e-mail us
Archbishop Weakland’s letter to priests

Confidential letter to priests

January 7, 2000

Dear Father,

In a little over two years I will be retiring. The transition to a new archbishop was raised up by several districts as one of the items we should now be discussing. Some have asked that I try to help all of you in preparing for the transition. It is not an easy task since I am not a disinterested bystander, but this letter will be a first attempt to try to point out what I believe will be involved in such a change. This letter is not a call for immediate action but a piece for discussion among the members of the Archdiocesan Council of Priests in the next two years, after they have listened to the wisdom of the priests in their respective districts. Decisions may well follow that extensive discussion.

Preliminary reflections

When I arrived in the archdiocese twenty-two years ago, there was an unwritten but assumed pastoral policy that seemed to be accepted by almost everyone: it is good that there is a diversity of pastoral approaches in the implementation of Vatican Council II since that gives people a choice. It was assumed that people sought the kind of parish where they felt comfortable and that such diversity was fine. Could I be concrete and say that this diversity included personages such as Father Fran Eschweiler and Monsignor Alphonse Popek and everyone in between? The pastoral pluralism involved was seen as acceptable and healthy. I admit that I felt comfortable with such pluralism and tried to respect it. It was the right solution at that time while Vatican Council II was still in the process of being implemented on our local level.

This model began to crumble in our archdiocese for many reasons, some as a reflection of what was happening in the whole Church, some because of local changes. I will deal with the changes here in the archdiocese first before tackling those affecting the whole Church.

In the archdiocese that pluralism was called into question when we moved into serious collaboration and planning. The constant fear arose that the planning was going to be done on the basis of the pastoral style of individual priests and not by internal logic or the needs of the area involved. The fear existed that a change of pastor could involve such a change in style that it could alter or terminate the collaboration and planning. It became evident that transitions from one pastor to another in the light of such pluralism would be difficult. Term of office also gave rise to a desire for less diversity because priests were moving more frequently. Those pastors who did not move to new assignments because the term of office policy did not apply to them often remained in the time warp of a previous decade and this diversity, rather than be seen as a sign of vitality, became a source of irritation and division. As parishes merged, this diversity became an obstacle because of the ingrained differences to be overcome. Younger priests, too, had their own approach that did not include the desire for the kind of diversity that had been found earlier.

For all these reasons - I cite only those that are internal to the diocese - we find ourselves now in a different pastoral moment in the archdiocese as we enter the new millennium. There exists now a clearer desire for more consistency in pastoral approaches throughout the archdiocese. What seemed to be helpful to the people in the past now is seen as detrimental, since people so easily “shop” around for the approach they desire, even if it is not necessarily the right one or the one that will challenge them to new growth. Differences that were at one time accepted are now seen as the cause of divisiveness and constant irritants, especially when any planning on a district or local level takes place.

What has been happening on the local level is but a mirror of the national and international Church scene. We are entering a moment when more uniformity is being demanded. The appearance of the Revised Code of Canon Law in 1983 marked the turning point. No longer could one say that we are waiting till the Revised Code was published before bringing certain elements into line. This new thinking has affected all levels of Church life, e.g., diocesan structures, parish structures, priestly and lay formation, liturgical norms, sacramental practices, and many other aspects of our lives as Catholics. The mood in the Church has changed and is characterized by the appearance of more concrete norms and laws in all of these areas, even ones where the Code would appear to allow more flexibility for local adaptation. The age of “experimentation,” as minimal as it seemed to some, has moved into an age of more consistent and uniform practice in rubrics and laws. This is how I analyze the present moment. One could say that this “leveling” process came too soon and that it would have been better to allow more time for implementation, but there is no way of rewriting history.

Any new bishop coming to Milwaukee, I feel, will be a part of this new moment toward uniformity. The question that I have been asking myself in trying to help you priests prepare for the transition is this: What among the practices in the archdiocese might any successor be uncomfortable with? I cannot predict who the new bishop will be or what kind of temperament he will have, but I believe that I can assume that he will be a “middle-of-the-roader” and a part of the national ecclesial thinking I described in the preceding paragraph. It is with such an episcopal model in mind that I make the following observations.

