The Pilgrim's Journey: Memoirs of Archbishop Rembert Weakland

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The period following the Second Vatican Council, with all of the challenges in implementing the vision of the council, had many important figures. Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B., abbot primate of the Benedictine Confederation and then Archbishop of Milwaukee, was one of the more significant and, occasionally, controversial figures of that period.

Personally, I heard Archbishop Weakland speak twice at the University of Notre Dame. He had chaired the writing of Economic Justice for All, the pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on the economy. Weakland's participation at the interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand where Thomas Merton died also intrigued me. I had read his writings as they appeared in secular and religious press. I recalled his participation in the Common Ground Initiative of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin. It was with great sadness that I learned of the sexual relationship and payout, revealed in 2002, that ended his public ministry.

Archbishop Weakland recounts his life in A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop, published in 2009. Naturally, his story weaves the various dimensions of his service to the Church as well as his struggles within it. He writes of his childhood in rural Pennsylvania and formation as a Benedictine monk. He recounts how he developed his love for music and his education at the Julliard. He shares his affection for his formators and professors during his early years with the Benedictines. He tells of his rich, warm relationship with Bl. Pope Paul VI and the conflicted relationship with St. John Paul II. Archbishop Weakland laments that the promise of the Second Vatican Council was subverted by centralization and uniformity. He writes, "The price of orthodoxy one could see was a Church that lived in fear" (p. 300). Archbishop Weakland also recounts his efforts to respond to allegations of sexual abuse by the clergy of his archdiocese. Archbishop Weakland writes honestly of his loneliness, the scandal that ended his ministry, and his human development.

Given that Weakland wrote his book in 2009, prior to the pontificate of Pope Francis, it bears mentioning that Archbishop Weakland and Pope Francis share at least four areas of interest with respect to the leadership of the Church.
  1. The role and spirit of synods. Both Archbishop Weakland and Pope Francis experienced synods as rather boring, where many did not openly speak their hearts and minds. Pope Francis, as he opened the Extraordinary Synod on the Family called for all "to speak clearly" and "to listen with humility." 
  2. The desire for a revitalized episcopal conference. Archbishop Weakland laments the diminished authority of national episcopal conferences, like the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. Himself formerly the president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Pope Francis has called for a more robust view of episcopal conferences (Evangelii Gaudium, #32).
  3. Renewal of church structures. Archbishop Weakland writes at length about church structure and best practices in the Roman Curia as well as the archdiocesan curia. Pope Francis wrote of the pastoral conversion of ecclesial structures in Evangelii Gaudium (#25-32), and we have seen the emerging fruit of reflections from the international Council of Cardinals in financial transparency for the Vatican, the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and the pending restructuring of the Vatican offices.
  4. Primacy of mercy. Both Archbishop Weakland and Pope Francis find inspiration in St. John XXIII words from the opening of the Second Vatican Council, his call that Church "use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity." Weakland refers to the phrase twice in his book (p. 104 and p. 300), and Pope Francis uses it in paragraph four of Misericordiae Vultus, the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.
Even though Archbishop Weakland has been in retirement since 2002, his book is an important testament to the Church's effort to read the signs of the times. Like all of us, amid human failings, he has been an instrument of God, attempting to do his part to build up the Kingdom.

The language of pilgrim pervades the book. The major sections of the memoir begin with a portion of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He concludes the work with a lovely phrase:
Like all the other tales of human pilgrimage it must end with a fervent prayer for God's gracious love and mercy on such a flawed but grateful pilgrim. (p. 423)

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