Dear Archbishop Listecki:
For many years now, we have noticed an unchecked proliferation of liturgical abuses at Milwaukee parishes. The abuses in liturgy, far from operating in a vacuum, have had a ripple effect, touching all aspects of a Catholic’s life in Milwaukee. While the situation is not as extreme as it was in the heyday of abuses in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (replete with clown masses and cinnamon raisin bread for Communion) what is often overlooked is that many of the “lesser” abuses that took shape in those years remain, and now have become normative, to such a degree that few are even aware that they are abuses. (Over-reliance on so-called Eucharistic ministers is a good example of this phenomenon.) Chalk this up to poor formation in the seminaries, coupled with the Protestant and Enlightenment emphasis on egalitarianism that is so much a part of American history. Whatever its direct sources, it must be tackled head on by the leadership of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
Reflecting on the liturgical legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Damian Thompson, writing for The Telegraph, summed it up extraordinarily well:
Benedict’s central achievement was that he began – but came nowhere near finishing – the “purification” of the Catholic Church that was his most pressing concern. This necessitated the reform both of the liturgy and of the behavior of the clergy entrusted with its performance. It might seem strange to yoke together the two, but Ratzinger has always emphasized that liturgy – properly orientated worship of God – is the ultimate purpose of Catholicism, requiring a holy priesthood and laity. (Emphasis added.)
Younger Catholics (in their twenties and thirties) in Milwaukee are yearning for a serious, solemn encounter with the liturgy that is in one-hundred-percent agreement with the Second Vatican Council’s document Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the peerless liturgical vision put forward on so many occasions by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who is arguably the greatest liturgist to occupy the See of Saint Peter. For nearly three decades, our spiritual lives in Milwaukee have marinated in the stew of mediocrity: mediocre homilies, mediocre music, mediocre worship, and, sadly, many mediocre priests. Inspiration and holiness are killed in the lukewarm waters of mediocrity. This helps to explain the tragedy of why many young Catholics whom we know have left the Church. It is hard enough facing the onslaught of secularism out there, day after day, but when we have to confront it inside the walls of our Church, the sting is twice as strong.
Where our local Church has come up short, those of us who have remained committed to the Church and to Christ have our families (our hardworking, tireless moms and dads, and our wise grandparents and close friends) to thank for reminding us of the timelessness of beauty and truth.
We are rightly turned off by what has appropriately been called by George Weigel “the liturgical silly season”. Sadly, this “season” still holds sway at many parishes in Milwaukee, where formative reverence and prayerful silence are replaced by patronizing hymns and saccharine homilies, utterly devoid of doctrine. Most troubling is the often scandalous lack of reverence given the Blessed Sacrament, which is treated with breathtaking casualness and flippancy. Taken together, these countless abuses have contributed to a serious formational crisis in the local Catholic Church. We agree wholeheartedly with your predecessor in La Crosse, Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, who observed that, “liturgical abuses lead to serious damage to the faith of Catholics”. (Emphasis added.) Over the past ten years or so, we have seen in Milwaukee very little being done from the top to address our concerns.
Quite the contrary, more often than not, our completely legitimate questions are dismissed as “not a big deal”. It is a remarkable thing: on the one hand, our concerns are coolly dismissed by many priests and bishops, who, in more or less words, tell us to “get over it”, that “it’s not a big deal”, and yet it was no less a man than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who so eloquently gave voice to our grievances in his voluminous writings on the liturgy, most particularly in his magisterial book The Spirit of the Liturgy, and in his Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum.
Indeed, when the source of our echo is the voice of the Bishop of Rome, the successor to Saint Peter, it proves that our grievances are perfectly justified. In fact, Benedict specifically singled out the desire of younger Catholics to justify his call for wider access to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. He is well-known for frequently lamenting the deterioration of solemnity and protocol in the celebration of liturgy. Yet, here in our home archdiocese, those of us who issue pleas for liturgical seriousness in the Ordinary Form of the Mass are simply ignored altogether and treated as antediluvian pariahs. In the name of Pope Benedict, and all that he did for the Church, we, the heirs to his teachings, demand to be heard. We demand to be taken seriously because the liturgy demands to be taken seriously.
