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The Mighty Weakland Comes to Bat

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

The renovation of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee is contested–
but it’s the protesters who strike out in the last inning.

Weakland dedicates the renovated Milwaukee cathedral

Msgr. Weakland dedicates the 'renovated' Cathedral.
A crooked 23-foot crucifix and strange crown hang above the centrally placed table.
Many readers probably have been following the story of Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s plans to “renovate” in the spirit of Vatican II Milwaukee’s beautiful 154-year old Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. This mini-drama that pitted post-Conciliar progressivists against conservatives is more than a question of taste, but involves a whole vision of the Church and her way of government.

The drama unfolds...

The story begins with Msgr. Weakland’s $4.5 million plans to “renovate” the historic downtown cathedral built in 1853. The so-called renovation included, among other things: tearing down the high altar and the 40-ft. dome over the altar supported by eight marble pillars, moving the altar to the center of the presbytery, removing the tabernacle and Holy Eucharist to a side chapel which had been the baptistery, putting an organ and music center in the former sanctuary, getting rid of side altars and their statues, replacing confessionals with “reconciliation rooms,” and substituting the oak pews with moveable chairs without kneelers (see picture). Nothing too out of the ordinary. The normal type of post-Vatican II “renovations” that unfortunately we have all become accustomed to see everywhere. Of course, Msgr. Weakland defended the plan as consistent with Vatican II liturgical norms and practice.

Not so, responded a determined group of the faithful, led by the local CUF chapter, who argued that Weakland’s design broke canonical norms and would “destroy the Cathedral’s beautiful art and environment for Catholic worship.” Their formal appeal to the Vatican met with a surprising response: a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship on May 26 telling the Archbishop “to suspend any work of renovation until the project may be reviewed by the Holy See.”

Conservatives rejoiced. Finally, Rome had spoken. This would be, then, the beginning of the end to the many such “renovation” designs being planned for the future in what remains of the traditional churches in the U.S. From the beginning, I thought these hopes were more than a trifle optimistic.

The rest of the story

First, there was the arrogant confidence of Weakland who rushed to Rome to present his case on June 13, and then returned to resume the project. He was acting like a man who held the jury in his hand. It seemed almost as if someone had told him that there might be some show of resistance from the Vatican Dicastary for Divine Worship, but, in the end, “it’s your call.” No one knows what exactly went on behind the scenes, but this is a reasonable guess, since the facts confirm this version.

Still, there was a moment when it looked like the Archbishop was going to strike out. On July 30, another stronger directive arrived in Milwaukee from Cardinal Medina, asking that the work be discontinued until certain concerns were addressed. The conservatives were exultant and reported this with great fanfare. The Vatican had intervened, proving that Rome knew how to interpret Vatican II norms “correctly” and there are only a few bad American Bishops spoiling the pot. The destruction would stop. I’m afraid the party started too early.

The mighty Weakland was undaunted. After first denying, and then admitting that the Vatican letter “implied they wanted me to stop,” he boldly stated that the directive to suspend renovation was not “official.” A few days later, July 5, he sent a letter to all his priests stating that liturgical documents give the local Bishop the authority to make “the ultimate decision on the disposition of the spaces.” Cardinal Medina had only made “suggestions,” no orders, and the whole thing boiled down to a simple difference in opinion on the priority to be given in adapting older churches to current liturgical practices. Then the Archbishop himself took the offensive: it was not he, but the Vatican Congregation who was at fault for not following correct legal procedures in dealing with the complaint. Finally, he put the blame on a small group of either vindictive Catholics – who want to humiliate him before his retirement this coming February – or backward Catholics, who have “never in their hearts accepted the reformed liturgy of Vatican Council II” and want to go back in time.

There was another strong indicator for those with eyes to see of Weakland’s final victory: the ominous show of support of the American Catholic Bishops for the Archbishop’s plan of destruction. On July 3, after Cardinal Medina’s letter asking that the work stop, Bishop Joseph Firoenza, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed his confidence in the procedures taken by Archbishop Weakland in a public statement. A spokesman for Weakland said he had received private calls of support from Catholic leaders and Bishops both outside and inside the country, including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and Cincinnati’s Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, a past president of the Bishops Conference. I have not yet heard of one Bishop brave enough to raise his voice publicly against the “renovations” of Weakland and his blatant disregard for the directive from Rome, a document obviously without teeth.

There has been no further communications from the Vatican, the Milwaukee Archdiocese has reported, and the destruction is continuing as scheduled. Sorry, no new precedent has been set for conservatives who are fighting similar renovation plans for their cathedrals in Rochester, New York, Covington (KY) and San Antonio. In fact, the exact contrary has occurred. It would seem that the Vatican will go along with the plans of the local Bishops, who have the final say, even over the vox populi. Again, we have another example of the weakness of Vatican officials to correct erring Bishops. The conservative organs who had crowed with delight over the great victory for conservatism when Cardinal Medina’s letter was published have been silent and the affair is fading quietly, like the dust that fell with the downing of the pillars of the great dome in St. John the Evangelist Cathedral.

Ambiguous and confusing norms

Critics of the project rightly claimed that the new project diminishes the majesty of the church. They also said the changes ran afoul of Canon Law. This, however, was a matter open to dispute since there are canon lawyers on both sides of the issue.

For example, on one side, there was Cardinal Estevez, who wrote that the new placement of the altar improperly diminishes its prominence, that the relocation for the tabernacle breaks the canon law requiring it to be conspicuous, and that the number of confessional booths was insufficient.

