In the spring of 2002, with the Catholic clergy abuse scandal unfolding nationally, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland called his priests together for a strategy session at the Cousin’s Center on the city’s South Side. The hastily called meeting came with only two days’ warning, but there was a big turnout of nervous priests and archdiocesan […]
In the spring of 2002, with the Catholic clergy abuse scandal unfolding
nationally, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland called his priests together
for a strategy session at the Cousin’s Center on the city’s South Side. The
hastily called meeting came with only two days’ warning, but there was a big
turnout of nervous priests and archdiocesan officials.
Many recall it as a gloomy winter day though it was nearly May. And
Weakland’s message couldn’t have been darker. “Gentlemen, don’t underestimate
this,” Weakland warned. “This is the greatest crisis to hit the church since the
Five hundred years earlier, the Reformation had split Christianity in two,
dividing it into Catholic and Protestant spheres. The prospect of something so
ominous again hitting the church left the priests shaken.
As Weakland and the priests began holding listening sessions to hear what
Catholics had to say about the sexual abuse crisis, the scandal hit home with
double force. The archbishop himself was implicated in a personal cover-up and
forced to admit that he had sold church property to pay $450,000 in apparent
hush money to a former theology student, Paul Marcoux. Marcoux told ABC’s “Good
Morning America” that the archbishop had sexually assaulted him in 1979;
Weakland denied that but confessed to an illicit affair.
In a televised service at the Mater Christi Chapel at the Cousin’s Center,
the gaunt 75-year-old former archbishop addressed his entire community,
apologizing five times for the pain he’d caused. In somber, sometimes faltering
tones, he begged forgiveness for his sinfulness.
“It was devastating. I don’t think we as clergy ever dealt with the
heartache, the sadness we all felt,” says Fr. Tony Zimmer, pastor of Milwaukee’s
St. Charles Borromeo Parish. “It was very hard getting in front of the people
and discussing that. Those were hard homilies to give.”
In the almost five years since, the crisis has all but lived up to Weakland’s
warning. The U.S. Catholic Church has spent more than $1.5 billion in
settlements, therapy for victim-survivors and abusers, attorney fees and other
costs related to sexual abuse of minors by priests or deacons.
Although some rather forgiving Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions have helped
the archdiocese avoid liability for nearly all of the sexual abuse suits brought
against it, Milwaukee has still spent more than $22 million, selling off
property and slashing administrative staff to settle with more than 110 victims.
Over $11 million of this settled two California cases involving former Milwaukee
diocesan priests. The potential damages in those cases – resolved this fall –
had threatened to bankrupt the archdiocese.
Nationally, 4 percent of diocesan priests have had credible sexual abuse
accusations filed against them, involving more than 9,000 child and teenage
victims. In Milwaukee, 43 out of 1,245 present and former clergy have been
identified as abusers.
Trust in the moral authority of the church has plummeted. Three-fourths of
Catholics surveyed by Georgetown University say the scandal has “hurt the
credibility of church leaders who speak out on social or political issues.”
Across the country, the church is reeling from the scandal, and Milwaukee is
no exception. The 10-county archdiocese has always been a bulwark of the church,
where 30 percent of the population identify themselves as Catholic, compared to
22 percent nationally. Milwaukee is the 20th largest of 186 American
archdioceses, and as recently as the early 1990s, it led the nation (along with
Cincinnati) in the percentage of parishioners attending Mass regularly: 40
But in the wake of the abuse scandal, many local Catholics have withheld
donations, stopped attending Mass or simply dropped out. “I’ve had people tell
me: ‘When the bishops get their house in order, then I’ll listen to them,’” says
Fr. Brian Mason, archdiocesan associate vicar for clergy.
Today, only 29 percent of southeastern Wisconsin’s 674,736 Catholics attend
weekend Mass, according to archdiocesan figures. Mass attendance was already
falling, but it has plummeted since Weakland’s confession.
The abuse scandal has exacerbated the problems of a church that was already
irrelevant to many young people. “We have a big challenge,” says Fr. Kenneth
Mich, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls. “We haven’t been able
to convince the 18- to 35-year-olds to have active church lives.”
The number of couples married in the Milwaukee archdiocese has fallen by an
astonishing 42 percent since 1989. That could lose the church two generations:
the couples and their future children.
Meanwhile, the archdiocese has far more churches than priests to serve them,
a decline accelerated by the defrocking of abusive priests. Whole sections of
the archdiocese have seen big declines in the number of parishioners. Tough
decisions need to be made to consolidate and merge parishes.
Yet amid the darkness are rays of hope: growth in parishes in exurban areas
and Hispanic city neighborhoods, parishes where creative priests and lay leaders
have figured out how to sell the faith to consumerist Catholics and build their
congregations, and a new archbishop, Timothy Dolan, whose considerable pastoral
and public relations skills have left many feeling more optimistic.