Solid Accomplishments

Any new bishop of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee would be inheriting a local church that is very much alive and would find in place a solid base upon which to continue to build. Without sounding too flattering, I would have to say that one of those strengths is the clergy itself. Starting with Bishop Sklba to the newly ordained, I could point out the zeal, the wisdom, the pastoral concerns of the priests. We do not have a “clerical” diocese where the priests worry about honors and careers, but one where serving others dominates. We have good advisory groups. Both the Council of Priests and the Pastoral Council have been dealing with the real issues the diocese has had to face. The system of parish consultants, unique to us, has been most helpful. The renewal asked for by Vatican Council II in liturgical and biblical studies, in preaching, and developing lay ministries has been effected with very few weak spots still to be worked on. Our formation programs have been effective, especially at our own Seminary. We are fortunate to have in the archdiocese two seminaries with competent faculties. We can be proud of the way we take care of our retired priests and have put into place the kind of pension and facilities that are necessary in that regard. We continue to face school issues with courage, being the only diocese in the country being able to put into effect for the schools of our Central City a Voucher program.

We have so many advantages in our facilities at Cousins Center, the envy of many another bishop. The archdiocese is on a solid financial basis, which any successor would be grateful to inherit. One of our reasons for pride is certainly our Chancery that functions so effectively and pastorally. Any new bishop will find that we function well within the bounds of the Revised Code of Canon Law. Our Tribunal is as competent and as rapid in dealing with cases as any in the country. We have active social ministries, so many of them parish based. Around the nation we are known for our ecumenical spirit and achievements. The rapport between the priests and the Catholic colleges and universities here is excellent. One could say that the Church of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is highly respected in the civic community and known for its concerns for the well-being of all.

I know that all this has been accomplished not by me but by all of us through these years. When I visit the parishes, I sense their vitality, the involvement of so many in the life of the parish, and rejoice at the pastoral results that the priests here have been able to bring about. Those gains I feel will not be reversed but will continue on. The real life of a diocese is in the parishes and that life is one to be proud of. I wanted to say this before going on to discuss areas where my successor may feel uncomfortable since we should not lose sight of what Church is all about.

Reflections on Specific Areas of Church Life in the Archdiocese

For the sake of clarity I have divided the material into different categories: 1) Sacramental Practices, 2) Liturgical Practices, 3) Priestly Life and Ministry, 4) the Diaconate, 5) Collaboration and Mergers, 6) Parish Structures, and 7) Formation Issues. I realize that often I am only guessing what a successor of mine might be uncomfortable with, but for the most part I would be willing to bet that my hunches are right. What attitude should you priests have as you read this list? No one will be happy with all of the items listed. Everyone will have to make sacrifices for the sake of unity. Those who have not made the changes that are a part of the accepted or prescribed practices in the United States, especially in liturgy, will have to swallow their pride and make them. Those who want now to retain practices that the universal law of the Church or the new rubrics have not accepted will also have to swallow their pride for the sake of unity. On the part of all of us, there will be some elements where we are winners and some where we are losers. We must gracious losers as well as thankful winners. Holding out at this moment on any issue as a prophetic stance does not strike me as helpful pastorally to our people, even though I would hope that debate about so many aspects of renewal would continue to take place among us, for they are not finished issues. In these areas of liturgy and sacramental practice my policy has been to allow the broad scope that the law itself allows and not to impose on the archdiocese my personal whims and preferences.

1. Sacramental Practices.

A) General Absolution. I feel any successor would have been uncomfortable if we had continued with the practice of General Absolution, even under the specific norms I had set down for the Archdiocese and that seemed to me to be in conformity with the bishop’s rights in the Code of Canon Law. Many of you rightly point out to me that this issue is far from over, especially in light of the shortage of priests. It will resurface in the not too distant future, and any new bishop will have to deal with it. Right now, I am only saying that a new bishop will be happy he does not have to deal with the issue at this moment. I feel certain that if the practice is still continuing without permission, he will deal with it severely.

B) First Confession/First Communion. There is no doubt that the latest legislation and norms from Rome covering this issue place First Confession before First Communion and that this should be the norm again for the whole Church. I feel sure that any successor of mine would want the Archdiocese to be in conformity with those norms.