As a result, we have prepared a list of recommendations to you, Archbishop Listecki, in order to guide you in remedying the unchecked, decades-long liturgical aberrations in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
We have some bold ideas that you probably will not hear from the conduits of the conventional wisdom. As young, educated professionals in this great city, we have the unique perspective of having attended Masses at many local parishes, and have spoken to many people about this issue who share our exasperation. As a result, we feel conscience-bound to bring these points to your attention.
1. Over-reliance on extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion: The overall consequence of this phenomenon has been an unquestionable breakdown in reverence toward the Blessed Sacrament, and decline in belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We have noticed young women dressed totally inappropriately (mini-skirts, tight leggings, halter tops, etc.) administering the Eucharist. The privilege of assisting with the distribution of Holy Communion is intended to be reserved for extraordinary circumstances to select people who are properly trained. The Church is very clear about this. Sadly, it has become routine at local parishes not to err on the side of caution, and to watch from the pews as an army of “Eucharistic ministers” file into the sanctuary, when in truth, the need for such a number is extremely questionable. It is our belief that the over-reliance on such ministers stems from a well-intentioned but misguided effort to ensure “active participation” on the part of the laity. Priests need to rein in and limit the superabundance of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Related to this, the Catechism of the Council of Trent issued the following directive:
The Laity Prohibited To Touch The Sacred Vessels
To safeguard in every possible way the dignity of so august a Sacrament, not only is the power of its administration entrusted exclusively to priests, but the Church has also prohibited by law any but consecrated persons, unless some case of great necessity intervene, to dare handle or touch the sacred vessels, the linen, or other instruments necessary to its completion.
Priests themselves and the rest of the faithful may hence understand how great should be the piety and holiness of those who approach to consecrate, administer or receive the Eucharist. (Emphasis added.)
We are struck by the force of this admonition. The force, or the effect, is the direct result of how different things are now, when everyone and their uncle stroll about the sanctuary and handle the sacred vessels with the same reverence with which they grab a pint of beer at County Clare. Certainly, legitimate changes and updates have been put into effect by rightful authority since the days of this Council. Nevertheless, we are hit with a nagging question: How can something that was considered absolutely verboten for centuries so quickly, within forty years or so, come to be celebrated as a true sign of “active participation” today? Strictly forbidden yesterday, actively encouraged today. We are vexed.
The administering of the Blessed Sacrament, and even the handling of the instruments associated with the Sacrament, were clearly limited to the exclusive prerogative of the priest. There can be no doubt from this passage that the Church took this matter very seriously, precisely because of “the dignity of so august a Sacrament”. So, even in light of the legitimate changes that took place, we still ask: What happened? What changed? How did our understanding become so radically altered? Returning to the Church’s true directive on the careful use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion would be a good place to start. Cardinal Francis Arinze, in the document Redemptoris Sacramentum, issued the following instruction on the subject:
Only out of true necessity is there to be recourse to the assistance of extraordinary ministers in the celebration of the Liturgy. Such recourse is not intended for the sake of a fuller participation of the laity but rather, by its very nature, is supplementary and provisional. Furthermore, when recourse is had out of necessity to the functions of extraordinary ministers, special urgent prayers of intercession should be multiplied that the Lord may soon send a Priest for the service of the community and raise up an abundance of vocations to sacred Orders. (Emphasis added.)
We are once more left to ask: Are the instructions in this document fully grasped by archdiocesan priests? Can we honestly say that normal Masses in Milwaukee manifest a case of “true necessity” for so many extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist? Is it truly necessary to have anywhere from five to ten, or more, extraordinary ministers for a Sunday Mass? We doubt it.
2. Total breakdown in appropriate apparel for Mass: There is no longer any sense among most of the laity of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to wear when it comes to dressing for Mass. This rings especially true during the hot summer months. Each parish should have a clearly stated dress code, and pastors should enforce it. We believe that it is totally inappropriate, yet incredibly common, to observe scantily clad young women at Mass. For their part, many men suffer from excessive sloppiness. What does this say about the formation they are receiving at their parish? If one truly believes he/she is going to meet, and even receive, the King of Kings, do tee-shirts, flip-flops and mini-skirts constitute appropriate attire? Most dress far better for Casual Fridays at work than for Sunday Mass. We fault the priests for this oversight.