Dolan will need those skills as a divided archdiocese fights over how to
adapt to changing cultural conditions, which people it will serve – and how. For
much of its history, Milwaukee’s heavily Catholic archdiocese was seen as a
national leader. Can it rebuild that reputation?
Even before he’d arrived in Milwaukee on June 24, 2002, newly
appointed Archbishop Timothy Dolan worried about what he would face. He’d never
even run a parish, and he was about to take over the 20th largest archdiocese in
America, with the fifth-largest number of members of religious orders in the
He’d earned his doctorate in American church history and knew Milwaukee as an
icon of German Catholic culture, the top of “The German Triangle” that included
St. Louis and Cincinnati. He’d also read about “the feistiness of its German
priests and their rebelliousness against the [mainly Irish] Catholic
Hierarchical Church in the U.S.,” he says now.
Milwaukee’s first four archbishops were all German speakers who served 87
years, from 1843 until 1930. They resisted the dominant English-speaking
hierarchy of the American church and promoted parishes with strong ethnic
That was a different era, of course, but here was a modern Irish American
representative of Catholic orthodoxy walking into an archdiocese known as a
liberal hotbed of rebellion against Rome.
“I had this stereotype of Milwaukee as radically different from the rest of
the church in America,” says Dolan. Others had warned him of “rebellious
priests” and an archdiocese that had “drifted to the edge of Catholic
Archdiocesan insiders, meanwhile, had their own stereotypes. Dolan heard the
rumors that he was this “gun-slinging Roman appointee sent to clean up the
diocese.” He was indeed well-known in Rome, where he had spent seven years as
rector of the Pontifical North American College beginning in 1994 (the only
administrative job he’d held). And he was well-connected in Washington, D.C.,
serving five years as secretary to the Apostolic Nunciature, the pope’s personal
representative in the United States.
Dolan knew most of the U.S. archbishops, but not Weakland, and he feared
they’d agree on nothing. So when Weakland offered to brief him on his new
archdiocese, Dolan was relieved. “The obvious sincerity of Archbishop Weakland’s
promise to co-operate,” he says, gave him solace.
But as Weakland began apprising him of the difficulties he’d face in the job,
Dolan’s stereotyped misgivings about Milwaukee began to be replaced by more
realistic but equally worrisome concerns.
When Dolan went to bed that evening, his first official day as
archbishop-elect, it was in the converted Cream City brick stable Weakland had
made his home. Dolan had trouble sleeping. Still nervous about the prospect of
his first press conference the next day, he rose at 4:30 a.m. and sought the
small chapel Weakland had shown him earlier, tiptoeing so as not to wake his
sleeping predecessor. But when the new archbishop entered the chapel, he found
the old one already there, kneeling in prayer.
“That had a really profound impact,” Dolan says now, “because whatever
differences I might have with him, the similarities were striking. We both began
our day the same way, in prayer before the tabernacle.”
After that, Dolan says, “My anxiety just sort of melted away. It was like a
Fr. Javier Bustos was a 28-year-old Venezuelan philosophy instructor
recruited by the Milwaukee archdiocese in 1995 to become one of its first
“imported” Hispanic seminarians. In Rome, where Bustos would ultimately complete
three years of doctoral study focused on sexuality and celibacy, he met more
than 100 priests and archbishops from America. He was amazed at their reaction
to his being from Milwaukee. “People looked at me like I was a weird animal or
something,” he says.
He must be some kind of “liberal sexual revolutionary,” Bustos recalls them
Milwaukee hadn’t always been so infamous. During much of Weakland’s tenure,
it was seen as a leader in the training of lay ministers, including women; in
reaching out to other religious dominations; and on social justice issues. In
fact, Weakland had drafted the U.S. Bishops’ 1986 Pastoral Letter on the
“When he would stand up at the bishops’ meetings, it would always get quiet.
They knew he’d say something worth hearing,” recalls Milwaukee Auxiliary Bishop
Richard J. Sklba.
Even on less weighty matters, Milwaukee was a leader. The archdiocese began
paying priests a decent salary but expected them to pay rent for living in the
parish rectory and either clean for themselves or contribute toward a
housekeeper. “It let every parish understand what a priest really costs” and
became a model for others nationally, says Sklba.
But the openness of Weakland and Sklba to change could also cause tension. In
1976, the executive board of the Catholic Biblical Association of America asked
Sklba, who’d earned his doctorate in scripture in Rome, to convene a task force
of prominent scholars on the role of women in early Christianity. Their 1979
report found that “women were clearly in leadership in all kinds of ways in the
early church,” says Sklba, suggesting no historical or religious reason not to
But by the time the report was published, John Paul II had become pope and
the church was moving in a different direction. Sklba, then still a priest, says
he was pressured to tone down the report. He refused and almost wasn’t appointed
a bishop, says Bustos. (Sklba confirms that he refused to tone down the report
but would not discuss almost being denied the appointment.) In his office, as a
bittersweet reminder, Sklba keeps a statue of the prophet St. Jeremiah shown in
stocks and “punished for saying the truth.”
