Six Ways to be Truly Catholic

About this article

"One of the biggest challenges I see for us today is how we talk to each other—and especially our young people—about the Church," says Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee in this adaptation of his address to the 1998 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. Weakland focuses on what it means to be "catholic," or universal, in the truest sense of the word. Weakland's reflection touches on the Trinity and calls readers to embrace the communal nature of our faith. The six suggestions he gives for facing the future of the church with hope are practical and inspiring, ranging from a call to holiness to being a healer in one's own backyard.

I always thought that I would have made a great archbishop in Salzburg during the time of Mozart. But instead I'm the archbishop of Milwaukee in the time of rock 'n' roll. That's the way life turns out. We live in a period of tremendous upheaval and change. Each of us has to come to terms with that and fulfill our mission in the real world in which we live. In this article we're going to consider how to be more fully Catholic at the unpredictable dawn of the third millennium.

One of the biggest challenges I see for us today is how we talk to each other—and especially our young people—about the Church. Some of us avoid the subject. How often, instead of saying Church, we talk about the "community of faith" or the "Kingdom of God," and so on. I think we talk like that because many of us Catholics have a certain ambivalence, a love/hate relationship, with our Church. You can see that if you watch your newspaper's letters to the editor. We are the only Church that publicly criticizes itself in the newspaper.

Another challenge: We North Americans sometimes think of the Church more as our parish than as the Catholic Church. I became especially aware of this while in Rome for the Synod on the Laity in 1987 and again at the Synod for America in 1997. We need to expand our limited view of Church. The parish is only part of the picture. Yes, the parish is something I can put my hands around; it's very concrete. But if you don't see a bigger picture of Church, you begin to search around until you find the parish that's going to fit your definition. Yet being Catholic is not about finding people who think and act like us.

I'd like to propose a way for us to think about Church that can help bring us together. I think you'll agree that my perspective is biblical, it's revealed, it's truly catholic. My image is this: We are the People of God, dancing on pilgrimage. Let me explain by a brief look at how God reveals the truth to us.

The Trinity as Overflowing Love

It is a marvel that God reveals God's inner life to us as dynamic, as Trinitarian, as three people in love. That's remarkable! We could forever sit and think and not come up with this marvelous image of God as three persons in love and dynamic.

The great Church Father Saint Gregory Nazianzus, in the fourth century, gave us a Greek word to describe this marvel: perichoresis. The word literally means "moving around." It's how the Greek theologians in the early Church described the dancing in the Trinity. It's the sign that God's love is so full that it can't stay still.

Some of these Fathers of the Church even said that God's love was so great that it had to break forth. Creation itself, they say, is nothing but God's love looking for more things to love. In our own times Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx has observed that we have not yet probed the depth and the meaning of creation. God created this world out of love. Therefore, the world is important. Every person is important because God needs people to love. If the universe began with a big bang, as many scientists say, then creation is really love's big bang. That in itself is a marvel!

But the next marvel is also incredible. God wanted to come down and swoop up all of that creation into the dance of love, the perichoresis. And that's why God becomes one of us. God becomes a human being. In traditional theological language, we call that the incarnational perichoresis. It's a big phrase, but it's an easy and wonderful concept. It's that God's love and God's life swoop down and that God somehow wants to pull up all of creation, including us human beings, into that dance, God's inner life. The Greek fathers called that "divinization." The dance of love is now a dance between the human and the divine in Jesus Christ, who is the Incarnation—literally "en-fleshment"—of God. That dance is going to extend to all of us!

That's why the next marvel is even more wonderful. The mission of Jesus Christ is handed over to us human beings. What a risk Christ took! He's telling all of us that's the Good News; that we have to dance to the right tune (a love song, actually), we have to be a part of and eventually share totally in the dance of the Trinity.

Why go into all of this in talking about what it means to be Catholic today? Because in order to be Catholic, we must begin with the mission of Jesus Christ. That mission of Jesus Christ has been handed over to us human beings, with all of our limitations. The only way we can hope to fulfill Christ's mission is because he promised to be with us to the end of time. And he promised that his Spirit would be with us to the end of time. That's the only way in which I could have said yes to being a bishop. That's the only way in which you could have said yes to being baptized.

You see why now I say that the Church is the People of God dancing on pilgrimage? Because it's a part of being taken up into that divine life. Yet we live in history, here on earth.

A Universal Church

What challenges face the People of God in their dance today? The great modern theologian Karl Rahner mentioned after Vatican Council II (1962-65) that for the first time in history the Church was truly becoming catholic, universal. That's what I think is both the greatest challenge and the greatest privilege of our Church today.

