WASHINGTON – Cardinal Donald Wuerl called the selection of a Latin American pope a historic moment as the Catholic Church tries to reach out to its sprawling flock of 1.2 billion people.
Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, was among the cardinals who participated in the conclave that chose Pope Francis, a Jesuit priest who ran the church in Buenos Aires.
“This is the first time in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church that we’ve had a pope from our part of the world. This is the first pope from the Western Hemisphere, from the New World. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to be part of the conclave that elected this man,” Wuerl told WTOP in a telephone interview from the Vatican.
Wuerl said he sat next to the future pope as the cardinals celebrated mass Wednesday morning, hours before white smoke billowed out of the Sistine Chapel announcing to the world that a new pope was chosen.
The new pontiff is not one for ceremony, allowing the Thursday morning mass to be delayed because of the late hour the cardinals finished their post-conclave dinner, Wuerl said.
“Which I thought was just so perfect as a sign of his concern, his care for others. He really does come across, even in one-on-one conversation, as a very humble person,” Wuerl said.
Wuerl hopes the new pope continues to project the love and care that was a hallmark of Francis’ ministry in Buenos Aires. But he will also have to direct a sprawling central administration, Washington’s cardinal said.
“I think there was a sense we were looking for someone who would be focused on the mission of the church, the ministry of the church, the gospel message and especially an outreach and care for the poor, for people with needs, many types of needs. He certainly fits that picture,” Wuerl said of the conclave’s decision.
But the choice of an Argentinean pope also says that the church’s focus must be worldwide, Wuerl said.
“This is saying now symbolically at the very top, that the universal church really is interested and involved in and concerned with every part of the globe. And of course there are so many millions, hundreds of millions, of Catholics in South America that it will just highlight all the more the pope’s desire to be with them spiritually but also pastorally,” he said.