Over time, Weakland, too, got in trouble with Rome. A 1990 photo appeared in
The New York Times showing him holding a “listening session” with women
from his archdiocese who’d had abortions. Weakland believed he acted in the
spirit of Vatican Council II’s call to open up dialog, but this blurred instead
into the perception that he somehow endorsed abortion. Outraged Vatican
officials forbade the Dominican-affiliated University of Fribourg in Switzerland
from granting Weakland an honorary degree.
Fallout from the photo gave Weakland a reputation “for being wild,” says
“Milwaukee fell out of step,” says Fr. Tom DeVries, who spent several years
working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the late 1990s. “The
church was thinking, ‘What did Vatican II throw out that we needed to keep?’”
But that re-examination of traditions didn’t happen here, he adds.
In August 2003, not long after the clergy abuse scandal erupted, Milwaukee
roiled the waters anew when 163 of its priests signed a letter endorsing
optional celibacy as a way to address the priest shortage.
“A lot of people around the country said, ‘Oh, those priests in Milwaukee.’
Some people thought all 160 who signed would get married if it was allowed,”
recalls Fr. Mason, who facilitates priest placements for the archdiocese. But
that was not the goal, he notes. “It was an open letter to the U.S. bishops that
asked, couldn’t we at least begin the dialogue?”
This added to the perception of Milwaukee as a radical outpost “isolated from
the rest of the world,” says Bustos. “When Archbishop Dolan came here, he helped
us reconnect with the rest of the church.”
Milwaukee was indeed different, Dolan found. Weakland had appointed women to
run three of the archdiocese’s four main departments, including chancellor
Barbara Anne Cusack and Noreen Welte, director of worship and pastoral services.
“You don’t find high-ranking lay women in most other dioceses in the U.S.,”
In fact, the cabinet Dolan inherited was mostly lay men and women. “This
diocese really had learned the lesson of Vatican II about building a strong
spirit of lay collaboration,” says Dolan.
Dolan also found pastors still giving general absolution rather than
forgiving sins only in individual confessions. “Ninety-five percent of the
dioceses settled that 20 years ago,” says Dolan. “You can’t give general
absolution [except in emergencies].”
When Dolan asked his priests to change this, “There was no rebellion,” he
says. Ironically, Dolan later discovered Weakland’s decade-old writings
explaining the same thing – that the experiment with general absolution had
ended. But Weakland had been patient, allowing time for the teachings to evolve.
Dolan expected to find the archdiocese’s schools in shambles, having been
told that Weakland was “anti-Catholic schools.” But Weakland, in the face of
criticism for telling schools they must support themselves, had actually
protected them, says Dolan. Thus, while Catholic schools in Boston and Chicago
that relied on diocesan subsidies closed when the money was diverted to handle
the sexual abuse scandal, Milwaukee’s remained strong.
Not long into his tenure, Dolan decided that the stereotype he’d held about
Milwaukee was wrong. So was his “caricature” of Weakland, Dolan says. “This was
kind of a mainstream [arch]bishop. I didn’t detect any wild-eyed radical.”
Dolan, in fact, invites Weakland to all important archdiocesan events.
Weakland, meanwhile, has refused any invitations to talk to the media, not
wanting “to be a pest to the present archbishop,” as he puts it.
The differences between the two leaders’ style is vast. Weakland was a
thoughtful speaker and writer, while Dolan’s weekly e-mail on church matters
lacks weight. “Dolan’s is much more folksy,” says Fr. Ed Eschweiler. “Bright
people don’t find enough substance there.”
Weakland’s braininess also showed up in his handling of the overwhelming
paperwork of the complex, multimillion-dollar archdiocesan organization.
“Weakland would take in tons of information and read everything and take a long
time making a decision. With Dolan, it’s amazing how fast he sizes things up.
He’s a quick read but not the same depth. Some would say he’s like Reagan or
Bush,” says Fr. Jeffrey Haines, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini in West Bend.
But while some question Dolan’s depth, all seem impressed with his gregarious
warmth and outreach abilities.
“He’s so joyful,” says Haines, noting that Dolan patterns himself after John
Paul II, the man who appointed him early in his tenure.
Dolan told his staff he wanted to go to fish fries and parish festivals; he
wasn’t one to sit behind a desk. On his outings, he displays a fondness for the
devotions many older Catholics associate with the 1950s – novenas, devotions to
the Sacred Heart, intercessions to Mary. “He wears them on his sleeve, much more
than Weakland did,” says Haines.
“Archbishop Weakland was one of the finest intellectuals in the church, but
Archbishop Dolan is the most pastoral man I have ever met,” says Welte. “He’s
able to connect heart to heart with people.”
