended three hours of "reconciliation" counseling.
The incident reinforced both the bishop's commitment to bringing the spread of 333 parishes down to a manageable scale and gave truth to a saying among priests in the diocese: "Wherever two or more are gathered, Wuerl's in charge."
Armed with spreadsheets showing declining population, the ratio of church members-per-priest and the forbearance to face the inevitable storm, Bishop Wuerl dispatched his emissaries to sell the plan that would eventually combine and consolidate the diocese into 215 parishes.
"There was bitterness. Venom. But he could understand that, too, and I could understand that people love their parishes so much and their bitterness came from their love for their parish more than a hatred for the bishop or the people involved in this process," said the Rev. Robert Duch, who oversaw the reorganization.
Strangely, Father Duch said, discussion of finances was not a major aspect of the planning from the top. The bishop, he said, was concerned about having enough priests within reach to minister to parishioners.
Finances were an inescapable reality when it came to dealing with the diocese's then-136 elementary and 16 high schools.
With the same eye toward reorganization, Bishop Wuerl oversaw several consolidations, the largest of them within the boundaries of the city of Pittsburgh, whose population had been halved along with the decline of steel.
By the 2005-06 school year, there were 104 elementary schools and 12 high schools. Pittsburgh's parochial elementary schools had dropped from 38 to 19.
"It was essential to stabilize the schools so parents would not be concerned with, 'Well, if I start my child in kindergarten will the school be there in eight years?' " said Dr. Ronald Paserba, superintendent of schools for the diocese.
But some say Bishop Wuerl's largest legacy might be the thing that did not happen. When other dioceses around the nation were mired in an ugly abuse scandal involving priests who preyed on younger church members, Pittsburgh was unscathed.
On his arrival, Bishop Wuerl quietly suspended priests accused of sexual misconduct. In 1993, that policy put him in a rare confrontation with the Vatican after the church's supreme court ordered him to reinstate Anthony Cipolla, a priest accused in a civil lawsuit of molesting a teenager.
Bishop Wuerl defied an order by the Signatura to reinstate Mr. Cipolla, instead maneuvering an appeal through the Vatican courts. Two years later, the Vatican court reversed itself.
"That's a case where something that was terrible turned out to have some good ramifications," said the Rev. Frank Almade, a member of Bishop Wuerl's senior staff at the time.
Yesterday, in what might have been his last news conference as Pittsburgh bishop, Bishop Wuerl reviewed his accomplishments, noting they had seemed largely administrative -- a consequence of the times.
"I think there is always more that I would have liked to have accomplished. All of it would have come under the heading of spiritual," he said.
First Published May 17, 2006 12:00 am