Before Vatican II the Church had identified itself pretty much with Western civilization. Now, since the time of Vatican II it is becoming truly catholic. The tensions of the age we live in as Church are how to be truly a universal Church in every culture, every race on this globe. It's a great moment of history because for the first time we live in a global world. We are privileged at this moment to belong to that universal Church.

I mentioned earlier how we can so easily concentrate on our own parish. At this moment of history the challenge to us is how to be universal in our own little parish, in our nation, in our world. How are we going to hold all of that together in unity and at the same time respect all of the cultural differences that truly make up our Church? That is the test of our day.

I'm going to go one step further. I think it's a privilege to live here in North America. We have the possibility of modeling that type of Church to the world more than any other people on this globe, because we live in a part of the world where people of many cultures have the opportunity to live together in peace. And the future of our globe and the future of our Church depend upon whether people of many cultures can live together in peace. That's why recent popes have made such an effort to visit and pay honor to so many parts of the world.

Loving the Church

In our day there are many cultural influences outside the Church. Those cultural influences are very strong, especially in the younger generation. Perhaps the biggest of these is our culture's dependence upon science for "real" answers. That presents a problem when it comes to much of Church knowledge. The Trinity, for example, cannot be proven scientifically. You won't find it under a microscope. It is revealed, which is why it's so difficult for our modern generations. We're not used to revealed truths such as Jesus Christ being the perfect image and example of God's love.

When it comes to revelation, you have to say, "I believe." That's what our creed is all about. In the creed we proclaim this Trinity, we proclaim that the second person of the Trinity became one with us, became flesh, became man. We say, "I believe."

We also proclaim our belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. But right away we want to put that under the microscope. Yet just as Christ took a tremendous risk when he gave us his mission, so also every time we say, "I believe," we risk. It's a risk of faith. We have to believe in the Church.

Let me ask you to do one thing, and this is not easy. Come to terms yourselves with the question of authority in the Church. Because it's one of the reasons why many Catholics today have anger and that ambivalent feeling I mentioned at the beginning of this article. We bishops don't always do a good job of imaging God's love and empowering lives. But somehow you have to love your Church with all its warts.

It's easy to love a Church that's perfect—if you find it. But to love the Church with its warts means you have accepted Christ's risk to hand that Church over to human beings. Once Christ took that risk, then you and I are in trouble. Because it means that all of our defects are going to be as widely visible as our assets. That's the way it is.

Each of us must come to terms with living in a Church where the dance of God often happens among so many human tunes that it's hard to see the divine element dancing with us. When we can't accept Jesus' Church with its human face, we send a mixed, self-defeating signal to the younger generation.

Dancing Together With God

Here is another one of the challenges of our day. Every so often I say to myself and sometimes to the Lord, "It would have been a lot easier if it had been just you and me. Why can't we have a salvation that takes place just between you and me? Give me the Holy Spirit, that's all I ask, and let me dance. Why do I have to learn all those different steps with all these people tramping on my toes?" It's that tendency in our North American culture to want to make everything private. We want even our religion to be private.

But that isn't the way in which Jesus Christ handed over his mission to us. We've got to do it together—like it or lump it! There is no other way. Not only is it important to do it together, but we also have to realize that at least for us that's how Jesus Christ dances with us. Every time you come to liturgy you say, "This is the dance I'm being invited to because Jesus is going to dance with me." The divine and the human in that liturgy: That's what it's all about.

So often we can become like the Old Testament figure Naaman and say, "But you're gonna make me go wash instead of zapping my leprosy clean; is that all you're gonna do?" (see 2 Kings 5:1-14). But that is all we're gonna do. God uses ordinary signs and symbols. God uses people, that's what it's all about. In theology we call that mediated grace or instrumentality. God uses you and everyone. That's why we're tied together in the dance.

Six Ways to Face the Future with Hope

1. Get a universal mentality.

What should we be doing to build that Church of the future? We've got to stretch. I had the privilege as head of the Benedictine Order of traveling for 10 years around the world. One thing you learn when you travel is how much each of us is shaped by our own culture. Every attempt you make at joining in someone else's culture—even in your own parish—may end up with you making a mistake of some sort. But that's all right; people know when you're trying. Every time we make fools out of ourselves, we can laugh about it and keep going. That's how we learn. And underneath all of that we begin to see people as people. That's important. We begin to relate to them as people. So begin to develop that universal mentality. Stretch yourselves to be truly catholic.

2. Hear a common call to holiness.

Make sure that you emphasize the Church's holiness. I have a suspicion that that's one point about the Church that we have also neglected. One of the great aspects of Vatican Council II was the call of everyone to holiness (see Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #39). If you're blaming somebody else in the Church for not modeling the kind of Church you want, check yourself and see if you are modeling holiness as you should.

Let me go one step further. This might surprise you, but I think that the more troublesome our times are, the greater our chance of holiness. Right now is not a time when I feel that the Church has its act together. We're going through tough times, there's no doubt about it. There are all kinds of dissensions and problems in our Church. But I think that could be a moment of grace!

First of all, it makes us humble. Suddenly we realize our humanity and that's good. You can't become holy until you do that. We come to see how weak we are as people, how much we need God's grace and each other. So holiness begins sometimes in its best way when we're going through difficult periods.

3. Make the Church more just.

I feel we're way behind the secular world in working for justice within the Church. We've got to catch up. The 1983 Code of Canon Law did much in that respect. But if I had any worry about appearing before God's judgment seat, it would be that I did not act always justly as a bishop.

I worry about how we can become a Church that shows justice toward everyone. The measure of justice is always how the powerless are treated. I beg of you to join in this search for greater justice within our Church.

4. Model the healing qualities of Jesus.

We have too many hurting people on all sides, on all issues. Somehow we have to learn to be healers. Perhaps part of the problem is that you and I were only trained to win. In North American culture coming in second is useless. At a recent Olympic games there was a big sign, "Second Means Nothing." Isn't that our culture? The one who loses always gets hurt.

Abbot Marmion, a great Benedictine, once said, "The abbot should be the abbot of the minority, because the majority won." Isn't that the way it must be? Those who are hurting, those who are out there who haven't had a voice—they are the ones who have to be healed. They're the ones to whom we have to reach out. We've got to learn how to be a healing Church within our own ranks.

5. Be a healer among religions.

We also have to begin to heal the wounds between Churches. More than 19 years ago I was appointed to the dialogue with the Orthodox Churches. I have spent most of my time as a bishop in that dialogue. I consider that a tremendous privilege. I've learned that it takes a long time to develop trust. You go and you go, you talk and you talk, until you get to know each other well. Once you can trust each other, you can put the hard issues on the table. At that point you can begin to lean over and help others in their difficulties.

Ecumenism is not just dialoguing about dogma, it's also supporting and helping people in their quest for God. That's true in dialogue among the religions of the world as well. When I was head of the Benedictine Order in the 1960's, I began the first dialogue with Buddhist monks. That was the beginning of a dialogue that continues today. We monks had a special challenge to do that because Oriental monasticism gave us a common bond.

6. Be a healer in your own backyard.

Whatever your gifts are, you've got to use them to heal and to bring people together. We have to become a healing Church. The only way to do that is to get out of self and begin to put yourself into the moccasins of everyone around you.

The next time you're at Mass, I'm going to ask you to do something different. Look at everybody in the church and ask yourself, "Do I truly love all of these people?" If you're really ambitious, go to a church that you don't like and where you don't like the pastor. Look around and see if you can say the same thing. That is the test of your love.

'Church' Means Dancing With Everybody

I had a wonderful Irish grandma who knew no theology. She could never distinguish between virgin birth and Immaculate Conception and I gave up trying to explain it to her! I also had an uncle who refused to go to church. I remember Grandma saying to him, "Yes, you don't like Father Bertrand so you don't go to church. You don't like the bartender either, but you go for a whiskey when you want one!"

We dance with everybody. That's my new definition of Church. Talk to some other Catholics about what it means to say each Sunday, "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." And then say to yourself, "How am I going to be a part of it? How can I begin to make it easier for people to believe because of the goodness of my life, because of my becoming more and more like Jesus Christ? How can I break down all those barriers that divide us so that we can dance together?" That's being truly Catholic.

This article is being simultaneously published in Catholic Update (C0699). Individual reprints can be ordered by sending $1.00 and a self-addressed envelope to Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1615 Republic St., Cincinnati, OH 45210. Bulk discounts are available by calling 1-800-488-0488 or in the American Catholic online catalog. An audiocassette version of this article is also available.


Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B., is archbishop of Milwaukee and former abbot primate of the Benedictine Order. Among his many appointments he is a member of the Liturgy Commission of the U.S. bishops' conference and a member of the Committee of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. He is an accomplished classical musician. This article is adapted from the keynote address he gave at the 1998 Archdiocese of Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.


© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link:

Published June 1, 1999.