Cardinal Donald Wuerl is a Catholic leader on the rise. He was installed as the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2006, then elevated to the College of Cardinals in November 2010.
But his most recent achievement — being appointed on Dec. 29, 2010, as a voting member of Vatican offices the Congregation for Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity — will reconnect him to his past as the former bishop of Pittsburgh, as the latter office promotes Jewish-Catholic relationships.
“I was very pleased that the Holy Father would ask me to go on to two offices in Rome that I have a working familiarity with,” said Wuerl from his office in Washington, D.C. “I felt, given my own experience, this was a good fit. Before I was even a bishop, as a young priest in Pittsburgh, I had a relationship with a number of Jewish committees.”
Those connections include longtime friend Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation, who worked with Wuerl during his 18-year tenure as bishop in Pittsburgh.
“He’s a shining star for them,” said Berkun of Wuerl’s status in the church. “He could have served on many committees. He has a proven track record and history of holding practical points of view, implementing and helping to foster dialogue with the Jewish community.”
That track record includes several important initiatives in Pittsburgh. The Rabbi-Priest Dialogue, which brings together several local rabbis and priests from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, in which leaders “study text together and get different perspectives,” said Berkun, has long opened the door for communication between the two groups of leaders — and it was created with the help of Wuerl.
“It’s created a relationship that simply would not have existed otherwise,” said Berkun.
Wuerl was also a supporter of the Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Program (C-JEEP), a Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee initiative that sends local rabbis into Catholic high schools to teach about Judaism, and “in exchange, priests give presentations at each of the Jewish schools,” said Wuerl. “The focus is to highlight the spiritual connections we share.”
With his new position in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Wuerl said he hopes to “encourage that we Catholics and Jews continue, at every level, not just conversation, not just dialogue, but collaboration in activities that help both communities better understand each other.”
Though his position now oversees those relationships on a broad scale, Wuerl said that true unity between Catholics and Jews must be achieved on the local level, just as he promoted in Pittsburgh.
“The reason for large dialogues with high level visibility,” said Wuerl, “is to encourage everybody to recognize this is something that should be done locally.”
Wuerl’s other appointment, to the Congregation for Clergy, oversees the church’s “teaching of the faith,” said Wuerl, “But not doctrine.”
“We do now have a good friend in a high place,” said Berkun. “It’s only going to be good for the Jews to have someone like Cardinal Wuerl. He honed those relationships in Pittsburgh, and now he’ll be doing it on an international level, no question.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)