Mourning Comes for the Archbishop

August 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Since my recent book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross, addresses mourning and the inability to mourn among post-Vatican II American Catholics, it’s not surprising that I am particularly aware of references to grief in Rembert Weakland’s new memoir,  A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church.

Weakland was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002, and one of the “Dearden bishops” who supported a liberal, collegial interpretation of Vatican II. He was also a Benedictine monk who was elected the head of his abbey at an early age and then the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine order.

I should perhaps begin by saying that I find the memoir deeply moving for a number of reasons. The sheer range and depth of Weakland’s contributions over a lifetime are breathtaking–not only the things he accomplished when he was archbishop of Milwaukee such as spearheading the writing of the American bishops’  letter on economic justice or providing a platform for the women of his archdiocese to share their thoughts about abortion–but the impressive work he did before becoming archbishop.  His thoughts on visiting monasteries and convents around the world as Abbott Primate of the Benedictine order, for example, in themselves provide an invaluable introduction to the emergence of Catholicism as a global church.  (There will be plenty of commentary on the sexual scandal that marked the end of Weakland’stenure as archbishop–I have written something myself on that side of things that will appear elsewhere–so need to go into it here!)

But what strikes me most are the archbishop’s expressions of sadness and grief, feelings, it seems to me, that many American Catholics may also experience in relation their church.  “It has always saddened me,” Weakland writes, that the Vatican’s effort to suppress liberation theology “led to the de-vitalization of the Church, a lessening of its identification with the poor, and the withering of the zeal that had characterized”  it (177). Nor is it just the other guys whose failures grieve him; he also grieves his own failure to lead the archdiocese in ministering in a sufficiently life-giving way to  the  Black Catholic community in Milwaukee (260). And if he is too effusive and nostalgic about the period during which the bishops’ letter, “Economic Justice for All,” was written, the archbishop suggests that he does so not only because it was “one of the most important and formative periods of (his) life,” but also because, “…in so many ways I grieve” (292). Much of this grieving, I might add, was over the reversal of the promise of Vatican II during the papacy of John Paul II.

Yet Weakland’s engagement of his (and in many cases our) losses does not make Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church  a morose or depressing read. Quite the contrary. Instead, the archbishop’s thoughtful, even-handed consideration of the events central to the history of the church after Vatican II offer, for me at least, an opportunity to work through some of the disappointments and losses of that period. Indeed, reading the memoir renewed in me a sense of hope for the church that I have not experienced to such an extent in some time. 

This connection between grief and new life in Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church came home to me particularly when I arrived at the epilogue. In a nod to his training in medieval studies, Archbishop Weakland launches each section of the book with a selection from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He begins the last part of his reflections with a short passage from The Knight’s Tale. Here’s the translation:

What conclusion may I draw from this long train of argument but advise that joy should follow our grief, while thanking Jupiter for all his goodness? And before we leave this place I suggest we make of two griefs one perfect joy that shall last for ever. Now watch: there where we find the deepest grief, there shall we begin the cure.



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  1. Nicely observed! What you say reminds me, oddly enough, of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.”


  2. It has always seemed to me that Archbishop Weakland was the least guilty and most penitent of clerical offenders. Whatever happened on that bibulous occasion, Paul Marcoux was not a molested child. He was past adolescence, and should have been able to cope with an unwelcome pass.

    When the scandal broke, my first thought was that this good guy had picked a lemon in the garden of love–which has befallen many an innocent.


  3. […] been dashed. Leonard Swidler speaks of the “devastating disappointment” of the Council. Rembert Weakland observes in his 2009 memoir that the decision not to ordain women meant “the loss of the […]


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