The introverted Weakland hated to call people he didn’t know, Welte says, but
when Dolan heard that one of Welte’s colleague’s brothers was headed for
surgery, he phoned the ailing man to offer encouragement – before and after the
When someone at an archdiocesan meeting mentioned an ailing mother, Dolan
visited her at the hospital right after the meeting ended. “Not many archbishops
would do that,” says Welte.”
Dolan meets any victim of clergy abuse who asks to see him, she says. “The
blessing of having him here is that he bears no personal guilt himself.”
In Whitewater, Dolan met with irate parishioners of St. Patrick’s, where he
had removed Pastor James Godin for a confirmed incident of sexual abuse
involving a minor years earlier. “The people were brokenhearted by his removal,”
remembers Haines, who followed Godin as interim pastor. “They said, ‘Can’t you
see he’s reformed?’” But Dolan told them he had no choice but to enforce the
U.S. Bishops’ Agreement removing any priest with even one substantiated offense.
Even in handling the worst of the abuse crisis, Dolan seemed to thrive. “He
has a constant, chaotic, haphazard cheerfulness. It was an awful moment, and we
really did need that,” says Sklba.
As for his dealings with the priests, Dolan doesn’t “bark orders,” says Fr.
Steve Avella, a diocesan priest and Marquette University professor who wrote a
history of Milwaukee’s archdiocese. Dolan’s style is in keeping with an
archdiocese whose past leaders were generally less top-down and more
consultative than archbishops elsewhere, says Avella.
As for Dolan, he was heartened to find that Milwaukee’s priests weren’t the
unruly mob he’d been led to expect. “I found a really dedicated group of priests
eager and willing to work with me,” he says.
What “feistiness” Dolan did encounter was largely of his own making, such as
when he issued a new policy allowing diocesan officials to conduct random audits
of any priest’s personal computer – not just those facing abuse allegations.
Most priests learned of the new plan not from Dolan but in a new policy manual
mailed to them. A vociferous uprising resulted.
“We as clergy were saying, ‘Don’t lump us all together,’” says Fr. Zimmer.
Dolan backed off. He now faults his “impulsive tendency to get things done
All told, Dolan found an archdiocesan structure with many strengths, but some
weaknesses. First among the latter, he says, was that “we were kind of
Johnny-come-latelies to stewardship, which is a nice-sounding word for raising
money. People here are very generous with their parishes, but there was never a
real effort to raise money for the archdiocese.”
Along with more donations, Dolan needs more parishioners and more priests.
The solutions will not be easy.
The old german-speaking archbishops of Milwaukee placed an emphasis on
ethnic culture that created strong churches: German, Polish, Irish, Italian,
Slav and other parishes often less than a mile apart. Parents were required to
send their children to Catholic grade school under pain of sin, or get their
But as the number of nuns and women religious who subsidized Catholic
education with their cheap labor declined, parish schools began closing, even as
the old neighborhoods changed. “The parishes preserved the ethnic character of
the diocese but left behind a white elephant once ethnicity faded,” says Avella.
Today, the archdiocese is a mixture of growth and decay. “Imagine a giant
doughnut and place it on top of a map of the metropolitan area,” says Welte. At
the center, where the hole would be, there is an explosion of Hispanic
Catholics. On the city’s South Side, the number of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans,
natives of the Caribbean and South America is expanding fast.
“We didn’t see it coming. We don’t have enough priests who speak Spanish. Or,
more importantly, an openness and understanding of their spirituality,” says Fr.
Ed Eschweiler, a diocesan priest for more than 50 years who’s now retired.
As a result, it’s often Pentecostal and fundamentalist storefront churches
that welcome immigrants in their own language and with their own music,
according to Dean Hoge and Aniedi Okure in their book, International Priests
In America. Seventy percent of U.S. Mexicans are Catholic, but 25 percent
now identify themselves as Pentecostals.
Hispanic growth has come in the suburbs, too. “There are 31 parishes with 200
or more Spanish-speaking members,” says Fr. Bob Stiefvater, the archdiocese’s
vicar for Hispanic ministry. That includes eight parishes in Walworth County,
seven in Racine County and parishes in Kenosha, Waukesha, Fond du Lac, West
Bend, Sheboygan, Hartford and Beaver Dam, not to mention on Milwaukee’s North
“Almost 20 percent of the archdiocese’s Catholics are Hispanics, and it’s the
fastest-growing part,” says Stiefvater. Astoundingly, about one-half of active
teens and young adults in the church nationally are Hispanic. “Hispanics are the
future of the Milwaukee archdiocese.” But that means a poorer church, he notes,
given the relative poverty of Hispanics.
On the outer edge of Welte’s imaginary doughnut, Catholicism is also booming
in the fringe cities of exurbia. “It’s like the 1950s again,” says Fr. Curt
Frederick, the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy, referring to that prime period of
Catholic growth. “Waterford has doubled in 10 years. Wind Lake has a new church,
ditto for Dousman. In Oconomowoc, St. Jerome’s will have to build a new church.