When I was ordained a bishop 22 years ago, Rome had granted permission “ad experimentum” for those dioceses in the United States wishing to do so to place First Communion before First Confession. That permission, I believe for ten years, was renewed for another ten. (Rome could not grant permission for a practice, even “ad experimentum,” if it were immoral or intrinsically evil. The norm of the church was and has remained that no one has to go to Confession unless conscious of serious sin.) The argument for changing the order was primarily a psychological one - the claim that children at that age were not capable of committing mortal sin. It was also an attempt to separate in the minds of people Confession from the reception of Holy Communion since they are two distinct sacraments and it is indeed possible to receive the Eucharist without having gone immediately before to Confession. With the revised code no new permission was granted for the experiment in the United States and the present Holy Father made it clear that he wanted the Church in the United States to return to the old practice. Since so much effort and catechesis had been put forth by Archbishop Cousins into changing the order, I did not think it was the time to reverse so soon a practice that was started here with ecclesiastical permission and was not intrinsically wrong or evil. I also did not buy the argument that the demise in the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation was due to this experiment.

I have noticed that many today have changed their opinion about the psychological arguments that had been used to place Communion first, noting that children do have a sense of sin and often do need to overcome a deep selfishness that can often lead to cruelty toward others. Our own sacramental guidelines presume the Penance-Eucharist order. At the same time, there is a certain reaction that perhaps the idea of Pius X of placing First Communion at seven years old may have been a bit precipitous. In any case, I am stating that a successor would, I feel sure, insist on a return to the older practice.

C) Confirmation. I do not see that any successor would automatically change our custom of confirming at the age of 16 as there is no consensus among the bishops on this point. I also feel sure that a successor would not move Confirmation to age seven since that practice, too, has not gained wide support.

2. Liturgical Practices.

A) Posture During the Eucharistic Prayer. The bishops of the United States have again voted to ask Rome for a change in the universal rubric for posture at Mass so that, in the United States, one would kneel from the Holy, Holy, Holy to the end of the great Amen. Any successor of mine would insist on kneeling during that time. Although I do not believe in the argument that standing has ruined people’s belief in the Real Presence, I concede that many do see a need for some uniformity in the dioceses of the United States on this issue of posture, and conformity to this rule will help bring about the more consistent practice desired. It is not clear yet whether the same rule will apply for the “Ecce Agnus Dei.” Although many can bring forth valid arguments for standing as the traditional posture of the faithful during the Eucharistic prayer, I feel positive that my successor will insist that the vote of the bishops demands on the part of all a submission for the sake of consistency. Not to do so would be seen as making an ecclesial statement that would be divisive.

B) Kiss of Peace. The Kiss of Peace is not optional. Any parish that does not have this Kiss of Peace is simply out of order. No successor of mine will change this integral part of the Mass.

Holding hands is another matter. This is not a rubric approved by either the local bishop, or the Conference of bishops, or Rome. It entered the Catholic Church through the Charismatic Renewal and has no tradition among us. Some dislike it very much and will not participate at Mass at certain parishes because of it. Personally, I find it childish and uncharitable - in that it makes so many people, especially elderly, feel uncomfortable. I have no idea how my successor would deal with it, but my prognosis is that this innovation will not last long.

C) Women Servers, Readers, and Communion Distributors. One could also say that the permission for women to be servers, readers, and Communion distributors at Mass is now the general rule for the United States. My successor I feel would not only continue this practice but consider any parish that has not introduced these possibilities as simply trying to be ideologically divisive. Although I would not expect any successor to alter the practice of lay people distributing Holy Communion since it is now part of the practices of the Universal Church, I feel sure he would be more rigorous than I have been about not permitting lay distributors of Communion if other priests are present. It might also be well to look again at the need to formally designate such distributors and to see that they receive the kind of formation needed. Perhaps we are slipping into too casual a designation without sufficient preparation.

D) Communion Under Both Species. This practice is now well-established and clearly authorized. I would not expect that any successor would change it. Those parishes that do not have this practice on a regular basis would be asked to do so. Again, not to do so would be seen as making a statement that is divisive.

E) Concelebration. The original intent of concelebration was that it would be a sign of unity in the presbyterate. Pope Paul VI did not expect that all priests present at a Eucharistic celebration would concelebrate. He opened each Synod of Bishops with only a few concelebrants chosen symbolically to represent all the cardinals and bishops present. The other cardinals, bishops, and priests present simply received Holy Communion. Now it is the tendency to insist that all priests concelebrate and not participate in the Eucharist as if they were lay people. Some have seen in the practice of priests not to concelebrate an ideological statement that they do not appreciate the uniqueness of the ordained priesthood as distinct from the priesthood of the faithful. I cannot go into all the debates that surround this question now, but I only want to point out that a successor of mine might be uncomfortable with the practice we have of priests not all concelebrating, whether it be on our overnights or on other occasions.

F) The Mass of Chrism. Our Chrism Mass has emphasized the priesthood of all the faithful. This is the traditional theology of the Mass of Chrism since it involves more than just the consecration of the chrism used for ordination, and I have followed Archbishop Cousins’ thrust of retaining the original meaning of the rite. The practice throughout the United States and most of the world has become that of making this Mass into a sign of the unity of the presbyterate. I feel a successor may be uncomfortable with our emphasis here and want to follow the newer interpretation, one introduced by Pope Paul VI with its shift to the renewal of the promise of celibacy - a practice that had no part in the origins and history of this rite. It is a recent innovation. Most dioceses ask all the priests to concelebrate and then attend a dinner that follows to emphasize the unity of the presbyterate. I judge a successor would want to follow this innovation since it has been officially introduced into the rubrics.

G) Distribution of Holy Communion. Any successor would feel that more consistency is needed throughout the Archdiocese on the way Holy Communion is distributed. I feel any successor of mine would immediately abolish the practice that arose in some parishes of distributing Holy Communion to the Communion ministers after the others have received. I believe he would insist on the rubric that the priest celebrant, the concelebrants, and the deacon all receive the consecrated host before the priest says the “Behold the Lamb of God.” The others who are to distribute receive then under both species and move to distribute to the faithful.

I confess that this is the one part of the Mass I dread when I am out in the parishes. I never know what will happen. I realize that there is also the custom in many parishes of giving the consecrated hosts to the Communion distributors before the priest says the “Behold the Lamb of God,” but often when I do this in a parish I note that they consume the host at once and do not wait. Then I realize they must have another custom and did not know what I was about. For these reasons I feel sure any successor would try to bring some uniformity into these practices.

H) Posture at the Reception of Communion. It is not clear how this rubric will evolve in the United States. We have all noticed that some genuflect before receiving the Eucharist. This is not only awkward but seems to be untraditional and impractical. The rubric does call for some sign of reverence. Most are interpreting this as a bow of the head. We will see. Till that is clarified I would suggest that we leave well-enough alone. Whatever practice is decided upon by the bishops will be, I feel sure, followed here by my successor.

I) Devotionalism. I judge my successor may well be interested in promoting the return to older devotional practices, especially Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, public recitation of the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, and many others that are newer, like Mercy Sunday. Perpetual Adoration will also have to be regulated. We all see these trends among us. No one can be negative toward popular piety, but the fear remains that these devotions may again take the place of the Mass and the sacraments as the identifying characteristics of the Catholic tradition. I have no idea how my successor will keep a balance in this regard.

3. Priestly Life and Ministry.

Although some seem to worry about this area, I do not feel that any new bishop would make many changes from what we have now. The first point that I cite below is the only one that seems serious to me.

A) Residence. My successor might be unhappy that so many priests have selected alternate residency. Canon 533, section 1, states that “a pastor is obliged to reside in a rectory near the church. Nevertheless, in particular cases and if there is a just cause, the local ordinary can permit him to reside elsewhere, especially in a house shared by several presbyters, provided that the performance of parochial functions is properly and suitably provided for.” With modern pagers and portable telephones it seems to me that alternate residency is possible today as never before in history. Still, I mention it as a point where a successor could be uncomfortable.

B) Term of Office and Age of Retirement. I do not expect that my successor will make any changes in our term of office policies. After the Revised Code of Canon Law was published, the bishops of the United States asked for and obtained from Rome permission to institute such terms, and this is now the common practice in almost all dioceses around the nation.

Several times when I visited Congregations in Rome, they commented on the early age for retirement of priests in the United States and felt our own age of 68 was too young. Some said we bishops should make the age 75, especially in the light of the shortage of priests. I have no idea how my successor will deal with this matter. I have sensed that the demands on priests today are greater than ever and that many of you are tired out when you reach 68 or 70. Priestly ministry is more than saying Mass. People demand good preaching and good presiding as well. It is not easy to meet those demands as one gets older.

C) Salary and Benefits. I do not think that a successor would try to change our salary structures for priests. They seem to be working well.

D) Absences from the Parish. A successor might well seek a way in which the absences of a pastor from his parish could be controlled, perhaps by the Dean. I say this only because it is one of those points about which lay people sometimes complain. A month’s vacation, time for retreat, and time for continuing education - all allowable by the Revised Code - are often more than the average worker gets these days. I usually explain to those who complain to me about a pastor’s absences that the priest works six days a week while the average person only five. Some are convinced by this reasoning, some are not. I feel sure a successor would also find a way of making certain that each priest made an annual retreat.

