Pope Francis greets Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, following a March 15 meeting with the College of Cardinals in the Vatican's Clementine Hall. Cardinal Wuerl was one of 115 cardinals from around the world who participated in the recent conclave that elected Pope Francis. L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO PHOTO
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, following a March 15 meeting with the College of Cardinals in the Vatican's Clementine Hall. Cardinal Wuerl was one of 115 cardinals from around the world who participated in the recent conclave that elected Pope Francis. L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO PHOTO
Twenty-four days earlier, Cardinal Donald Wuerl had departed from Dulles International Airport for Rome, telling media then that his participation in the upcoming conclave to elect a new pope would be the most important responsibility he would face in his life.

On March 20, the smiling archbishop of Washington arrived back home and greeted members of the media at Dulles after a nine-hour flight from Rome.

"It's wonderful to be back, it's great to be back here in Washington after what was an extraordinary visit," Cardinal Wuerl said as he stepped to the microphones and addressed TV and newspaper journalists. "We had the opportunity to be in Rome for the final audience of Pope Benedict XVI, then all the time in preparation for the conclave to start, then this wonderful conclave that has produced this great pope, Pope Francis. I think he's captured everyone's heart. I just left Rome. People on the streets stop and say, 'He's one of us.' I think that's the spirit and sense we all have. He's just such a modest, good, gentle pope, and it's nice to be able to salute him, and to thank God for the gift of the new Holy Father."

When asked what he thought Pope Francis's message is for American Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl said that the new Holy Father had emphasized in the homily at his inaugural Mass that "we need to be respectful of one another, we need to be respectful of God's creation, and we need to be caring of one another. You don't have to be afraid to be nice, to be kind. I think it's a very good message. We're caught up in a very hectic world that's moving rapidly, that doesn't (always) stop to think about others' needs. The focus of his message was, look around at people's needs and take care of them."

Pope Francis will be teaching the Gospel message that the Catholic Church has passed down from its beginning 2,000 years ago, but with a different style and tone, the cardinal said. "He's asked us to be attentive to all creation around us. We can't be using up (everything). We have to be custodians of God's good Earth for the future. We need to be caring for every human being. Human life is such a precious gift. From the beginning of life (to its end), we have to be there for one another."

With Pope Francis's leadership, Cardinal Wuerl said that the Catholic Church has a new opportunity for all its members to bring Christ's Gospel to the world. "We want to be able to walk with people on this extraordinary journey, life's pathway. We have a message to bring, the Gospel," he said.

Cardinal Wuerl said he was pleased that in the preparation for the conclave, the cardinals got to know each other and discuss the needs and challenges faced by the Church throughout the world. "One of the things that struck me was how prayerful is the conclave. Once you go into the Sistine Chapel, there's no more talking, it's all prayer. One older cardinal told me beforehand, 'If you listen with your heart, God will tell you how to vote,' and I tried to do that," he said.

The election of the first pope from Latin America is a sign of hope, not just for the Hispanic community, but for the whole world, said Cardinal Wuerl. "The cardinals came together, and for the first time in the 2,000 year history of the Church, we picked someone from our side of the ocean, the Western Hemisphere. It says to people, 'We're all part of the Church.'"

When asked how Pope Francis will address the sexual abuse crisis, Cardinal Wuerl said, "He will bring a vision, a message that is going to be very pastoral. As the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, his work was focused on the pastoral needs of the people there."

The cardinal called the sexual abuse crisis "a terrible tragedy," and he said the Catholic Church in the United States has dealt with that problem very seriously, reaching out to those who have been abused, and taking "strong steps to eradicate it."

"There are so many other serious issues as well - poverty around the world, the elderly, people with special needs, the unborn," Cardinal Wuerl said. "These are all great issues about the dignity and worth of all life. Also, the issue of the environment, how are we protecting the environment for the next generation?"

When asked about key issues going into the conclave, Cardinal Wuerl said one general area of concern was, "We wanted a new openness in the Curia. The Curia is the central bureaucracy of the Church. What we were asking for is an openness. We said, for example, why can't we have a system of meetings throughout the year that would bring some of us from the outside to meet with the pope and say what our cares are. We have to find a better way to engage Church leadership around the world with the pope."

Cardinal Wuerl also mentioned what he said to Pope Francis when he had the opportunity to speak with him, as the world's cardinals lined up to greet the new pope. "When I walked up to greet him, he said to me, 'Ah, Washington.' I said, 'Yes, Holy Father, and I bring you the love and affection of Washington.' He said again, 'Yes, Washington.' He said how much he appreciates the faith of the people - and I think he was talking about our (Catholic) people in the United States - the faith, concern and care that our people show for people in need around the world."

Then Cardinal Wuerl was asked how his recent experiences in Rome would shape his own celebrations of Holy Week and Easter back home in Washington. He said during his long flight, he had been working on the homilies for those liturgies.

"One of the things I did try to do, was bring into this week the experience of the hope that this pope brings. This Holy Father has generated a spirit of hope in the Church and in the world. The people I met on the streets of Rome were all saying, 'Isn't this a great time?' I would like to capture some of that hope and expectations for the future, and some of that focus on the needs of people," the cardinal said, underscoring the new pope's love and concern for the poor and forgotten.