Restrung

A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church
Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop
Rembert G. Weakland, OSB
Wm. B. Eerdmans, $35, 433 pp.

“Lord Jesus Christ...look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church.” During his more than half-century as a priest, Rembert Weakland has prayed these words countless times. After May 23, 2002, when Paul Marcoux appeared on Good Morning America accusing him of “date rape,” he no doubt prayed them with new poignancy.

For most of us sinners, our infidelities remain mercifully shrouded. Despite our transgressions, we keep what used to be called our “good name.” On May 31, 2002, in a rite of public penance, Archbishop Weakland apologized to the clergy and people of Milwaukee “for the scandal that has occurred because of my sinfulness.” Though he convincingly denies the charge of date rape, Weakland admits having broken his vow of celibacy. In a legally defensible but morally dubious decision, he also used diocesan funds to pay Marcoux a $450,000 settlement in 1998. “Did I do what was right, or was I only protecting my own hide?” he continues to ask himself. Marcoux claimed damages, not for “date rape,” but for Weakland’s allegedly hindering him—by criticizing his Christodrama video project—from earning a livelihood. Though the settlement arguably saved the archdiocese a lot of money, it also temporarily protected Weakland’s good name. Then, in May 2002, he lost that as well.

The former abbot primate of the Benedictines, who was architect of the 1986 USCCB pastoral letter Economic Justice for All and one of the leading progressive prelates in the U.S. church, was outed as a homosexual and accused of sexual abuse on national television just as outrage over clerical abuse of children was becoming front-page news across the nation. His personal failings, magnified and distorted, became the stuff of public entertainment. The archbishop was brought low.

Weaker men might have been grateful to slink away in quiet shame. Seven years later, Weakland is back with his memoir, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church. A prologue titled “Broken and Re-Glued” recounts the events of spring 2002. Paradoxically, the scandal allowed him to find release and the freedom “to come to terms with my life as a whole in a spirit of truth and sincerity that had eluded me till then.” Tempering his candor about his loneliness as a bishop and “late sexual awakening” with the reserve characteristic of his generation, he nevertheless speaks openly of his homosexual orientation, refusing to describe it as “objectively disordered,” rejecting such language as “unhelpful, even harmful.” Of his sexual orientation, he says simply, “Either God created me that way or permitted forces beyond my control to make me that way, so I felt no diminution of God’s love. I did not see myself as a person defined by my sexuality.” The prologue ends with a description of his piano, a 1906 Mason and Hamlin, damaged in the move from the bishop’s residence. Weakland compares himself to the piano: “God had to re-string me.”

A restrung archbishop’s apologia, this memoir tells a “fuller story” than the tumult of 2002 allowed. The epilogue returns to the question of why he chose to write rather than slip away. Weakland recalls a Talmudic story about minority voices in an authoritative collection of rabbinic decisions. “They are preserved so that one may be able to rely on them when their hour has come.” This personal story, inseparable from Weakland’s life in the church, is also a minority brief for those whom Weakland remembers affectionately as “Dearden bishops,” most of them now dead. He records it “for when the hour may come.” (The late Cardinal John Dearden, archbishop of Detroit, was a leader of reform-minded bishops at Vatican II.)

This is a long but gracefully written book, put into final form with help from former Commonweal editor Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, who also wrote the foreword. It is divided into three parts, each introduced by a well-chosen quotation from Chaucer. Part I covers the period from Weakland’s birth in 1927 in Patton, near Altoona in the coal country of western Pennsylvania, to his election, at age forty, as abbot primate of the Benedictines. Weakland’s father died in 1932. His mother went on relief and kept her six children together. In the scuffle of a Depression-era childhood, Weakland’s gifts emerged, and he found appreciation for his talents and a home in the church, a church accented by Bavarian Benedictine aesthetics and spirituality. He also found mentors: Sr. Leonilla, his first piano teacher (disappointed that he didn’t join the Jesuits, “the ‘Cadillac’ of religious orders”), and his Benedictine pastor, Fr. Bertrand, who sent him to St. Vincent’s in nearby Latrobe for high school, where he was educated by the Benedictines between 1940 and 1948.

