Goodbye Good Priest


The very same priest, whose homilies are so well received by the many who have never met him and those who know him well, is the same Fr. Paul Weinberger in the article below, which was written almost two years ago today.

Rev. Joseph F. Wilson is a Priest of the Brooklyn Diocese and has written widely on the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.

8 January 2004
Goodbye, Good Priest
Fr. Paul Weinberger gets his walking papers


About fourteen years ago, I heard a fascinating presentation by a Trappist priest/psychologist known to many for his presentations in a popular renewal program. I was in the uncharacteristic, for me, situation of being in a summer clergy institute, and this priest was one of the presenters. His audience was a group of perhaps two hundred priests, many of whom were familiar with his work because he had been involved in addressing so many groups in the Church over the years.

He was quite a gifted speaker, with a knack for putting things, and his presentation was lively and interesting; but there was one portion of it, which riveted my attention. It had to do with terms of assignment for priests.

And he was very apologetic about what he was going to say. "Oh, look, before you jump all over me," he said, "please just hear me out. I’ve had guys come up to me and say, ‘Charlie. You’re KILLING us dead in the water. We worked so hard for term limits for pastors!’ And I know what they’re saying. I worked for it too, and spoke in favor of it. I remember the pastors-in-place-forty years. But just LISTEN to me."

And he went on to talk about his family. He had become uncomfortably aware in the previous fifteen or so years that his nieces and nephews, all practicing Catholics and family people, didn’t have the same kind of rapport with their parish priests that he had been used to. He was listening to them discussing, even arguing about what priest had administered first communion to young Brian, who was running the altar servers when the twins were serving. The priests, you see, were coming and going at a much more rapid rate.

And, he suspected – and I think he was shrewd in this – that the priests were much less involved, and he thought he might know why. "If you’re in a parish, you’re at the point where you know the people and they know you, you’ve been there for years… you’re burying the parents of couples you’ve married, and they asked for you; and later you’re baptizing their children… that’s when we experience ministry at its deepest, most satisfying, most fruitful.

"And what’s happening now, I’m afraid, is that in the lives of younger priests, this just isn’t happening. We have our personnel policies in place. Everything goes by schedule. We want a young priest to have two good experiences in parish, good parishes with excellent pastors to mentor them, and solid parish staffs. So, we give them two rounds of being a curate, for five years apiece, except that, more often, it’s three years because we can’t afford to give them a full ten years as assistants. And we deprive them of that incredible formative experience of really bonding with a parish and its families over generations. And, having thrown themselves into their first place and tried to put down roots and then been uprooted and transferred, in their next place they’ll naturally be more reserved about throwing themselves whole-heartedly into the place.

"And what about those "good parishes" we use as training grounds? We deprive those parishioners of that experience as well, as we move young priests in and shuffle them off to another ‘formation experience.’ "

It’s very, very rare to hear a speaker discussing a problem in the Church and suggesting that a new program is not the answer. I’ve often thought about that priest’s comments in the years since, but never as much as in the last six weeks, watching the plight of Father Paul Weinberger of Dallas, and that of his parish, Blessed Sacrament, reach its conclusion.

On Epiphany Sunday, January 4, 2004, Father Paul Weinberger ascended the altar of Blessed Sacrament Church in Dallas to offer Sunday Mass for his people for the last time. The announcement that this was to be his last Sunday took most of the congregation by surprise. Journalist Rod Dreher arrived for the 10:45AM Mass with his wife and young son to find the 9AM Spanish Mass ending; he describes the scene thus:

"As we approached the entrance to the church, there was Fr. Weinberger in his usual post-mass spot, seated outside the door on a stool, receiving his parishioners. It was cold and rainy, but people stood in line for a long time to tell him goodbye. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch. These are the working poor of Dallas, the janitors, the maids, the busboys, and so forth ... and their hearts were broken. Young people were crying. Old ladies were weeping. Even big strapping grown men were wiping away tears."

