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1997 Commencement Speech: Rembert G. Weakland, Archbishop of Milwaukee

Source: Archdiocese of Milwaukee Archives

My task as the speaker at this commencement, at least as I see it, is to point out at least one of the signs of our times and to give then some words of wisdom to the graduates on how to react or adjust to that sign of the times. My words are thus directed to those who are graduating, namely, to those who will be trying to find their way in American culture in the next decades.

My choice of one of the signs of our times to talk about to you might at first surprise you. Remember that we are but three years before the year 2000, the millennium. Thus one of the signs of our times of significance for those graduating in 1997 centers around the search for a spirituality. One of the signs of our times is a renewed interest in spirituality. That interest will only grow in the next decade as we approach the year 2000. Here in the United States we have seen the rise of such authors as Scott Peck and Thomas More and the incredible number of copies of their books that have been sold in recent years. The Road Less Traveled has been much traveled. We see also such works as The Celestine Prophecy and note the many weeks it has been on the best-seller list. Moreover, if one goes into any bookstore anywhere in the United States, one will find large sections on the occult and on New Age thinking. Spirituality, both good and bad, is in the air.

In 1990, just as the Soviet Union was beginning to break up, I had the privilege of making several trips to Russia. One of the most noticeable aspects of that period of transition was the desire for spiritual ideas and experiences. Having been starved for over seventy years, the Russians were eagerly seeking anything they could get their hands on about the relationship between spirituality and contemporary thinking. When I visited the famous university of Akademgorodok outside of Novosibirsk in Siberia, I realized that the members of the faculty would have held me there forever to answer questions about the relationship between their discipline and spirituality. All the most exotic kinds of religious practice they found fascinating. In Novosibirsk itself I noticed how thousands lined up at the Orthodox church every Sunday afternoon for baptism. Sunday, at my Mass in the old capital of Tomsk on the Ob River, over forty people unexpectedly presented themselves for baptism right after the homily. The pastor had forgotten to tell me that every Sunday he baptized dozens seeking to enter the Roman Catholic Church. I use these examples to show that the quest for more spiritual insights is not just an American phenomenon.

When I mentioned spirituality, some of you may already have begun to tune me out. If you have, let me get one idea in before I am totally relegated to the discard bin. From these experiences and from what I see happening everywhere in the world, I am convinced that, if anyone neglects to develop the spiritual part of his or her nature, that person is and will always be only half a person. Many neglect their spiritual needs till a crisis comes along. By such neglect and by starving their spirit, they also become ready-made victims later on for some of the most harmful and “cultish” spiritual movements that exist in our society. I assure you there are many false and disastrous movements out there and they continue to grow in number. We have only to think of the many sad experiences we have witnessed of late among such religious groups and to examine the bizarre behavior they have fallen into to realize that a search for a true spirituality can be a perilous journey. From Waco, Texas, to Heaven's Gate, California, we have been confronted with some of the aberrations that are possible if a false spirituality takes hold. I can only warn you that these movements will grow and multiply in the next years as we face the millennium. The turn of every century, and especially if it ushers in a new millennium, brings out such exaggerated manifestations.

The dilemma that you graduates face is the need to develop the spiritual aspect of your being and, at the same time, to avoid the pitfalls of the “cultish'' and unwholesome spiritualties that flood the marketplace. You have every right to be fearful and hesitant. Naturally it is easy for me, as a Roman Catholic archbishop, to say that, in this area of spirituality, the old and the tried is the best. Groups with longer histories have seen almost every kind of spiritual innovation and have a good track record in sorting out the good from the bad or of discerning the true from the false. I only ask you not to neglect and immediately reject some of that wisdom that the Catholic Church has to offer in this regard. From Benedictines to Franciscans to Jesuits, there is much wisdom and truth in the spiritual traditions of the religious orders of the Catholic Church. I would like to take this opportunity to make a pitch for these solid and well-tested spiritual insights.

For those of you who are skeptical about these traditions and seek more contemporary ways, and for those of you who have not even given much thought or energy to things spiritual, I would like now to outline what the characteristics of a healthy spirituality should be. My hope will be that you will remember them when you come into contact with some of the less healthy spiritual movements that you will encounter and that will try to bring you into their fold. Those of you who have already tuned me out and are saying to yourselves, “I am not a spiritual person; this has no interest for me,” worry me most. You become the most susceptible of all to a false spirituality when you are under stress and come to seek quick and easy cures.

