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Progressive bishops' L.A. talks echo Mahony's pastoral vision

NCR Staff

LOS ANGELES -- Archbishop Rembert Weakland received a standing ovation and affirming whistles after exhorting listeners to take an expansive view of their place amid “all the people of God dancing on pilgrimage.” This ovation came during his keynote talk Feb. 20 at the Religious Education Conference sponsored by the Los Angeles archdiocese.

Weakland, one of two bishops to speak here, urged those attending to persevere in the church despite disenchantment with the human failings of Catholicism. He delivered his address before thousands in the auditorium of the Anaheim, Calif., Convention Center.

Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., was also met with roaring applause before he spoke when a presenter described Untener's decision to sell the bishop's residence and live from parish to parish in his diocese.

The presence of both Weakland and Untener, two well-known progressives in the hierarchy, appeared to be a deliberate signal by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, long known here for his advocacy of Hispanic ministry, farm workers rights and a multicultural approach to church life. In recent months, Mahony has taken steps toward an increasingly public and national commitment to a pastoral vision and concern for church renewal often associated with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Mahony was not present at the conference but spoke with conference participants online from Rome, where he was attending ceremonies during which 22 men were made cardinals.

In [1996] Mahony expressed strong support for the Catholic Common Ground Project, a Bernardin effort, in contrast to criticism of the effort from more conservative cardinals on the East Coast.

In September, Mahony issued what became a widely read, and somewhat controversial, pastoral letter on the liturgy. Bishop [Donald] Trautman of Erie, Pa., the leading liturgist among the bishops, praised the document in a keynote speech during the archdiocese's annual conference on liturgy.

But the letter drew stinging criticism from exponents of some of the most conservative Catholic points of view, notably from Mother Angelica on her television network and from groups such as Adoremus.

During the Religious Education conference, both Weakland and Untener offered frank appraisals of the state of affairs of Catholic life in the United States and suggested directions for those in the church committed to continuing what they view as the unfinished business of Vatican II.

“We Catholics have a love/hate relationship to our church,” Weakland said. Admitting he does not like the church's “hierarchical model, and I'm involved in it,” Weakland begged the people packed into the auditorium to “come to terms themselves with the question of authority in the church. ... [I]t's one of the reasons you have the anger and the ambivalence.” One means of dealing with disagreements is to resist identifying the church with just the local parish and “imagine all the people of God dancing on pilgrimage.”

Christ, he said, “took the big risk” of turning over the mission of his church to human beings. Sometimes the human tones of the church get so loud, said Weakland, that we can't hear the divine.

Weakland stated openly that “right now is not a time when I think our church has its act together,” but he reminded the audience that amid “dissensions and problems” lies a chance for grace and humility. “Thank God that when you woke up this morning your parish was in disorder,” he said. He urged people to love the church “with all its warts.”

In addition to working for justice in the secular world, Weakland said, the church must become more just from within. “If I have any worry about judgment day, it will be that I didn't act justly as a bishop toward everyone,” he said. The measure of justice, he reminded, “is always how the powerless are treated.”

Untener, during a workshop on Mass attendance, was blunt about the problems of participation of the people of God in the liturgy. He outlined the way in which the participation of the congregation has, in many ways, actually declined because of tasks left incomplete after the reforms of Vatican II.

The turning around of the altar “in your face,” Untener said, and the translation of the Mass into the vernacular “literally intruded on prayer.” With Vatican II, Untener said, the idea was, “ `We'll do it together now,' but we don't. We said, `This will be great.' Well, it hasn't been. But it has great promise.”

He said, in effect, that the changes took away people's opportunity for prayer during the Mass, substituting something people don't find prayerful. Prior to Vatican II, Untener said, the faithful participated through silent prayer and “at least they had signs and genuflections.”

Today, while the participation of those directly involved in ministry has increased, most people participate less.

“Twelve people have more actions, the other 1,000 have less to do,” he said. “People have not found it a leap together.” Untener described his own attendance -- stopwatch in hand -- at a Saginaw Mass, one of the best liturgies in the diocese. During that 59-minute Mass, which did not include a Creed, “the total time cumulatively that people spoke was 58 seconds,” he said.

Untener urged several hundred attendees at his workshop to “get the people more into this thing we call we.” He described the success of a “teaching Mass” he gives, during which he explains why Catholics do what they do during worship. Although that Mass runs an hour and 20 minutes, “no one ever complains it's too long.”

Weakland, meanwhile, also emphasized that church must “be done together ... that's how Jesus Christ dances with us.” Christ, he said, “handed the church over to all of us.” In that sense, Weakland said one of the most strident challenges for the U.S. church in the future is to make that participation universally inclusive.

“Get a universal mentality,” he told approximately 15,000 people gathered for his keynote address. “You've got to stretch.” Stretching, he said, involves making mistakes, but when mistakes are made, people are forgiving. “So all of you who speak poor Spanish,” he exhorted, “keep going.” Weakland stressed that the church in the United States -- and especially in Los Angeles, because of the growing diversity of its members -- is in a privileged position to model the universal church for the world.

Quoting theologian Karl Rahner, he reminded his listeners that Vatican II marked the first time in history the church became truly “catholic” and not just identified with Western civilization.

The Los Angeles Religious Education Conference reflected the universal character of the church. Workshops in Spanish and, for the first time, a full track of workshops in Vietnamese, drew a multinational crowd. Archbishop Francois Xavier Nguyên Van Thuan, who was imprisoned for 13 years following the fall of Saigon, then exiled and who now holds the post in Rome of vice president of the Pontifical Justice and Peace Council, gave workshops in Vietnamese and English. He met with Vietnamese young people and celebrated a four-hour Mass with 6,000 Vietnamese Sunday morning honoring Our Lady of La Vong.

Throughout the weekend, participants also attended Hispanic, African-American, Pacific Islander, Celtic, Caribbean, Charismatic, Native American, Catholic-Jewish and Jazz liturgies. The difficulties of becoming a truly universal church remain apparent: Hispanics, for example, represent a majority in the Los Angeles archdiocese, a trend that is expected to move through the national church within 20 years. But conference attendance did not fully reflect those demographics.

Many Hispanic and Vietnamese workshops were squeezed into a hall divided by partitions. Space allocation apparently was complicated by ongoing renovation of the convention center. Over the voice of a neighboring, Spanish-speaking workshop leader, Archbishop Nguyên Van Thuan struggled, even with a microphone, to tell his story of nine years in isolation in a North Vietnamese prison and the hope he learned by teaching inmates and guards alike about Christ.

National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 1998 [corrected 04/10/1998]