3. Homilies light on doctrine and heavy on sentimentalism: Priests need to be reminded that homilies represent a singular time to provide the faithful with important, practical counsel on living an authentically Catholic life in an increasingly hostile culture. However, most of the time, priests, in their homilies give short shrift to the fundamentals of the faith and to living the moral life, opting instead to talk vaguely about being nice to your neighbor, etc. Priests need to be reminded about the necessity of preaching on the Sacraments, core Church doctrine, and yes, the difficult teachings on marriage, birth control and cohabitation. Is this easy? Of course not. But we need our priests to be men who are fearless. “Lions in the pulpit, lambs in the confessional”.
4. Reception of Communion: Father John A. Hardon S.J., arguably one of America’s most pre-eminent theologians, and a Jesuit who also had the ear of Blessed Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, strongly believed that the proliferation of receiving Communion in the hand has had a lot to do with the current, widespread decay in belief in the Real Presence. He noted,
In the very, very early Church, Communion was given in the hands. However, as the faith of the Christians weakened in the Real Presence, by the 5th, 6th centuries Communion on the tongue became mandatory—remained mandatory until the present century. Behind Communion in the hand—I wish to repeat and make as plain as I can—is a weakening, a conscious, deliberate weakening of faith in the Real Presence. (Father John A. Hardon, Call to Holiness Conference, 1997. Emphasis added.)
More recently, as you are no doubt aware, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI required those receiving Holy Communion at the Basilica of Saint Peter to do so exclusively on the tongue. Why? Precisely because of the egregious abuses that were taking place (see Light of the World). Of course, it is not a sin to reverently receive Communion in the hand. However, for opting to receive on the tongue according to the ancient manner, we have at times been subject to looks of disgust and eye-rolls from priests. One of us, when desiring to receive on the tongue, was asked by a Eucharistic minister in a voice dripping with disgust, “You mean you want me to put it there?” This is totally inappropriate and scandalous. Furthermore, we struggle to think of a single instance of when a priest has talked in his homily about worthy reception of Communion and the necessity of confessing mortal sins prior to receiving the Eucharist. Which leads to our next point.
5. Confession times: Why there is not more confession availability at parishes with a priest or two is a mystery to us. With good reason, we wonder why a priest cannot spend one hour a day in the confessional. After offering Mass, what could be more important in terms of a priest’s duty? Priests (not to mention laity) need a firm reminder of the necessity of this Sacrament. Pope Francis has recently spoken beautifully on this subject. Who is listening? Many Catholics are deprived of the gift of confession because priests are not adequately preaching about it and not availing themselves for the reception of it.
6. Clear distinction between priest and laity: Much confusion has stemmed directly from the blurring of the line that separates the role of the priest from the lay faithful (in particular lay women). Many priests, perhaps well-intentioned, have relinquished their ministerial and priestly duties in a misguided scheme to get people (women especially) more involved in the liturgy and in Church life in general. Something must be done to reassert the roles that are exclusively reserved to the priest. As we continue to place women in semi-clerical roles within the Church (like chancellor, ministry office head, pastoral associate, etc.), the confusion about gender and the priesthood will only get worse. The truth is, we’re reinforcing vocational androgyny in society. But that’s just the problem. If we accept vocational androgyny (as many Catholics do), then there’s only one reasonable conclusion for them to make, and they’re making it: the male-only priesthood really is baseless, unreasonable, and a sign of lingering, unjustified animosity towards women. This widespread misunderstanding must be corrected, and fast.