Weakland punctuates a wonderful account of his early education with reminiscences of visits to the graves of his teachers in 2002. When he was twenty-one, his novitiate and college studies behind him, Weakland’s superiors decided that he would major in music and return to teach at St. Vincent’s. But they wanted him to study theology in Rome at the Benedictine College of Sant’Anselmo and to spend one summer at Solemnes and another in Munich studying music and learning French and German. In 1951, at age twenty-four, Weakland was ordained a priest in a cave sacred to St. Benedict, behind the monastery at Subiaco.

He describes his five years in New York (1952-57) as his “second novitiate.” There he studied piano at Juilliard and musicology at Columbia. Music lovers will delight in Weakland’s tales of teachers and his work on musical pieces, highlighted by his transcription for Noah Greenburg and the Pro Musica Antiqua of the medieval work The Play of Daniel. In New York, Weakland spent four years in residence at St. Malachy’s, on Forty-ninth Street off Broadway, where Msgr. James O’Reilly, a “Barry Fitzgerald type,” tutored him in the life of a parish priest. A Columbia scholarship sent him to Milan for a year to study the medieval chant of the Ambrosian rite. He finally received his doctorate from Columbia in 2000. In 1957 he returned to St. Vincent’s, where in June 1963 his fellow monks elected him abbot. His years in Europe made him known to many Benedictines, and in 1967 his fellow abbots elected him abbot primate. His accounts of these elections imply a contrast, recurring throughout the book, between the ancient wisdom of the Benedictine rule, with its emphasis on consultation and consensus, and Weakland’s sense of the exercise of papal authority without accountability under John Paul II.

Part II moves to Rome. Weakland’s ten years as abbot primate coincided with most of the final decade of Paul VI’s papacy. A major task facing Weakland, one that he regarded as a “test case” for the liturgical and ecclesial aims of Vatican II, was the renewal of the Liturgy of the Hours. Would Benedictines throughout the world recite the Divine Office uniformly or would their practice include the vernacular and be differently inculturated? From Mount Sinai to Oklahoma to Poland, the Congo, Korea, and beyond, Weakland visited monasteries and marveled at the varied cultural expressions of Benedictine life. He helped organize courses for Benedictine abbesses from around the world. In the work of renewing the Liturgy of the Hours, Weakland found an ally in Paul VI, to whom he attributed a “monastic soul and sensitivity.” He offers a sobering glimpse from Rome of the first years of Vatican II’s implementation. In Weakland’s view, the reforms were repeatedly undercut by Paul VI’s strategy of reaching out to those who were uneasy with the conciliar documents, attempting, especially in his curial appointments, to balance postconciliar theological currents. Most instructive are Weakland’s comments on the synods of 1971 and 1974 and his dealings with, and impressions of, curial officials and other ecclesial figures such as Pedro Arrupe (the one person he would select for sainthood, if given only one choice), Basil Hume, Karol Wojtyla, Barbara Ward, and Thomas Merton.

Weakland writes movingly of his struggles at this time with loneliness, the consciousness of his sexual orientation, and the celibate vocation. He sees the fundamental choice of this crucial period after the council as between pluralism and inculturation on the one side and curial centralization on the other. In the context of the synods, the question of the nature and authority of national episcopal conferences begins to emerge as central. He portrays Pope Paul VI as increasingly fearful of national churches and anxious to avoid schism. Late in 1977, less than a year before his death, Paul VI named the fifty-year-old Weakland archbishop of Milwaukee.

Part III deals with Weakland’s quarter-century as Milwaukee’s archbishop. With events closer in time, the serene tone of Part I and most of Part II turns more defensive, at times embattled and even defiant. The villain of the piece—and chief cause of Weakland’s increasing frustration—is Pope John Paul II. If Paul VI was a “crypto-monk,” John Paul II was more benign monarch than abbot. He and Weakland never warmed to one another, and Weakland could not talk with him as he talked with Benedictine superiors, Paul VI, old friends Cardinals Sebastiano Baggio and Bernardin Gantin, and even Joseph Ratzinger, who comes off well in this account. The substantive issue at stake was the interpretation of Vatican II and especially its teaching on the college of bishops in union with the pope as having some kind of pastoral responsibility for the whole church. For Weakland, national conferences were the natural structural expression for this aspect of the bishop’s office. Referring to John Paul’s 1983 Code of Canon Law, Weakland writes that the pope was pursuing a “quiet but relentless campaign to reduce the importance of bishops’ conferences all over the world,” eventually replacing the college of bishops with the college of cardinals. Wary of centralization and uniform solutions, “Dearden bishops” favored “collegial sharing in ministry.” From this group came the U.S. conference presidents in the 1970s and ’80s. Eventually John Paul II’s appointments replaced them. In the wake of Vatican investigation and disciplinary action against Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle in 1986, Weakland too found himself under investigation in 1988. He was warned to “become less visible” and “wait it out.”