It is painful to review the rapid-fire events of the previous weeks, many of which have been previously reported in CruxNews and the Wanderer. Father Weinberger, as is widely known, revived a stagnant, troubled inner city Dallas parish, over the course of a decade-long pastorate restoring buildings and grounds, retiring a million-dollar debt, and establishing a strongly liturgical, spiritually-focused parish program which included not just daily Mass but daily, generous confession hours, the full Liturgy of the Hours, devotions, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction, and a "Center for Virtue and Learning" that offered classes on myriad aspects of Catholicism including Scripture, lives of the saints, documents of Vatican II, spirituality, and other topics. At Blessed Sacrament one could easily find Spanish and English-language Masses, and a Latin Mass with Gregorian chant.

After ten years as pastor of Blessed Sacrament, Father Weinberger was told by Bishop Charles V. Grahmann of Dallas that he was not part of the bishop’s plans for the future of the parish. This was a disappointment; Father loved the parish and had brought it along to a point where the fruits of his ministry were evident everywhere.

At the same time, Father Weinberger was careful to say to the Bishop that, if he could not see his way to allowing Fr Weinberger to remain at Blessed Sacrament parish, he would certainly accept a transfer, asking only that if it were possible the transfer be preceded by a sabbatical. It is important that it be understood that at no point was there a question of Father Weinberger refusing a transfer. In a meeting on June 17th, 2003, Bishop Grahmann and he agreed on the transfer and the procedure including the sabbatical. From that date everything had been resolved to the satisfaction of the Bishop, and as one looks back it is impossible to see why any problems had to occur in the agreed-upon arrangements.

But complications there were. A decree from the Bishop, received on November 17th, relieved Father of his responsibilities as pastor and released him to go on sabbatical as the of January 6th. Father Weinberger immediately protested, in two letters sent in rapid succession, that he had not resigned his pastorate and could not be removed by decree in this way. In the end, he would write four letters to his Bishop, his Father-in-God, attempting to clear up the confusion between them. But the Bishop would never reply to those letters.

In seeking to understand the Diocese of Dallas, one can perhaps find it illuminating to focus on the part played in this story by Bronson Havard. A Deacon of the Church, editor of the diocesan newspaper and spokesman for Bishop Grahmann and for the Dallas diocese, Deacon Havard considerably aggravated the tensions of Father Weinberger’s situation. When journalist Terry Mattingly, seeking to do a story on Blessed Sacrament parish, interviewed him, he came away with several statements from Havard, which raised eyebrows. Mr Mattingly reported that Havard had asserted that a priest in Dallas needs permission to celebrate Mass in Latin, even using the modern liturgy; and went on rather dismissively to assert that the Latin rites might mean something to Fr Weinberger, but certainly not to his congregation, especially the immigrants. And he asserted that there had been many complaints about his ministry at Blessed Sacrament Church.

Considering that this is the spokesman of the diocese speaking, it is very intriguing. It’s simply not true that a priest needs permission to offer the revised Liturgy in Latin: that is the liturgy of the Church. The assertion that there have been complaints is news to Father Weinberger, which is all the more interesting in light of the diocesan policy that all complaints received are forwarded to the pastor involved.

But a couple of weeks after the Mattingly interview ran in the 350 papers which carry that syndicated column, another comment of Deacon Havard sparked outrage. A layman from San Diego, having read about Blessed Sacrament parish and Father Weinberger’s impending transfer, phoned the Dallas chancery, curious about the situation, and asked to speak with Deacon Havard. In the course of the conversation, trying to understand why Fr Weinberger had to be moved, he spoke of the priest’s fruitful ministry and even used the adjective, ‘holy,’ about him.

The layman recalls that Deacon Havard strenuously objected to the word ‘holy’ as applied to Father Weinberger, said that holiness was not merely a matter of the number of Masses one said or confessions one heard, and said, "I know several priests who did as much busy work and they turned out to be pedophiles."

The layman was utterly shocked at that appalling comment, as was Father Weinberger when it was repeated to him. But what is even more shocking is that repeated requests that the Bishop and the Diocese clarify and repudiate these remarks were been ignored. As indefensible as the comments are, as objectionable as any priest would find thus being characterized by the bishop’s spokesman, as UNVELIEVABLE as it is that an official of the Dallas diocese, of all places, would speak so lightly of pedophilia, Bishop Grahmann has ignored repeated insistent requests that he clarify the comments, repudiate them, and repair the damage they did (It should be noted that on January 5th on the Texas Catholic website, Deacon Havard denounces the layman’s report of the conversation as "untrue and malicious.")

And, in a peculiar way, this is all very illuminating; it sheds light on the whole situation. There’s not a lot going on here that you could characterize as ‘pastoral concern.’ When he first arrived in Dallas, Bishop Grahmann garnered some headlines on the occasion of the dedication of the new diocesan chancery, when he said that, personally, he’d love to padlock for ever the doors of the chancery offices. This populist, pastoral, anti-legalistic cast of his comments got both attention and approval. Yet, on the morning of Father Weinberger’s last Mass at Blessed Sacrament, one journalist repeatedly heard parishioners angrily speaking of how they had written letters pleading that this transfer not happen – yet never received a reply. In comments about this situation on Catholic blogsites online the same comment has been made often by Dallas Catholics – we never get any meaningful replies at all. In the next day’s newspaper coverage, the coadjutor Bishop suggested that the area will be better served by a Hispanic priest – yet another journalist there that morning repeatedly heard Mexican immigrant parishioners speak of themselves as "orphaned," bereft because of Fr Weinberger’s transfer.

The besetting sin of the Church in our day is the thoroughgoing, determined denial of reality. We characterize as an "Age of Renewal" a three-decade period when Mass attendance has collapsed, Religious life imploded, universities and hospitals were secularized and two generations graduated from Catholic schools Religiously illiterate. We overuse the word "pastoral" to an astonishing degree, yet we have so bureaucratized and management-ized the life of the Church that the Bishops, our Fathers-in-God, are insulated from us, so that faithful Catholic people with serious concerns have no hope of hearing an answer from their Bishop, and the ministry of a parish priest is conceptualized in the chancery in terms of six-year segments subject, after review, to renewal under certain conditions. It leaves a warm Christian taste in your mouth, doesn’t it?

We pay frequent lip-service homage to the Second Vatican Council, but no one is really interested in what the Council said. Father Weinberger celebrated one Sunday Mass at 10:45AM which was a sung Latin Mass, Novus Ordo, readings and homily in English. The Fathers of the Council called for the preservation of Latin in the Mass, allowed for the limited use of vernacular where it was useful, and especially called for Gregorian Chant to be fostered. Father Weinberger does this at one Mass in his parish, prompted by the desire to have a common-language rite for his two-thirds Spanish-speaking, one-third English-speaking congregation, and it prompts a visit from a priest from the diocesan liturgical office. Never mind that vernacular Masses in Spanish and English are liberally available throughout the rest of the weekend and the week: that Latin Mass is a problem. It is precisely what the Council Fathers called for… but it’s a problem. Latin. It’s dangerous.

So, Father Weinberger ascended the altar at Blessed Sacrament Church for his last Sunday, offered the holy Mass reverently, and spoke to his people of how this was his last Sunday among them. It was a very sad day, a needlessly sad day. A good Priest is father to his people, and the sundering of that tie, as helpful as it might be to the smooth running of the diocesan bureaucracy, is a sad thing for the people involved. One man who was in the pews with his family watched the procession making its way up the aisle, eight reverent younger Mass servers shepherded by the "four Masters," four omni competent teens who oversee the liturgy, and he thought, "Most of those boys were not even born yet when Father Paul came here. How his good work will live on after he is gone!"

So, Father Weinberger packs up and moves on. Good priest that he is, he will settle into St William’s in Greenville and it will soon be a beehive of activity. But, not for the first time, we are left wondering: why do so many in positions of authority in the Church find it so hard to foster the good? Must every parish in America be a mass-produced Amchurch product? Why can’t we rejoice in and foster the work of a Priest who helps others to love God?

Goodbye, Father Weinberger, and Godspeed, until we hear of you again. As we surely will.