NORTH NAPLES — Days ahead of his departure for Rome to participate in the papal conclave, a U.S. cardinal encouraged Southwest Florida Catholics on Thursday night to embrace a “new evangelism” as the church faces an unexpected change in leadership.
“We need to have the courage to speak of our faith, to engage others in hearing the story of our faith,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl said during a fundraiser in North Naples for Ave Maria University.
Wuerl, who also serves as archbishop of Washington, will join 10 other U.S. cardinals Sunday as they unite with the 118-member College of Cardinals in the Catholic Church’s administrative seat in Rome to determine the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
The pope jarred his congregation worldwide earlier this month when he announced he would step down at the end of February for health reasons. He was the first pontiff to resign since the 15th century.
The conclave could start as early as the first week of March, Wuerl said. The cardinals hold discussions before heading into a period of silence and contemplation to determine the church’s next leader.
“The first thing that comes to my mind and heart is just how important this decision will be,” Wuerl said during a brief press conference before Thursday night’s event. “It’s a moment, however long that moment might be — days, weeks — it’s a moment of silence. And the silence is to allow the spirit to speak to the heart of each cardinal.”
Wuerl was appointed to his current position in 2010 by Benedict, who began his tenure as head of the church in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.
Calling the cardinal’s speech Thursday night “brilliant,” Ave Maria student Zach Crockett said the idea of a renewed Catholic evangelism to counter secularism was refreshing.
“It’s not a tradition that is passed down by old, senile men. It’s something that is alive and is well, and it makes sense to people. It’s attractive,” the college senior said.
Classmate Adrienne McClellan said during the event she’s looking to a new pope who will reach out to younger Catholics, as Pope John Paul II did.
“He really understood them and tried to harness that power,” McClellan said of the current pope’s predecessor.
Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, which comprises Southwest Florida, was absent from the event with the cardinal as be recovered from surgery, according to Ave Maria University President Jim Towey.
Earlier in the day, Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life released a report that American Catholics were nearly split on the direction the church should take, with 46 percent favoring change, and 51 percent believing the new pope should maintain the traditional line. The remainder of individuals surveyed were undecided.
“There have always been, among the faithful, varying views on what would be the proper emphasis here or there,” Wuerl said Thursday in response to the poll figures. “The task of the pope is to remain faithful to the tradition and see that he holds the whole family together ... As I think we’ve seen in pontificate after pontificate, popes do that every time. And they do that excellently.”