Weakland’s chapter-length account of the five years and three drafts that went into the economics pastoral is the bright spot of Part III. He celebrates the broad-based consultations that preceded the writing of the pastoral, and rightly so. This determination to consult the entire church was in keeping with Weakland’s vision of his role as a bishop. One of his goals for the church in Milwaukee, for instance, was to incorporate participatory structures such as an archdiocesan pastoral council into the governance of the local church. In August 1987 he held an archdiocesan synod and contrasted it with the “appearance of dialogue” in the pope’s visit to Los Angeles the following month. Weakland admits his inability to “keep from uttering my opinions even when they were not welcome in high places.” An “insider” with Paul VI, he was an “outsider” with John Paul II, “out of step” with the pontificate, and member of a “loyal minority” within the U.S. conference of bishops. He was “controversial.” As the story of the Milwaukee years careens to its conclusion, Weakland’s daring rises to meet what he describes as papal repression in a game of ecclesiastical chicken. Frustrated by the Vatican’s refusal to connect celibacy and the priest shortage, he sent Rome the draft of a pastoral letter proposing, in the absence of other suitable candidates, to present married men to Rome as candidates for ordination. He had to agree when the Vatican secretary of state called this a “sort of provocation.” His 1992 New York Times op-ed piece called the situation of women in the church “our contemporary Galileo challenge.”

Sure to draw attention is Weakland’s account of his treatment of Milwaukee priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. Throughout the narrative, he offers a “chronological perspective,” one he finds often lacking in the press, on our society’s shifts from moral to medical to criminal categories in understanding sexual abuse. He argues that by the pivotal year of 1985, the Vatican had tied the hands of national bishops’ conferences to such an extent that the U.S. conference could not enforce its own guidelines. He blames East Coast bishops for failing to follow these guidelines and the Vatican for reluctance to laicize priests even when they were known to be abusers. Victims’ advocates, however, blame Weakland for failures to remove such priests from ministry. The substantial settlement he paid Marcoux only made things worse. Currently there are several cases in Wisconsin claiming “negligent misrepresentation” by the Milwaukee archdiocese during Weakland’s tenure.

His relationship with Paul Marcoux looms over Part III, despite Weakland’s attempt to confine him to the prologue. Their sexual encounter took place in 1979, during Weakland’s first years in Milwaukee. In August 1980, after extortion attempts by Marcoux, Weakland wrote him a letter, seemingly bereft of calculation, telling him, in a moving passage, that “I was letting your conscience take over for me.” At this time, Marcoux was in his early thirties. Nearly twenty years later, in 1997, he reappeared offering to sell Weakland the letter for a million dollars. This led to the legal settlement, not for any form of sexual abuse, but as compensation for Marcoux’s claim that Weakland had interfered with his “ability to earn income.” In spring 2002, a Weakland spokesman told a group of victims of sexual abuse that if they wished to disclose the terms of their settlements, the archbishop had no objection. Marcoux then disclosed the terms of his settlement and entangled their adult homosexual relationship with the sexual abuse of children. Weakland’s disentangling of them is persuasive. But the secrecy is the thing. And it remains troubling on many counts.

This book is worthwhile as autobiography, and for the history Weakland has lived through and written about so well. But most of all it is worthwhile because there is a real Rembert Weakland here. For better and often for worse, he comes out from behind his episcopal role and you recognize him. Those who wish Weakland had gone quietly away might find in his memoir more than a trace of pride—the final gesture, both obstinate and desperate, of a disgraced bishop. Others will find a strong but humbled man of God, a man whose confreres did not err when they found in him the qualities St. Benedict asked of abbots. No doubt the archbishop would agree that pride and godly strength are difficult to untangle, and Weakland ends his tale “with a fervent prayer for God’s gracious love and mercy on such a flawed and grateful pilgrim.” Having read it, I know one thing. If my soul were heavy-burdened, I would not hesitate to ask Archbishop Rembert to hear my confession.

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About the Author

William L. Portier is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton.