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Book review: Archbishop shares how struggles shaped his life

By Sister Jean Peerenboom

A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop by Rembert G. Weakland, OSB (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., $35)

For most folks, the only association made with former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland is a sex scandal. That’s unfortunate because there’s a lot more to this man, and the church and times in which he governed.

His recently-released memoir, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, forthrightly addresses the scandal that drove him from his archbishop’s post, but it also is full of gems, insights and reflections that most Catholics could savor. Yes, his supporters will be sympathetic; his detractors may gloat.

But this is his story told through his eyes. He addresses criticisms head-on and shares how the trials and tribulations in his life shaped his pastoral ministry and administration, first of his Benedictine order, then of the Milwaukee archdiocese. He was in Milwaukee for 25 years before retiring in 2002 amid reports of homosexuality and a confidential payout to his accuser. He retired at age 75.

Weakland pulls no punches, but his love for the church and God shines through, as he shares lessons learned through his 80+ years. Many of the lessons are ones we all learn sooner or later.

After reliving the public apology with which he ended his official time in Milwaukee, he goes back to his childhood years during the Depression. Early on, he had to make a choice between being a Benedictine monk or a concert pianist. While he continued to study, practice and share his music, the priesthood won. The reasons for choosing priesthood and the Benedictines changed as time went on, but it was never a decision he regretted. There were years of loneliness, struggle, disappointments and despair. But, he also found great satisfaction in community and the Church.
He explains how Rome views the American Catholic Church and the history that formed it. He had a front-row seat for much of the time after Vatican II, and he has a clear writing style that captures the feelings along with the events.

Weakland joined the Benedictine Order in 1945 in Pennsylvania.

During his early college years, he writes, “… I fell into a deep crisis of faith. An incompatibility between the need for faith and the discoveries of modern science had hit me: one did not need God as an explanation for the world around us because eventually a natural cause would be found for everything and that explanation would suffice. Now my crisis seems trite to me, but then it was a serious and nagging problem, like an itch that would not go away.”

His mentor at the time explained, “The history and tradition of the Catholic Church revealed a continuing tension over how the church could absorb other truths into its own system wherever they might be found.”

After that, “I accepted the process and growth that faith involved, that faith would always be a leap for me and perhaps even a struggle. I did not seem to need the security of all the answers, but found the search for the solutions exhilarating,” he writes.

He learned lessons from the people around him. As tensions mounted in the monastery over authoritarian leadership, he said the resolution taught him about compromise. “I learned first hand that exercising leadership was not the same as having power and that leadership cannot be given to one; it must be earned.”

Weakland delves into the politics of the church both pre- and post-Vatican II. He contrasts the players from the popes to the cardinals and other bishops. He was part of the “in” crowd with Popes John XXIII and Paul VI; was deeply saddened when Pope John Paul I died; and felt shunned by Pope John Paul II.

He explains how Rome views the American Catholic Church and the history that formed it. He had a front-row seat for much of it after Vatican II and he has a clear writing style that captures the feelings along with the events.

Avid churchwatchers won’t be surprised – discouraged maybe, but not surprised – by his descriptions of the workings of the papal office, the Curia and other Vatican offices. He writes with both pride and dismay of dealing with other bishops, priests, the laity and the liberals and conservatives in his beloved church. He grew into leadership, and like any leader made mistakes, faced many critics and was able to count more than a few successes to his credit.

Sister Jean Peerenboom is the former religion/books editor from the Green Bay Press Gazette. Sister Jean is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Sister Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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