By Sarah Hinds
WASHINGTON — It’s not every day that a 21-year-old summer intern has the opportunity to interview one of the most prominent members of the Catholic hierarchy in America, but recently I was blessed to conduct a one-on-one interview with Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington.
“You have received a wonderful gift — the gift of faith,” the cardinal told me during the interview in his Washington office. “It’s a precious gift, but it needs to be nurtured.”
As a recent convert to Catholicism and senior in college, I wanted to know what the cardinal had to say to young Catholics. In the 20 minutes I spent with him, he offered a wealth of spiritual insight and advice about how we are to nurture this gift of faith that we Catholics have been given — advice that is certainly not, however, restricted to 20-somethings.
Increasingly, young people face a culture that is extremely hostile to faith, purity and virtue, especially on college campuses. I asked Cardinal Wuerl what advice he would give to young people who desire to stay close to God in college and to strive for purity and virtue in the midst of secular culture.
“This is one of the reasons why the church keeps saying to us, ‘Stay close to the sacraments. Get to Mass. Get to confession.’ Because for 2,000 years the church has been proclaiming Jesus Christ and his Gospel and we know it’s not easy to live the way Jesus asks us in a secular world, and this is a very secular environment,” he said.
“My first word to anybody today trying to stay close to Christ is to get to Mass and stay close to him in prayer.”
Cardinal Wuerl, the chancellor of The Catholic University of America, said college is a great time for young people to really renew and explore their faith, and to become confident in its truth: “Be confident in that truth, and do everything you can not only to stand in that truth but to share it.”
Finding a Catholic community on campus is also helpful, he said, recounting his interactions with Catholic groups on college campuses in the Washington Archdiocese. “I remember once talking to young people at a college and we were talking about the virtuous life, and they said once you get to know a couple of other people on campus that share the same vision, life becomes so much better,” he said.
Ordained in 1966, Cardinal Wuerl said that his call to the priesthood was deeply rooted in his upbringing in Pittsburgh.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was very Catholic. We attended Catholic elementary school; we had a great parish. The priests of the parish were always very supportive of all the young people but I often thought as I was growing up, wouldn’t it be nice to try to do what they were doing? That really planted the seed,” he said.
“It was really rooted in the experience of the parish, of the parish priests, and of course at home because my mother and father were good, loving, practicing Catholics who shared their faith with us.”
To young people discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life, Cardinal Wuerl said, “You have to try it. I can’t say whether you have a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life, I can’t tell you whether or not God’s calling you and you can’t say right now with certitude, ‘This is what God wants me to do.’ But you can try it. That’s the only way you’ll ever know if God is asking you to be a priest or religious.”
“The best that could happen to you is you could find that it’s the right thing for you. The worst thing that could happen is you’ll decide this isn’t for you. But you’ll never know either if you don’t try it.”
Cardinal Wuerl emphasized the importance of prayer, especially when one is discerning a vocation: “When you’re discerning, remember to talk to Jesus. You need to find some time every day, quietly, it doesn’t have to be huge expanses of time, but you want to find some bit of time every day to talk to the Lord and just say, ‘Lord be with me, let me know what it is you’re saying to me.’ That’s very important.”
In 2012, Cardinal Wuerl helped direct the 2012 Vatican Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. I asked him how we can evangelize to those who have fallen away from the Catholic Church.
“The most important thing we can do is live our faith,” he said. “Pope Francis talks about how everyone who has been baptized is a missionary disciple. What is a missionary disciple? It’s a person who shares the faith. Probably the most impactful way we can do that is when people see the way we live. If we can live in joy, if we can live in God’s love, we can live a virtuous life, and when people see that, it’s already an invitation to them.”
“And secondly, actively invite people to experience the joy (of your faith),” he continued. “An evangelist is a person who loves the faith, is confident in its truth, and who is prepared to share it.”
To young Catholic men and women in college and recent graduates, Cardinal Wuerl had this to say: “You received a wonderful gift — the gift of faith. You have to realize that faith is the door that opens to a relationship with God. The Church brings us what she has always brought us, an encounter with Jesus Christ, and an opportunity to live that in faith.”
“Faith is a precious gift,” he said. “Cherish it. Nurture it. And in that faith you will find a very happy, fulfilled life.”