However, argued John Beal, chairman of the Canon Law department at Catholic University, such statements cannot be accepted as decisions, since they ultimately fall within the judgment of the Bishop. “Since Vatican II,” he said, “there’s always been tension about how much independence the local Bishop has.” Weakland quoted Vatican II document (Christus Dominus No. 8) and the new Institutio generalis Missalis Romani (No. 387) to “prove unequivocally” that he did not break any liturgical norms or canons. He also found canonists who agreed with his plans and affirmed that he was not disobeying the Vatican. The Sunday Visitor (August 5, 2001) bolstered the Archbishop’s action to proceed with quotes from sacramental theologian Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, who said that the renovation appeared to be “within well-established norms for church renovations.” Msgr. Mannion then, strangely enough, expressed his personal desire that “we had much better developed norms than we do, but Archbishop Weakland can hardly be blamed for that.”

Will the problem of the destruction of our churches be resolved by simply creating a commission to develop better norms? That’s Msgr. Mannion’s final solution for conservatives, and he suggested that the Congregation for Divine Worship develop such a document. Would it be, perhaps, another document like The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations, a 1967 statement of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, which set a threefold criteria of musical, liturgical and pastoral. Nonetheless, practically speaking, nothing changed to stop the progressivist abuses in Church music, which continue and multiply on different levels - from the Simon and Garfunkel-type strains that resound from Steubenville University and the Lincoln Diocese to the soft rock and Spanish pop strains that mark the tone here in Los Angeles.

Is the answer really to develop yet more documents to try to explain the “real meaning” of the Council? And, in the mean time, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is “re-constructed,” numerous others continue to be destroyed, and new monstrosities called churches are designed and built.

The practical issue at stake

In his July 3 letter, Weakland himself said the issues involved “are bigger than we are and touch the very nature of the Church and how it functions. We are not a corporation with head offices in Rome and branch offices around the world; we are not a military body; we are not a monarchy.” In his July 5 letter to diocesan priests, he insisted that the primary reason that he had defended the $10 million renovation and was continuing it despite any objections from Rome was this: “ Because, at this particular moment of history, it is my obligation to insist on the rights and duties of a local Bishop in the Catholic Church.” (Washington Post, July 12, 2001)

The central question, then, is the distribution of authority in the Church, which raises questions about papal authority and episcopal authorities. Who makes which decision? Who has the final say? These pressing issues were part of the backdrop for the consistory of the Cardinals in Rome last May. The role of Bishops in the Church and the Papal Primacy will also be a topic at the world Synod of Bishops to take place there in October. The outcome of the Weakland mini-drama does not portend well for those who defend the monarchical structure of the Church and priority of the Universal Church over the “local churches.”

Something even greater at stake

Faith is a rational adhesion to truth. As Catholic apologists and tracts prove, there are reasons to believe in the Catholic Church. You can study these facts and perceive they are true, and because of this adhere to the Church based on the rational syllogisms of the proof of its veracity.

But there is also another dimension, which is pointed out by the well-known Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, who was a quite educated and logical Dominican professor. One can also make a mystical discernment of God in the Catholic Church, because the Church has a physiognomy, that is to say, features that express her being. In the case of the Milwaukee’s Cathedral, it is this profile that progressivism is trying to destroy in order to dissolve this mystical discernment of the faithful.

John Paul II approves the plans for Mahoney's Cathedral

John Paul II receives Cardinal Mahony and approves the plans for his new cathedral
It used to be that a Catholic who visited a Catholic Church entered and felt a special sacral atmosphere that seemed to make the statues and stain glass window whisper to their souls that they were in the presence of something holy. Everything exuded a sensation of moral perfection and sanctity. This sense of sacrality made a man lower his voice and feel not only an inclination, but a necessity, to kneel as a manifestation of respect. Kneeling, one felt that if only he could maintain this state of spirit permanently, he would have the coherence and strength of will to adapt himself to that elevated spirit of sacrality, and become a new man. The Catholic Church was always there to invite us – her sons and daughters of all colors and nations, rich and poor, healthy or infirm – to discern her sacrality that expresses itself in her material buildings.

In closing, let me admit that Msgr. Weakland is unequivocally right on one point. The “renovation” of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, as well as of so many other sacral buildings, involves much more than a mere “matter of taste.” These new streamlined, Protestantized churches that have been built for the people, and not first and foremost for the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are playing an important role in an effort to destroy the way the Catholic Church always directed herself to God – what is called the lex orandi – the customary way to pray. Behind such works is a real malice against the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church and a malevolent desire to deprive souls of this mystical sense of the glory, grandeur, majesty and beauty of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Mystical Bride.

It is time for the faithful not to seek new norms, but to restore the old ones, and to demand an end to such dire destruction of their heritage.

Doesn’t it seem strange that forty years after Vatican Council II, the Church would have such “inadequate” criteria for church building and “renovations?”

Also, it seems peculiar that many Catholics should express this contradictory attitude:

On one hand, they object vehemently to modern renovations and changes to old cathedrals like that of St. John the Evangelist and expect Vatican support for the violation of canonical norms.

On the other hand, new cathedrals like the colossal $163 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels presently under construction in downtown Los Angeles go forward without any discussion about the same violations of canonical norms.

In the picture on a 2001 fund-raising brochure, Pope John Paul II holds the plans of the proposed new LA cathedral - which resembles a pagan temple or modern secular convention center but certainly not a Catholic Church - and gives his approval to Cardinal Mahony for the project.


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