There’s an Urban Milwaukee article about Archbishop Rembert Weakland that’s making the rounds in Wisconsin. Among other details, it offers a look into the expansive apartment/condominium complex Weakland now calls home. Not too exciting. It also offers some insights into Weakland’s daily life. Again, nothing particularly interesting there. Of course, any article about Weakland is going to bring up the scandals, his jaw-dropping fall from grace, and even more recent setbacks. I’m not going there in this piece. After all, how often do we need to rehash those depressing events? But one passage in the article struck me, as it looks back on Weakland’s formative years and meteoric rise in the Church.
Weakland sought to prove his worth with intellectual accomplishments, Murphy writes. His mother had an old upright piano and, beginning at age 7, he taught himself to play, devouring a graded series of lessons in a 10-volume music encyclopedia. He was the best student in his class and upon entering the Benedictine Monastery in Latrobe at age 13, he blossomed into a superstar, a concert-quality pianist who could play from memory for hours, and went on to study music at the Juilliard School and in Europe. He became fluent in Latin, Greek, German and French and needed special tutoring in classes such as Aramaic and Sanskrit. He would later add Italian, Spanish and Portuguese to his repertoire.
He rose to head of the music department , then to arch abbot and, in 1967, to abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine Order at age 40, making him the first American and the youngest person ever to hold that position.
As abbot primate, he traveled the world visiting and working to modernize Benedictine monasteries. He had known Pope Paul VI since the pope was a cardinal, and the two would meet to discuss Benedictine affairs or for Weakland to report on the condition of the church in countries he visited. Given Weakland’s musical accomplishments, he was a natural choice to work on the Vatican II committee that created the new, English-language liturgy for the church.
I cannot help reading this and thinking, “What a waste!” All those talents: the classical and modern language skills, the musical and cultural formation, etc. Where did it go? To what positive end were his exceptional skills applied here in Milwaukee? In Weakland’s bookish, introverted nature, in his love for classical music and knack for languages, one can surely see some parallels to Ratzinger. I guess that’s where the similarities end.
Given Weakland’s decades-long reign, Milwaukee could have been the center for a true renaissance in the faith. It’s somewhat paradoxical that, while Weakland is undoubtedly an intellectual with refined taste, the archdiocese under his watch became ground-zero for abysmal faith formation, mediocrity and ubiquitous bad taste and sentimentality in liturgy. We’ve yet to fully shed those accretions.