book review

A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop
W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (June 2009)

By: Rembert G. Weakland, OSB
Review By: Fran De Chant

Frigid January winds whipped across a frozen lake that must have been lovely last summer. That Sunday morning chill drove me to find warmth and shelter from winter's bite in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I found both at the parish church, in time for Mass. The liturgy was simple, song filled and joyous with extraordinary participation of the people for the year, 2002. During the congregation's coffee hour, I picked up and read a brochure. Then I knew the reason for this very good liturgy in a warm and progressive environment—Rembert G. Weakland, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Ordained bishop in 1977, Weakland, at age 50, had already held prestigious offices serving his Benedictine Order in the United States and in Rome. He was only 36 when elected abbot of his community in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was St. Vincent that gave the poor teenager from a Depression stricken Pennsylvania town his high school and college education as a scholastic preparing for ordination as a Benedictine monk. In the tradition of the Church that provided education for gifted, intelligent young men, Weakland gained a fine classical education that included studies at the Benedictine college in Rome, advanced classes in music at Julliard and the opportunity to complete a doctoral degree at Columbia University. In his Benedictine formation, the young man from Patton received the name he would keep for a lifetime, Rembert.

At age 40, Weakland was elected primate of the Benedictine Order. He was young to assume a position of worldwide authority. He learned on the job. Gifted with unusual ability to see to the heart of problems and to balance different viewpoints, Weakland quickly mastered the strategies necessary to be an effective administrator. Always seeking the course of the enlightened leader, Weakland observed, "When authority is the problem, authority is the least capable of solving it." Primarily he saw his role as servant and under-took the visitation of every Benedictine monastery and convent throughout the world. With near constant travel he accomplished this monumental task during his tenure as primate, as well as with delicate negotiations securing new roles for religious and monastics that had to be created after Vatican II.

Rembert Weakland had an unparalleled vantage point from which to see early implementation of the objectives of Vatican II. He spent the years from 1967 to 1973 in Rome, coinciding almost exactly with the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. His relationship with the Pope was friendly and often constructive, in contrast to his later dealings with Pope John Paul II. Weakland ran afoul of that Pope's dislike for certain aspects of American Catholicism, and specifically the pastoral practices he, as Archbishop of Milwaukee, employed. Weakland had seen injustice in the church, disdain heaped on priests who had left ministry, denial of policy making positions to women, ostracizing of gays and lesbians. Imbued with Benedictine charisms of listening and consensus, he initiated listening sessions with the women of the archdiocese. He welcomed those pushed to the margins and in so doing incurred the displeasure of Pope John Paul. It is most disheartening to read in his memoirs how Weakland was denied recognition for the seminal economic pastoral published in 1986 by the U. S. Bishop's committee he chaired, Economic Justice for All. Along with the pastoral on peace and war, this document must be ranked as one of the greatest contributions of the American bishops to the society in which they minister.

Archbishop Weakland's words on two problems of the Church in America ring prophetic. Asked about his position on the ordination of women he replied: "How often I would give talks to high school boys and girls and to groups of young men and women of college age and would find that this question of the non-ordination of women was the first they would ask! After listening to a lengthy description of the official Church's position as enunciated by Pope John Paul II, they would simply make it clear that they were dismissing the Catholic Church as having nothing convincing and meaningful to say to them about their lives and their future."

Equally somber is what Weakland says of his experience with merging or closing parishes that he admits was the hardest thing he had to do. "The closing or merging parishes would almost certainly reduce the number of practicing Catholics. I was right to have that worry. When the time came, many stopped going to church rather than switch to a new parish."

Written as memoirs, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church presents a graceful, grace-filled history of how we got to where we are. I found reading Archbishop Weakland's prologue describing his penitential farewell in his cathedral in May, 2002, excruciating. His involvement with a thirty-year-old man and ill-advised efforts to settle brought down one of the great bishops in our country in our time. Still, if I had to choose one person to be my guide through Vatican II as it happened and its effects on us in America, I would choose Archbishop Weakland. I encourage everyone who cares about how we are today and where we are headed to join as fellow-pilgrim with this gifted and good man.

Focus on FutureChurch

Summer 2009


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