In Waukesha, St. William’s has over 2,000…crowded into four weekend Masses in a
church that seats 900.”
In West Bend, a city of 30,000, three Catholic parishes minister to more than
5,000 families. When Highway 45 expanded to four lanes, this became a booming
exurban area, says St. Frances Cabrini pastor Haines. “Having three Catholic
schools in a town this size is amazing. There’s a vibrancy and excitement.”
Catholics are moving west, Welte says, but they’re also moving south to Oak
Creek, Franklin, Burlington and Walworth County and north to Cedarburg, Grafton
and Port Washington.
The heart of the archdiocese, Dolan says, has moved outward. He helped
elevate its most important devotional site, Washington County’s Holy Hill, to
minor basilica status and has made a point of celebrating Mass there on special
Meanwhile, Catholicism has declined at a shocking rate in the first ring of
Milwaukee suburbs, the dough of that imaginary doughnut and once the sweet spot
of the archdiocese. A city the size of West Allis has eight catholic parishes
but only “about as many Catholics as you’ll find in two parishes in Dousman or
Oconomowoc,” says Dolan.
Even with the Hispanic and exurban growth, the total number of registered
Catholics in the archdiocese last year fell by 20,000, the first decline in its
163-year history. And Mass attendance has plummeted.
“That’s the elephant in the room that nobody’s talking about,” Dolan
By 2000, Mass attendance here was declining by 1 percent a year. After the
clergy abuse crisis hit, the decline more than tripled.
“Some people just stopped going to church. They distanced themselves,” says
Fr. Frederick. “It was the breach of trust.”
Many Catholics were angry when priests facing abuse allegations weren’t
removed from the ministry immediately, and some were angry when they were. The
faithful returned the archdiocese’s fundraising envelopes with profanities
scribbled across them.
“‘I wouldn’t give you and your pedophile priests a dollar,’” read one,
recalls Diane Knight, executive director of Catholic Charities. “But we didn’t
get nearly as many of those letters as the archdiocese did.” Indeed, the
percentage of Catholics donating to U.S. archdiocesan fund drives dropped from
38 percent in 2002 to 29 percent in 2005.
As an associate pastor in Waukesha when the crisis erupted, Fr. Mason says he
had one person write a letter saying, “I’m not going to be part of a church that
allowed abusers to be a part of it”; another family that had a relative abused
simply left the church. This was happening across the archdiocese.
The 2005 Georgetown University poll commissioned by the U.S. bishops found
just one-third of Catholics gave them a positive rating for their handling of
abuse accusations – no higher a percentage than a similar poll found in 2002.
Dolan says there’s “a great sense of frustration” among the bishops that all of
their efforts to help victims and prevent future abuse and their “thousands of
apologies in front of the cameras” haven’t improved how they’re viewed.
Nearly three of four Catholics said the issue has “hurt the credibility of
church leaders who speak out on social or political issues.” Even among those
who attend Mass weekly, two-thirds said the crisis has undercut the church’s
Even some priests share this feeling. “I think there are some bishops who
should be in jail, beginning with [former Boston] Cardinal [Bernard] Law,” says
Mason. “I don’t believe the bishops have held themselves accountable in the same
way they have held priests accountable.”
Fr. Mark Payne, pastor of St. Veronica’s on Milwaukee’s Southeast Side, says
his fellow priests have talked about the “need to replace all of the U.S.
bishops. They’re not seeking advice, they’re just telling us ‘Do this. Do that.’
They’re not connecting with where the people are, on medical research, on family
The bishops may never get traction with their apologies until they begin
discussing these issues, says psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe. Sipe, a former
Benedictine monk, was an expert witness in more than 95 civil suits involving
clergy sexual abuse and wrote the book A Secret World, based on 25 years
of research on celibacy.
“Pedophilia is not the crisis but a symptom of the human sexuality crisis,”
Sipe told the National Catholic Reporter. “The laity wants all these
questions re-examined and re-discussed – from contraception, homosexuality,
masturbation and sex before marriage to sex after divorce, even abortion…The
laity is questioning the church’s reasoning. This questioning is so compelling
that nothing can turn it back.”
The aging of the Catholic population has created another challenge. Survey
research shows that baby boomers attended Mass less than their elders, even
before the clergy abuse crisis. And those younger than baby boomers are even
less likely to attend.
“The Catholic Church is a communal experience, and we’re in a world that
stresses individuality,” says Fr. Dan Pakenham, 67, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish
in Elm Grove. “This is a central issue because the Catholic Church is a communal
church gathered around the tradition of the Eucharist. If that doesn’t happen,
there is no church.”
Pakenham identifies two big groups of Catholics, one being “cultural
Catholics,” those raised in the church who have fallen away. Their numbers may
have been increased by the clergy abuse scandal, he says.