4. The Diaconate.

I do not believe that a successor would change much about the role of the deacon as we now have it. Perhaps he might make it clear that if a deacon is available for a ministry, an unordained lay person should not be assigned to minister. This could be true for positions such as Parish Director or Pastoral Associate. Rome seems to imply in some of its documents this preference for a deacon.

5. Collaboration and Mergers.

I do not expect that a successor would alter our plans in that regard. This statement might surprise some of the people in those parishes where some are hoping that my successor would reverse the decisions made. In our planning we have been conservative compared to some dioceses and have as a good a plan as any. To alleviate the priest shortage, however, a successor might move toward bringing in priests from Africa, India, or the Philippines. I would hope that the Council of Priests would be consulted before he would do so.

6. Parish Structures.

I do not think that a successor would alter much of the practices we have established in the parishes, especially since the Revised Code was published. Although all dioceses have gone ahead with the creation in each parish of two bodies, the Parish Council and the Finance Council, some have placed them on an equal plane without a clear connection between them. Most are learning, however, that this set-up does not work. Our way of seeing the Parish Council as the group to which all the other committees report works best. I would not expect any changes from what we are doing now. If any changes are proposed by a successor, I feel sure the Council of Priests would be involved.

Whether a successor would enlarge or reduce the instances where we have Parish Directors I cannot guess. I judge that as long as we have sufficient assisting priests, there would be the tendency to leave this practice intact. I may be wrong on this, however. My gut tells me that a new bishop might prefer to name a priest as pastor of several parishes and have a Pastoral Associate instead of Parish Director in one or both of them. This is not helpful in terms of the load a priest is asked to shoulder. I feel any successor would rigorously enforce the rule that no resigned priest could be a Pastoral Associate or fulfill other ministerial roles.

7. Formation Issues.

My successor might want to examine carefully whether it is best to continue to form our own men for the priesthood here or to send them elsewhere. Since there seems to be some hope that the numbers of vocations will continue to increase, he may want to do what I am doing - give it one’s best shot and hope that the numbers are sufficient to assure a good intellectual and pastoral formation. Our experience of training lay and clerical candidates together has proven to be very advantageous. In that respect, however, we are swimming against the current. Since the general norms presuppose that they are being formed separately, I would expect that my successor would be hesitant to go contrary to the general practice that is now becoming the common one throughout the world - except, of course, for the major schools in Rome and in those run by Religious Orders.

Concluding Attitudes:

In all of the above discussions I have tried to be as candid as possible, but I realize that it is impossible to guess with accuracy the positions a successor would take. I have tried to do my guessing on the basis of what is becoming the general norm or practice in the United States on the issues in question. At least these points would be good ones upon which to begin further discussion among you and perhaps lead to some action items as well.

Above all else, I think it is important at a moment of transition to leave some time for a successor to establish himself and think through what changes he may wish to make. It is also important that the Council of Priests, when they would be reorganized, and the Consultors be honest in presenting their best thinking on any changes proposed.

We are in a new moment in the Church with regard to the implementation of Vatican Council II. It seems that we are now coming to a period of more uniformity, less creativity, and less space for personal preferences. I do not wish to say that this trend is wrong. It may well be that at this given moment more consistency of practice is important for the stability of the Church and its members. The younger generation needs more structures, clarity, and guidance. For those who put their heart and total energy into the implementation of Vatican Council II, this new period might seem sterile and empty. I hope and pray not. It may well be exactly what is needed to make us deepen the reforms we have already made, strive to have them more widely accepted, and finally see that they lead our people to a greater holiness. This is the only logic, in Faith, that I can see in analyzing the way the Spirit is leading us at this moment in history.

I intend to watch, with a certain curiosity and no anger or animosity, as all of this develops. If my generation, the first after the Council, erred in some of its more radical implementations of Vatican Council II, it did so out of zeal and unbridled enthusiasm, but with a clear theological perspective that it derived from Vatican Council II. I fear the restorationist implementation that is characterizing the second post-conciliar generation will err on the side of rigidity, rubricism, and a fear of the gifts of individuals, especially of the lay, and build their renewal more on reaction than on theological insights. The subsequent or third generation may well just get it right, but most of us by then will already have seen the fullness of Truth. Peace!


Most Reverend Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B.
Archbishop of Milwaukee

National Catholic Reporter, posted March 6, 2000