I would like to describe three characteristics of a healthy spirituality: it should be psychologically sound, it should be sociologically sound, it should be theologically sound.

A spirituality that is psychologically healthy means that it is a spirituality that frees you up and does not create an unhealthy dependency, whether it be on a person, a group, or an idea. A healthy spirituality in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas has to build on nature, not deny it nor despise it. Thus, a spirituality that seeks to deny the body and its demands is bound to lead to impossible tensions. A psychologically sound spirituality does not create the illusion that the person is a pure spirit but accepts the role of the body.

Cardinal Newman, as an example, thought that he was finally reaching the realms in his prayer life of the illuminative way. He felt very close to God and was most pleased that his prayer centered so clearly and exclusively on God's presence within him. Then he began to have migraine headaches and reached the point where he could not concentrate at all. He then realized that prayer was not something he did but it was God's action within him. Perhaps his simple utterance to God that he was in too much pain to pray was his best prayer. We Americans, by a cultural instinct, are innate semi-Pelagianists. That is, we think that, given a problem, we can set up a process to solve it, we can, of our own power, work out a solution. A healthy spirituality leaves space for God, for learning, for creativity.

A healthy spirituality is also sociologically healthy. There is a tendency among false spiritualties to divide the world into good and bad people, the good being those who adhere to the doctrine of the in-group, the bad being all those others who are then demonized. Such elitism always produces bad results. Good is not the monopoly of a single group, nor is evil. Evil penetrates all aspects of our own life and of society. A dualism that would separate one group as all perfect from the others as evil leads to encircling the wagons and the kind of defensiveness that prevents growth and spiritual development. It also leads to some of the bizarre phenomena that we have seen of late.

A healthy spirituality also is one that is open to others. Mother Teresa is considered a model because her spirituality is open to all in need. She reaches out, she does not close herself off. There is no such thing as a true spirituality that is selfish and self-centered. More is needed than just the ability to function well within the community of believers. That community, in turn, must see itself in relationship to the larger society and its needs. Monks, one of the earliest counter-cultural spiritualties in the history of the Catholic Church, soon learned that they related to the society around them, even as they had hoped to remove themselves from the worst aspects of that culture. Thus, St. Pachomius stated to his monks that they could not build a church for themselves to worship in until they had built one for the people of the village. A healthy spirituality always has this clear sociological dimension of a concern for others in need and seeks to reach out to them.

Finally, a healthy spirituality must also be theologically solid. By that I mean it has to have a correct concept of God, one that is sound. God cannot be too aloof as to be disinterested in this world, nor too domesticated so as to cease to be God. The healthy concept of a God who cares and loves and is concerned about each of us must be coupled with a God who is the holy “Other,” the ineffable. Before such a God we stand in awe and reverence; then we are freed up to call Him friend and lover, the terms in scripture that He uses to call us.

A healthy spirituality also has a correct theological view of this world. It is not evasive, nor does it seek to free itself from this world, to by-pass this world. It is not “other-worldly” in a search for a purely spiritual existence. We Catholics have been fortunate in recent decades to have again recaptured the Jewish roots of our scriptures and our spiritual traditions, roots that are very earthly and Hellenistic and neo-Platonic strains that entered our tradition in the later centuries. We see this world as the place where God brings about His kingdom. Thus we see this world as having its own value and worth. Again, we do not seek to evade or climb over this world, but build here a kingdom of peace and justice. A theologically sound spirituality takes seriously this world and what happens here. Injustices, pain, exploitation, and all other kinds of human degradation must be fought against, not tolerated in the name of some higher set of values that are spiritual. A healthy spirituality has its feet on the ground and relates to the real world around it.

May I now, to end my discourse, repeat my message to you. You must develop the spiritual part of your nature to be a full and total person, the kind of person God created you to be. But you must do so in a way that is psychologically, sociologically, and theologically healthy. As you move forward in the next decade you will come in contact with so many lopsided and even bizarre spiritualties, especially now as we come nearer to the year 2000. They are a part of the signs of our times. In spite of these aberrations you should not be afraid to develop the spiritual part of your being, but do so in a healthy way. Test all spiritualties if they are psychologically, sociologically, and theologically sound. Naturally I put in a plug for the old, the tried, and the true spiritualties that have been a part of our Jewish and Christian heritages.

My prayer today is that your spiritual journey be a full, exciting, and positive one.


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