A second group of “good Catholics” wasn’t as affected by the crisis and does
practice its religion yet may not see Sunday Mass as an obligation.
The combination of Catholic dropouts and Catholics moving to newer suburbs
has driven both the decline in the older suburbs and the increase in exurbia. As
a result of such social change, the clergy abuse scandal and fierce
disagreements over how modern the church should become, there is a vast range of
parishes and priests in the archdiocese. Southeastern Wisconsin’s Catholics
aren’t all singing out of the same hymnal.
There are parishes like St. Mary’s in Elm Grove known for a more formal
worship and traditional devotional exercises – the rosary, stations of the cross
and novenas. Others, like Good Shepherd in Menomonee Falls, are centered around
a liberal 1960s social justice theme.
There are parishes run by lay women and men, by ordained deacons or even by
priests who were once married. Fr. Tom DeVries, pastor of Mequon’s Lumen Christi
Parish, was a married Dutch Reform minister who divorced and became a Catholic
convert and priest. Fr. Jim Connell was once a husband and certified public
accountant in Chicago. Now he is pastor of Holy Name and St. Clement parishes in
There are parishes of dirt-poor Catholics used to taking orders and others
full of doctors, lawyers and corporate executives used to giving them. There are
parishes with self-appointed “liturgy Nazis” who pounce on a priest if he adds
something as innocent as “enjoy this glorious day” to the approved text. And
there are parishes where a pastor asks a lay minister to speak and “share her
faith” at the time of the homily even though only ordained males are officially
allowed to preach.
Meanwhile, throughout America, the bishops are enforcing an updated version
of the liturgical rulebook, the Roman Missal, which requires a return to
kneelers in church. Scores of local churches were built without them since the
reforms of Vatican II, but now kneelers are again required. To some churchgoers,
it feels like the return of the pre-Vatican II, 1950s church.
Dolan has been somewhat flexible on these rules. He gave one financially
struggling church three years to get kneelers installed and exempted another
that had only chairs and no pews for attaching kneelers.
The new rules also require lay Eucharistic ministers to keep a distance from
the altar until after the priest consecrates the bread and wine. Bishop Sklba, a
member of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, says the rule addresses a
European blurring of lines between church and state. “You had cases there where
the priest would play a minor role in the Mass compared to the mayor and other
officials,” he notes. But in America, the rule seemed to banish lay ministers to
the edges of the altar just when they’re needed most, in the middle of the
Fr. Mike Witczak, rector of St. Francis Seminary and an expert on liturgy,
says the changes in the Missal were meant to recapture “a lost sense of
reverence.” Dolan concedes some complaints about the new rules but says he also
hears from many who want more orthodoxy. “The 1950s were a time of amazing
growth and excitement,” he says.
Dolan has tried to walk a tightrope. “Dolan hasn’t made a lot of changes in
the faculty, academics or theology being taught at the seminary,” says Fr. Bob
Stiefvater, vicar for Hispanic Ministry. But “he doesn’t move far from Rome and
the U.S. bishops. He wants to be in union with them.”
Dolan’s view: “I don’t wait for a mimeograph from Rome telling me what to do.
That’s just not true. The real church is bottom-up. The church’s real life is
the parish. All the things we extol about Vatican II started in the 1950s.”
But, he adds, “the church is always moving forward.”
Some complain the bishops have paid undue attention to issues like kneelers
because this is easier than confronting tough issues like the priest shortage,
celibacy and the role of lay people.
“We are arguing about when to sit or stand, and all the big issues of
re-establishing trust are not being acted upon,” says Zimmer. “People are
saying, ‘Does the Lord really care about this little stuff or whether we have
just, righteous people?’”
Fifty years ago, the U.S. Catholic Church actually had a surplus of
priests. The Depression and World War II brought what historian Avella cites as
an unprecedented influx of vocations. There were so many priests, he says, “the
archbishops almost didn’t know where to go with them all.”
This made it easy to serve the expanding church of the post-World War II era.
In 1956, enrollment in archdiocesan schools rose nearly 10 percent, the 10th
consecutive annual increase. That year, the archdiocese built 37 new Catholic
schools and ordained 48 new priests at St. Francis seminary, where 279
candidates for the priesthood crammed into space for 190. With visions of even
more student priests in the future, the seminary added a new residence hall,
chapel and student cafeteria.
But by 1995, this complex was serving few seminarians. Just one was ordained
in 2002 and five in 2006. The once-grand cafeteria, with lovely draperies and
stained-glass windows, is now a parking garage.
Only in one brief period, from about 1940 to 1960, did Americans produce
enough homegrown priests, Catholic historians say. In the 20th century, many of
America’s priests came from Ireland. By the late 1990s, 16 percent of priests
were foreign born, with most from Mexico and Vietnam. In this century, India and
Nigeria are expected to be a prime source of American priests.
