e-mail us
Weakland predicts his successor will push uniformity

NCR Staff

In a candid Jan. 6 letter to Milwaukee priests, Archbishop Rembert Weakland predicted his successor is likely to be a “middle-of-the-roader” who will restrict diversity in liturgical and pastoral practices.

Weakland said he cannot predict who his successor will be, but said that he will probably reflect a general movement in the church toward uniformity.

“If my generation, the first after the council, erred in some of its more radical implementations of Vatican Council II, it did so out of zeal and unbridled enthusiasm, but with a clear theological perspective it derived from Vatican Council II,” Weakland wrote.

“I fear the restorationist implementation that is characterizing the second post-conciliar generation will err on the side of rigidity, rubricism and a fear of the gifts of individuals, especially of the laity, and build their renewal more on reaction than on theological insights.

“The subsequent or third generation may well just get it right, but most of us by then will already have seen the fullness of Truth,” he wrote.

The text of the confidential 10-page letter was published Feb. 25 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Weakland, known as one of the few liberal stalwarts in the American hierarchy, will reach retirement age in April 2002. He said the letter reflected requests from different groups of priests to reflect on what changes they might expect when he steps down.

Weakland said that when he came into office 22 years ago, the prevailing philosophy favored diversity at the parish level. Today he sees, both in the archdiocese and in the universal church, a trend toward standardization.

Locally, Weakland said that frequent changes in pastors and collaboration among parishes has made pluralism a “source of irritation and division,” as communities struggle to reconcile “ingrained differences.”

In the church at large, Weakland said the introduction of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983 marked a turning point. “The age of ‘experimentation,’ as minimal as it seemed to some, has moved into an age of more consistent and uniform practice in rubrics and laws,” he wrote. “One could say that this ‘leveling’ process came too soon … but there is no way of rewriting history.”

Weakland said that his successor will inherit an archdiocese with many strengths, such as pastorally minded clergy, a solid financial situation and active social ministries.

Nevertheless, Weakland said his successor is likely to make a number of changes. “Everyone will have to make sacrifices for the sake of unity,” he wrote. “Those who have not made the changes that are a part of the accepted or prescribed practices in the United States, especially in the liturgy, will have to swallow their pride and make them.”

Weakland broke the likely changes into several categories.

On sacraments, Weakland said his successor will probably not permit general absolution (a form of penance in which sins are forgiven in a group rather than individually), and he will probably insist on administering first confession before first Communion.

On liturgy, Weakland said the new archbishop is likely to insist that people kneel during Mass from the Holy, Holy, Holy to the end of the great Amen, but he will probably not abolish the Kiss of Peace or prohibit lay (including women) servers, readers and Communion distributors. He will, however, probably be more rigorous about letting lay people distribute Communion and may insist that such ministers are better trained.

Weakland predicted that the custom of holding hands during the Our Father will not last long, and confesses that he personally finds it “childish and uncharitable -- in that it makes so many people, especially elderly, feel uncomfortable.”

He said the new archbishop probably will insist that priests concelebrate Mass, rather than participating “as if they were lay people,” and probably will demand that the Holy Thursday chrism Mass be treated as a sign of unity among ordained priests, rather than a celebration of the priesthood of the faithful (as it is presently styled in Milwaukee).

Weakland predicted that his successor would promote devotional practices such as benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, public recitation of the rosary and Stations of the Cross. He notes the concern that such customs may replace the Mass as the touchstone of Catholic identity; “I have no idea how my successor will keep a balance in this regard,” Weakland writes.

Weakland suggested his successor may want priests to move back into rectories instead of private residences. He also said there will be pressure from Rome to increase the retirement age (presently 68) in light of the priest shortage. He said his successor may want to bring in priests from Africa, India or the Philippines, but the priests’ council should be consulted before that happens. He said his successor may prefer to use deacons rather than laity for various ministerial roles.

The new bishop may try, Weakland wrote, to avoid naming lay people as parish directors in the absence of a priest. He also said that a new bishop will almost certainly bar resigned priests from ministerial roles.

Weakland said Milwaukee is “swimming against the current” in putting future priests and lay ministers in the same formation programs.

Weakland counseled priests to accept the changes, while encouraging discussion about the issues they raise. “Holding out at this moment on any issue as a prophetic stance does not strike me as helpful pastorally to our people, even though I would hope that debate about so many aspects of renewal would continue to take place among us, for they are not finished issues.”n

The full text of the Weakland letter is available on the NCR Web site at http://www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm under Documents.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000