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Inside the Church

In a new book, Cardinal Wuerl explores the sacred symbols of our faith

A church building is designed to lift the soul and enlighten the mind, says Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., in a just-released book he co-authored with journalist Mike Aquilina. In “The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home” (Image/Random House), the cardinal explores the treasure trove of symbols and tradition that lie open to the eye, yet often overlooked, in the average parish church.

Cardinal Wuerl talks about his new book and the task of handing on the faith.

Cardinal Wuerl processes at Mass past a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus.

Fathers for Good corresponded with Cardinal Wuerl by e-mail for the Q&A, which includes his close friendship with the Knights of Columbus and his thoughts as he prepares to enter the conclave to elect a new pope.

Fathers for Good: You have had a long and warm relationship with the Knights of Columbus, writing multiple columns on the faith for Columbia, and giving a fatherly presence at many of our conventions and functions. What do you see as the Order's role today in the mission of the Church, especially in the New Evangelization/Year of Faith?

Cardinal Wuerl: At the parish level and in the universal Church, the Knights set a certain standard for Catholic laymen, and it’s a high standard. Knights make an effort to understand their faith and share it. They build up the Church by their active participation in the liturgy and by their good works. I think it was deeply significant, some years ago, when the Knights funded the restoration of the front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That’s an image of what Knights do: they help renew the Church.

Probably the most important way they do that, however, is by the witness of their lives in the workaday world. That’s the place where they are crucial to the New Evangelization. The clergy preach and teach to make clear the content of the Gospel, but the laity must work to apply that revelation to their walks of life: law, industry, education, commerce, parenting, banking, baking, government, medicine, military, and media. As an archbishop, I cannot reach those places. The pope cannot reach those places. Nor can a parish priest. God has commissioned lay people to be Christ’s ambassadors to the ends of the earth.

That’s the role of the laity in the New Evangelization. They’re on the front lines. That’s where the lives of Knights must be exemplary. That’s where they can renew the Church — by witnessing to lapsed Catholics, giving hope and a spiritual home to the unchurched, and gently instructing the ignorant and bigoted about the truth of the Catholic faith.

FFG: Your book, with Mike Aquilina, on “The Church” is really a primer of how to “read” and worship in the church building itself. What message are you providing Catholics in this comprehensive volume?

Cardinal Wuerl: A parish church is a home in many ways. It’s a spiritual home; and everything inside is there for a good reason. Everything inside is there for the good of every member of the family. Sometimes when children are growing up, they don’t understand everything in their family home. Sometimes Mom and Dad have to introduce their teenagers to the use of the lawnmower, the washing machine, or the snow shovel. Well, if we’re to live an adult faith in our parishes, we should know the parts of the church — the altar, the tabernacle, the ambo, the ambry, the Stations of the Cross. We should understand what each part means, what it’s there for, what the Bible tells us about it, and how it has developed through history.

That’s the purpose of our book: to help Catholics — and non-Catholics, too — learn how to live well in a house of prayer. If we succeed, our readers will pray better, and that can make a parish a much better place!

FFG: The Holy Father and the teachers of the Church seem to be returning to a more basic and fundamental approach to the faith – as also seen in your books on the Creed and New Evangelization. Do you have hope in re-educating the Catholic faithful who may have had a deficient formation in the past?

Cardinal Wuerl: I do have hope. Pope Benedict has dedicated his pontificate to a much-needed review of the basics. At his Wednesday audiences, he has given us a remedial course in Church history, Christian doctrine, and the disciplines of prayer. In his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, he turned our attention to the true center of Christian life.

The Church needs this and has needed it for two generations. We need to rebuild our faith from the foundations — the most basic teachings. I have considered that work essential to my vocation since I was a young priest.

There was a lot of confusion back then. Teachers and clergy were encouraged to communicate an experience of God’s love, but to do it without reference to the Creed, the sacraments, or the tradition. It didn’t work very well. Catholics grew up with the impression that their heritage was little more than warm, vaguely positive feelings about God. This left so many lay people weak, spiritually and intellectually, and unable to withstand the tsunami of secularism that came in the last decades of the century. We lost many people because we had failed to teach them about right and wrong, about the common good, about the nature of the family and the objective moral order.

What could be done? In the 1970s I co-authored a catechism titled “The Teaching of Christ.” A reviewer called it a “meat-and-potatoes catechism,” and that made my day, because that’s exactly what had been lacking — something substantial for the religious diet of Catholics.

I carried on that work through the columns I wrote for Columbia magazine for 14 years. And I’m still trying to serve the same need, to feed that hunger for Christian doctrine, which is really a hunger for Jesus Christ. Like Saint Paul, I want to pass on the great tradition I have received. In my more recent books, I experiment with new approaches and address new audiences, but I’m doing the same work that bishops have been doing for millennia: handing on the faith.

FFG: In this time of papal transition, share with us some of the hopes and challenges you see for the Church in the years ahead, and how the laity may fulfill their role.

Cardinal Wuerl: There’s a lot of good happening. Young people are not satisfied with the answers the secular world is giving them. And they’re less than pleased with the society they’ve inherited from their parents — with its damaged institutions, broken families, and systemic economic injustices. They’re looking for answers that can only be found in Jesus Christ. They’ll find those answers when they encounter good people, prayerful people, people who are serene and happy even amid hardships. When they see that kind of witness, they’ll want what they see, and they’ll gladly go to Christ to get it.

Laypeople are the Church’s first responders. They’re the first on the scene for people who are searching and hurting. Again, the Knights are exemplars here because they take evangelization seriously, and they know that it happens not necessarily through elaborate programs, but one friendship at a time.

Learn more about “The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home.”

Homepage Photo: CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec
Photo portrait: CNS/Paul Haring
Photo with Knight: CNS/Bob Roller