The Milwaukee archdiocese actively recruits foreign missionaries. A recruit
from a foreign country, says Mason,” will send their salary home, and that
supports two or three priests there or puts three more seminarians through
Mason is negotiating with the archbishop of the Congo, hoping he’ll “lend”
him two priests for five years. But first, he says, they’ll need to spend six
months in an “accent reduction” and “acculturation” program.
Mason faces an ever-worsening shortage of priests. This year, when he
compared the number of parishes in need of a pastor to the number of priests
available, he was 15 short.
Under Weakland, the archdiocese began closing or merging parish schools and
then parishes in the 1980s, first responding to declining congregations and,
over time, to the shortage of priests.
A school closing at the Polish parish of St. Paul’s on the city’s Southeast
Side in 2004 was “like a death,” says Daryl Olszewski, then the parish’s lay
administrator. The congregation was mostly made up of retirees who had attended
that school or sent their children there. “It was almost like losing a member of
the family,” Olszewski says. In the end, six area parishes merged their grade
schools into St. Thomas Aquinas Academy.
Over time, archdiocesan leaders have learned to let parishioners go through
“the stages of grief,” says Welte. In 1999, St. Barbara merged with Holy Spirit,
forming San Rafael, Archangel. Each church’s pastor said “a Mass of thanksgiving
for all of the people who had found solace there, for those who were married and
raised their families there, got sick and died,” says Welte. Then, with the
church bells tolling, the parishioners walked to a park midway between the two
parishes and then walked in unity to the new combined parish.
During the 1990s, 23 parishes were reconfigured as 13. Some have dragged
their feet; others have gone willingly. In Fond du Lac, five parishes came
together to form a 16,000-member mega parish with four pastors, but in
Sheboygan, six parishes have been talking about mergers since 2000. “You can
only move as fast as the slowest one, and one parish isn’t ready,” says Fr.
Connell, pastor of two of the churches.
“You always lose people in mergers,” says Fr. Bob Betz, who recently oversaw
the marriage of four South Milwaukee parishes – newer, 1960s-era St.
Silvester’s; Irish St. Mary’s; German St. John’s; and Polish St. Adelbert’s –
into Divine Mercy.
Unlike Weakland, Dolan has refused to order any mergers or closings.
“I’m not going to do it,” he says. “I want it to come from the people. They
have to discover what it means to be Catholic, and that means looking beyond
their church building.”
So Mason finds parishes willing to share a priest and helps others hire a lay
administrator. Mason himself did what many priests have done – he took a second
job. In addition to his full-time archdiocesan job, he’s now pastor of St.
Richard’s in Racine, a parish produced from the merger of five parishes in 1998.
With 217 parishes and 161 active priests to serve them, Mason already had to
leave a parish like St. James in Mukwonago without a pastor. Next year, 30
priests aged 68 to 75 will be eligible for retirement. Six or seven will
probably retire, Mason estimates, and he’ll have to fill their spots.
In 10 years, the archdiocese will really hit a wall, as baby boomers begin
retiring en masse. Less than half of the 161 active Milwaukee archdiocesan
priests are under age 55. (Ten archdiocesan priests were removed from ministry
because of the abuse crisis.)
Historically, having its own seminary gave Milwaukee a ready supply of
home-educated priests. But now, given the few graduates and high costs, the
seminary may be an unaffordable luxury for a diocese this size. “Especially when
we’re in a precarious situation spending a heck of a lot on damages in the
clergy abuse scandal,” says Dolan. So Dolan dismissed his academic faculty and
arranged for his seminarians to study at Sacred Heart seminary in Hales Corners,
which is run by the Sacred Heart of Jesus religious order.
The increasingly desperate situation raises the touchy issue of women, either
as ordained priests or as wives of married priests.
“There are so many things the church has said are not discussable. That’s how
they got into this problem [the clergy abuse crisis], says Racine Dominican
Sister Michelle Olley, a nun for 50 years and a veteran school administrator.
As a representative of the National Coalition of American Nuns, Olley was
asked to meet with U.S. bishops when they were considering writing a pastoral
letter on women more than 20 years ago. “They asked very thoughtful questions,
like ‘What do women want?’ and ‘What does feminism mean?’”
But the letter never got written. The bishops worried about the repercussions
and Rome’s disapproval. “Women still want to be a part of the church, not apart
from it,” but many feel the leadership is out of touch with their concerns, says
“Some of the most persuasive, cogent leaders in this archdiocese are women,”
Dolan says. “Women run our schools, our homes.” But the ordination of women, he
adds, would be like adding a fourth person to the Blessed Trinity. “There are
certain matters of Catholic doctrine that are closed…and the ordination of
women is one of them”
For more than a century, the Catholic Church functioned like a
marriage broker, says historian Steve Avella. Couples met at church dances,
married in the church and raised more Catholics. Parishes thrived.