7. An unequivocal, public and clear break from the legacy of Archbishop Rembert Weakland: The healing of memory is an important step that is still unaccomplished here. Why is a significant building attached to the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist dedicated to Archbishop Weakland? Why is there a bronze bas-relief dedicated to his memory in the cathedral? This is a man who, during his tenure, oversaw a tragic, unprecedented decomposition of our Catholic heritage and identity (parish life and liturgy, Catholic schools, seminary, moral issues, etc.). Can anyone seriously deny this sad reality? The former archbishop was openly hostile to the traditional form of the Mass. Dissent and immorality, ancient partners in crime, had more than their moment in the sun for over two decades under the former archbishop. Whether we like to admit it or not, there are still many open wounds from this era, totally apart from the sexual abuse scandal. Many good Catholics, hard working parents, trying their best to raise strong Catholic families, and even faithful priests, were maligned and treated as second-class citizens by the former archbishop and his ever-loyal minions (many of whom still, incredibly, occupy prominent positions of power in this archdiocese). Coming from the professional world, we can confidently state that it would never fly in a business setting to retain so many holdovers from a corrupt administration. And yet, here in Milwaukee, the Counsins Center is stunningly packed with loyal Weakland followers. Whatever can be done to reverse and/or cancel out Archbishop Weakland’s disgraceful legacy is worth the effort. Moral credibility cannot be reestablished until his legacy is totally reversed and repudiated. We can and should pray for him, but we must also speak honestly about the grave, lasting damage he inflicted upon us.
8. Local Liturgical/Catholic culture: Overall, we are troubled by a liturgical and Catholic culture in Milwaukee that has been too heavily shaped by a hostile secular culture that places more emphasis on multiculturalism, political correctness and secularism than on the eternal, unchanging truths and on our ancient, two-thousand-year faith. Archbishop Listecki, during your installation as archbishop, you spoke eloquently about combating the ravages of secularism. We completely agree. Here in Milwaukee, this acidic culture struck at a moment when we were already hobbled by Archbishop Weakland’s machinations. Many Catholics in Milwaukee have been utterly deprived of their rich heritage, from liturgy, to a serious Catholic education rooted in the teachings of Saints like Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Cardinal Newman, and so on. What an injustice! We’ve traded our riches for their rags, the beautiful for the vulgar. (Thank you, Archbishop Weakland and friends.) The undeniable, irrational hostility that many priests still harbor towards our liturgical traditions, for example, must be addressed by the one person who has the authority to do so, the archbishop, to whom they have pledged unconditional obedience in such matters. As Catholics in Milwaukee, we must come to terms with the observation made by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
Today more than ever the Christian must be aware that he belongs to a minority and that he is in opposition to everything that appears good, obvious, logical to the ‘spirit of the world’, as the New Testament calls it. Among the most urgent tasks facing Christians is that of regaining the capacity of nonconformism, i.e., the capacity to oppose many developments of the surrounding culture. (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church)
This passage emphasizes the fact that we need a positive, alternative Catholic culture in Milwaukee. And this Catholic culture must be fostered in concrete terms, if we are going to do more than engage in idle thinking. We need a non-conformist Catholic culture–a community of people living a day-to-day life together, nurtured by the liturgy, that is in complete opposition to the mainstream. We need different standards of education, worship, family structure, recreation, social interaction, dress, civic involvement, everything. It’s time to stop being afraid of being different. Or, better yet, time to develop an alternative culture so strong (i.e., Christendom) that the fear of being different would never enter people’s minds in the first place. We must be different when being the same is being pathetic.
9. Finally, why does our mayor, Tom Barrett, a committed, proud, pro-abortion liberal, continue to enjoy good standing in the Catholic Church in Milwaukee, presumably receiving Communion regularly at Saint Sebastian Parish? The credibility of the Church’s message suffers from this scandal. How can we talk about the importance we place on the sanctity of life when this very public spectacle goes unchecked? Rather, how can we be expected to be taken seriously on the question of life? After all, who wasn’t embarrassed when, during the run-up to the recall election, a number of local priests (along with Archbishop Weakland) signed on for the recall of our state’s most pro-life, pro-family governor ever?
We understand that the implementation of these suggestions is not an easy, “flipping a switch” task. There is a priest shortage and, the truth is, we know from reliable authorities and sources that you have some priests in Milwaukee who are irretrievably hostile to an authentic “reform of the reform” of the sacred liturgy. They simply will not listen, no matter the authority. Still, something must be done. Inaction is not an option. We are firmly convinced that we are in a critical state of affairs. We cannot treat the liturgy with a “business as usual” approach. We eagerly await your reply to this letter and welcome the opportunity to elaborate on any of the aforementioned points. Thank you for your time and be assured of our prayers.