The brick pavers surrounding the Eiffel Tower were made in the small town of Patton, Pa. The city of Patton was at one time the largest manufacturer of bricks in the world. A young novitiate from Patton would walk on his hometown pavers many times throughout his life. He would make his solemn profession as a Benedictine monk a little more than an hour away from post-war Paris in 1949 at the Solesmes Benedictine Abbey. He would take the name Rembert.
That was the beginning of a long and circuitous road for this future prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, Rembert Weakland. His passage would be flecked with accomplishment, controversy, disappointment and self-doubt. There would be times of great exhilaration, deep despair and loneliness. But one thing was indisputable from the very beginning: Weakland was a very gifted and holy man with a shining future in the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1977, Pope Paul VI elevated Weakland to archbishop of Milwaukee. At the time, many of the Catholic faithful were confused by the choice of Weakland, given his reputation as a church intellectual. Most thought it would be a only few years before he was given a red cap signifying him a cardinal of the church and moved on. That might have been in the back of his mind, too.
He was a cultural misfit in Milwaukee, and in his early tenure he was seen as a bit aloof by some. The Milwaukee Archdiocese, for lack of a better description, is a blue-collar, conservative Catholic community, and he was a progressive in the church. In his 2009 biography, he acknowledged his lack of comfort and feeling of isolation when he relocated to a town best known for beer, bowling and the TV show “Laverne & Shirley.”
His views were consistent with most American Catholics. Weakland believed that to stay relevant with the faithful, the church needed to evolve after Vatican II. The issues facing the American church were not yet germane to Catholics in other parts of the world. The perplexity was to evolve but to stay one with the worldwide Catholic community and the Vatican, a difficult balance to achieve.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was an ally, but Weakland’s voice in the church soon would be cut short with the death of Pope Paul VI. The decades-long leadership of the more conservative Pope John Paul II changed the welcome mat message for his voice in the Vatican. Weakland and the Holy See didn’t always have a harmonious relationship, so he began to use his pulpit as a bully pulpit to address the issues confronting a restless American faithful.
It wasn’t that Weakland’s views were controversial in most American dioceses, but rather that the Holy See moved at a slower pace. Weakland felt an urgency that was not shared or endorsed by the Vatican. These were the issues many American Catholic families were dealing with daily. Rome’s strategy was avoidance. The Holy See’s attitude was the intellectual equivalent to former first lady Nancy Reagan telling people to “just say no” to drugs. American life was a bit more complicated than a simple admonition and exercise of willpower.
Weakland took it upon himself to address issues such as abortion, greater roles for women in the church, social and economic justice, homosexuality, AIDS, sex education, clerical pedophilia and feminism. He acknowledged that a person could, perhaps, reconcile his or her pro-choice views and still be a good Catholic. Or that he would consider ordaining a married man, who was worthy, into the priesthood because of a shortage of priests. He wanted expanded roles for women in the church and held out the possibility of ordination of women when the Vatican was still opposed to children serving as altar girls alongside altar boys. The innocuous little things he endured, such as criticisms about the use of altar girls, made no sense to most American Catholics. And he held out the possibility that ordaining women might lead to “a more intelligent and compassionate church.”
Weakland always disliked being typecast as a liberal or conservative, but over the years he came to accept that his voice would conflict at times with the Curia in Rome. The church’s hierarchy was more in tune with the doctrinal orthodoxy, and he would be cast as a more liberal voice in the church. He would ostracize the tactics of the pro-life movements and then was labeled pro-choice, which he is not. After celebrating a “Respect Life” Mass, he was pilloried for commenting afterward: “Such a difficult group to preach to,” “Such hard faces,” “Such surety,” “No smiles,” “No openness to any other point of view. They have no joy in being Catholic or part of a church.” He went on to say that many dislike the narrowness, lack of compassion and lack of civility of the pro-life movement.
The archbishop’s renovation of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (my parish) was also subjected to unfair criticism. His detractors finally had a symbolic but tangible issue to voice objection. The real motivator was the archbishop’s past pronouncements on topics on which they disagreed with him. But now the critics had what they considered an abomination of a renovated cathedral so they all could join in and scorn his destructive ways. It backfired.
It was during that time that Weakland sought my help with the naysayers, and I gladly provided it. His fault-finders called it a pagan temple, but upon its completion few people argue with the restored magnificence of the cathedral. In the years since its completion, I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t commented on its beauty.
Weakland’s personal issues came to light in May 2002, when he paid off a male lover on the advice of legal counsel. Weakland also came out of the closet. And we learned that he followed established protocol of moving sexually abusive priests to other parishes once a psychological exam was completed. He acknowledged that he, like many of his brethren, was wrong to do so and asked for forgiveness. Many have concluded that there will never be, nor can there be, closure for those who have been abused by a priest regardless of compensation, apologies and pleas for forgiveness. And maybe that’s the church’s cross to bear.
The crowded Saturday evening Mass at St. John a few days after Weakland’s transgressions were made public was filled with people whose expressions went from disbelief, betrayal and sadness to even anger. Father Mike said Mass and spoke briefly about what we all knew to be true: Our archbishop had sinned, and it was a whopper as sins go. People cried, parishioners hugged each other and strangers lined the back of the cathedral in tears; the sadness was palpable. It was a career-ending blow to the archbishop, and he quickly retired.
In truth, Milwaukee has blundered by not turning to Weakland’s sagacious counsel in many circumstances in which he could have provided guidance. We seem to have exiled him. Is it because we are uncomfortable with the sin — or the sinner?
The archbishop’s sins should be treated with empathy and forgiveness; he, like all of us, is a fallible person. You see when you cut through all the doctrine and church politics that being Catholic with a capital C is about forgiveness. It’s really not any more complicated than that one word. God’s forgiveness is greater than any sin any of us can commit.
The societal matters that Weakland was at the forefront of addressing 25 years ago are the same issues and questions that Pope Francis has been raising during the past 16 months.
And Archbishop Emeritus Rembert George Weakland still lives in Milwaukee. Maybe we should call him.
Todd Robert Murphy is a newspaper columnist for Conley Media Group and a member of The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org