“I think we had the numbers so we weren’t as conscious about meeting the
needs of people as we should be,” says Fr. Betz.
But since 1989, the number of marriages in the archdiocese has dropped 42
percent. At St. Paul’s back in the 1960s, “nearly everyone on the block belonged
to the parish, but now, half the neighbors are young families who don’t go to
church at all,” says former lay administrator Daryl Olszewski.
Those who did ask him about getting married in the church wanted “something
quick and easy,” he says. But those with a prior marriage needed an annulment,
while marriage of a Catholic and non-Catholic meant “there couldn’t be a Mass,
and a lot of families didn’t like that,” he notes.
Then there’s the problem of couples already living together prior to
marriage. “Some priests take a hard line and say you have to live apart for so
many months,” says Fr. Kenneth Mich, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee
Falls. Other priests might favor a bit more leniency, he adds, “but there’s less
tolerance for ambiguity today. The pressure to have things black and white is
coming from above.”
The small number of couples that did marry at St. Paul’s during Olszewski’s
time there “disappeared within a few weeks after the wedding and we’d never see
them again,” he says. New parents did bring their babies to the church to be
baptized, but after three months of classes and the baptism, they’d disappear,
too. Half the first communion class would be missing from Mass before a year had
passed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with our glue, but this is a very big problem
for the church,” says Olszewski.
At an archdiocesan pastoral council meeting discussing the shortage of
priests, a woman interrupted and noted another shortage. “She said there’s a big
problem we bishops hadn’t been attuned to, and that’s the sacrament of
marriage,” Dolan recalls. Dolan had previously listed priestly vocations as one
of his six top goals, but he’s now changed that to read “encourage vocations –
both religious and married.”
In an age when evangelical mega-churches like Elmbrook in Brookfield are
attracting ex-Catholics, the archdiocese may need to improve its salesmanship.
Religious consumerism is the new trend, with people shopping for their church.
Once a month, after Mass, Haines’ West Bend parish serves coffee and
doughnuts to new members. “People come up to me and say [they] visited three or
four churches and [they] really like your liturgy, the choir or the school.”
At St. Francis seminary, dean of formation Fr. Don Hying says he teaches
future priests to personalize preaching as the evangelicals do, to insert a
prayer or word of hope aimed at members of the parish. “You look out at your
congregation and you know he’s drinking again, she lost her job, their son
committed suicide 10 years ago.”
Ironically, just as Catholics are becoming more demanding consumers, pastors
are increasingly over worked and tired. “We’ve got to get the priests out from
under the administrative duties of managing a parish and out with the people,”
says Sheboygan’s Fr. Connell. “You always have to adapt to the times.”
One adaptation to the times can be found at St. Anthony on the Lake Parish in
Pewaukee. Its 12-year-old pioneering program in religious education that
includes the whole family has a 99 percent retention rate and has attracted
parishioners from 24 widely dispersed ZIP codes. The program has grabbed the
attention of East Coast parishes interested in copying it, and won a national
“If you build it, they will come,” says the wizard behind this program, lay
pastoral associate Kathie Amidei. Amidei, who has three grown kids, says her
ministry is about “empowering families.” She credits a former archdiocesan
official, Maureen Gallagher, now Waukesha Catholic Schools director, with
launching the first program of its type in 1995.
Amidei approached the issue this way: “I thought, what did I get out of my
big Italian family gatherings growing up? We’d pass on culture. And I thought,
that’s what the church needs to do!”
The number-one complaint families have today is that they are stressed for
time. But Amidei says that after one session, “people feel fed, so it’s not just
an extra thing on their schedules. It’s relevant to the life they go back to.”
In a typical session, families arrive for 9 a.m. Sunday Mass followed by a
period of fellowship (coffee and doughnuts). Then parents and kids (age 3
through high school) break into separate classes. Afterward, they gather for a
shared activity, all focused around the same scripture or Catholic doctrine. By
11:45, they’re on their way home.
“We know now that faith is passed parent to child,” says Amidei, explaining
why religious education didn’t work when parents just dropped the kids off for
instruction. “When you bring parents and children together, the children love
being there, the fathers are involved, the parents are learning on an adult
Twenty-five other area parishes have started similar programs, with rave
reviews from pastors. Couples who weren’t married in the church, Fr. Betz says,
“are coming back with their kids. They find that something is still missing in
their lives. We’re helping to fill that void.”
But will such programs be enough to turn things around for such a huge
archdiocese, with so many parishes and so much conflict over what is the true
path for its flock? Can Milwaukee once again become a leader in the church
nationally? No one really knows, but there are flashes of optimism to be found
across the 10 counties of Dolan’s archdiocese, much of it centering around Dolan
“He’s the right guy at the right time,” says Fr. Mark Payne, who’s served as
a pastor in the metro area for four years. “We are in an archdiocese with a lot
of hurt, and he can connect with people. He’s a healing presence.”