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Weakland told to change cathedral

NCR Staff

A Vatican congregation has ordered changes in Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland’s plans for a $4.5 million renovation of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, but the scope and significance of the changes the Vatican is calling for are in dispute.

According to Jerry Topczewski, archdiocesan communications director, the changes sought by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments are minor and will not delay the renovation, but Alan Kershaw, the canon lawyer in Rome who is handling the case for those opposed to the renovation, disagrees. In comments made to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Kershaw described the cardinal’s letter as a clear victory for opponents of the renovation on every point they raised. One of those opponents, Alan Szews, said any rational-minded person would have to be deliberately misreading the cardinal’s letter to interpret it as anything but a clear signal to reevaluate the current renovation and submit a revised plan.

The letter to Weakland from Cardinal Jorge Medina, prefect of the Vatican congregation, was dated June 30. Msgr. Frederick McManus, retired professor of canon law and former chairman of the canon law department at the Catholic University of America, described the congregation’s intervention as “most unusual” and an example of the growing centralization of authority at the Vatican.

The 150-year-old cathedral was closed May 21 for renovations. Some aspects of the work were halted a week later at the request of the congregation. The Vatican intervened after being petitioned by Kershaw on behalf of opponents.

Central to the dispute are plans that include moving the altar forward a third of the way down the main aisle and installing a pipe organ in the apse at the front of the church where the altar used to be; replacing pews with chairs on three sides of the altar; dismantling a decorative baldacchino, a canopy suspended over the original main altar, and constructing a separate chapel for the Blessed Sacrament.

The $4.5 million work on the cathedral is part of a $10 million project aimed to revitalize church property occupying a city block.

Medina’s letter to the archbishop says that the first serious obstacle to approving the planned renovation is the incongruity of the new floor plan with the cathedral’s architectural structure. It also refers to “regrettable instances” of misleading statements in the project’s fundraising pamphlet that report several of the renovation changes are required by liturgical law.

Medina’s letter cites four violations of canonical and liturgical norms for the ordering of cathedrals:

  • The presbytery, the part of the church reserved for officiating clergy, would lose its internal coherence with the placement of a “new and visually imposing organ” in the apse and the removal of the altar to the central nave.
  • The plan to move the tabernacle and create a chapel for it is flawed because the proposed chapel would be too small and inconspicuous to accommodate visitors interested in private devotion.
  • Reducing the number of confessionals from four to two larger reconciliation chapels is insufficient to meet the needs of the faithful.
  • New artwork planned for the cathedral violates canonical requirements that the works depict saints or others authorized by the church for veneration.

Topczewski said it should not be difficult to address the cardinal’s points, some of which refer to earlier plans for the project that have been abandoned. At one point, the church had planned to display pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa as artwork along the walkway to the cathedral, but because of expense these plans have been abandoned. The new eucharistic chapel that Medina called too small and unimposing is actually twice as large as Medina thinks it is, Topczewski said. The issue of confessionals is a matter of pastoral clarification, he said. Currently, the cathedral only uses one of its four confessionals. As for the presbytery, the organ could be made smaller while various decorative additions could make the altar more a focal point.

“Clearly the congregation has raised four concerns as points of law, and we will look at these as we move forward with the project,” Topczewski said.

One of the backers of a petition bearing approximately 2,500 signatures sent to the bishop last August protesting the planned renovations, Szews said he and other opponents were not opposed to refurbishing the cathedral, but were opposed to a radical departure from the existing architecture.

“The building has a certain architectural style, and this architecture focuses on a point where the altar happens to be right now,” Szews said. “To change the focus, to put the altar 60 feet closer to the back of the church, puts the architecture out of focus. What you’re doing is radically changing the appearance. It’s not a normal organic growth from one style to another. It is a rape of what is there.”

Szews said if he’d collected 25,000 signatures he doubted it would have any effect on Weakland’s renovation plans. “He is not the type of individual who likes to be at the lower level of the hierarchical chain,” Szews said. “He likes to look up to the hierarchy and view it as a democracy. When he looks down, he wants to see a hierarchy. And that’s the way he operates.”

The e-mail address for Margot Patterson is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001