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Motown and the turbocharged Church

Archbishop Vigneron and the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit have faced the facts: Catholicism-by-osmosis – Catholicism passed along by the old ethno-cultural transmission belt – is over in America.

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron celebrates Mass on the vigil of Pentecost June 3 at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. (CNS photo/Jonathan Francis, Archdiocese of Detroit)

Detroit hasn’t gotten a lot of good press in recent decades as it’s struggled to cope with the myriad problems of rustbelt American cities in the age of globalization. But the Church in Detroit is not playing defense. Under the leadership of Archbishop Allen Vigneron, it’s going on offense, challenging itself to become a diocese of missionary disciples.

The plan is laid out in Archbishop Vigneron’s recent pastoral letter, “Unleash the Gospel,” issued from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on the Vigil of Pentecost. The letter synthesizes the conclusions and convictions of a remarkable process that began three years ago. Thus, in March 2014, the archbishop announced a year of prayer for a “new Pentecost,” a new outpouring of the Spirit. In 2015-16, missions were held throughout the archdiocese in order to give its people a new experience of the Lord Jesus – which is always the beginning of radical, missionary discipleship. In 2016, parishes were challenged to re-imagine themselves as launch-pads for mission, with parishioners coming together to discuss openly and candidly the future of the archdiocese under dramatically changed circumstances. In 2016, the archdiocese also held a Mass for Pardon in which the bishops, priests, and people of Detroit publicly repented the sins that had impeded the proclamation and reception of the Gospel, asking the Lord’s forgiveness so as to walk into the future with clean hearts and renewed courage.

Finally, in November 2016, clergy, religious, and laity from across the archdiocese met in synod to pray together and discuss together how to become, in a phrase that recurs throughout Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral, “a joyful band of missionary disciples.” This was not the kind of diocesan synod often seen in the United States: an administrative exercise, internally focused on the Church-as-institution. Detroit’s synod had a different goal: in Archbishop Vigneron’s words, “nothing less than a radical overhaul of the Church in Detroit, a complete reversal of our focus from an inward, maintenance-focused church to an outward, mission-focused church.”

Archbishop Vigneron and the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit have faced the facts: Catholicism-by-osmosis – Catholicism passed along by the old ethno-cultural transmission belt – is over in America. In forty years, perhaps in twenty, no thirty-something Catholic in the United States is going to answer the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” with the answer, “Because my great-great-grandmother came from County Cork” (or Palermo, or Munich, or Cracow, or Guadalajara). The cultural air of the early twenty-first century is too toxic to be a carrier of the faith. The faith has to be proposed, and future generations must meet and embrace the Lord Jesus, if Catholicism in America is to flourish, being salt and light in the world and offering healing to a deeply wounded and fractured society.

As I’ve watched the Detroit process over the past several years, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the Synod of Cracow, called by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, to help his archdiocese receive the Second Vatican Council and implement its reforms. Like Cracow, the Detroit process began with an extended period of intensified prayer. Like Cracow, the Detroit process was aimed, not at more efficient administration, but at more effective evangelization. Like Cracow, the Detroit process had extensive lay involvement. Like Cracow, the Detroit process faced squarely the challenges of preaching the Gospel and witnessing to it in a hostile cultural environment. (And like Cracow, the Detroit synod process was led by a philosopher-bishop whose thinking and leadership are nourished and informed by prayer, the Bible, and the sacraments.)

The extraordinary contention that has followed Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia, has created a lot of problems; perhaps most gravely, that contentiousness has impeded what the Pope still insists is his grand strategy, laid out in Evangelii Gaudium: the transformation of Catholicism into a communion of missionary disciples. That is precisely the challenge that the Detroit synod process accepted. The follow-through plans – along with their biblical and doctrinal rationale – are laid out in detail in Archbishop Vigneron’s extraordinary pastoral letter.

Motown may no longer be the epicenter of the global automobile industry. The Archdiocese of Detroit, however, is well on the way to becoming a shining model of how to gather and organize a local Church for the New Evangelization.

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About George Weigel 478 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. It sounds like a lot of new order hagio-babble leading up to more felt banners and guitar masses and less faith.

    “What do we have to do to be a joyful band of missionaries?” – of course we know the answer, Act like a bunch of born agains and don’t talk about doctrine, sin, morality or sex. Implement AL by giving communion to everyone, etc.

    Catholicism by osmosis – How about just teaching Catholicism in the first place. 12 years of religious education – useless!!! why are kids leaving? The rock masses and cartoon based social justice catechism books aren’t enough to keep them coming???

    • spent a lot of time this month with friends from Detroit who are cautiously excited about this, and none of them not even the Latin Mass folks share your worries. Ste Anne and Fr. Solanus, pray for us.

      • They will. Expecting anything useful from the hierarchy and their staffs of feminist nuns and social justice kooks is like expecting an apple tree to lay eggs.

    • Not really. I suggest you read the Apostolic Letter that Vigneron wrote:

      3.3 The Roots of the Crisis
      The roots of the present crisis of faith go far beyond the boundaries of our local Church.For the last several centuries the western world has been gradually abandoning its Christian foundations. As John Paul II candidly wrote in 2001, “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian society’ which, amid all the frailties which have always marked human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.”8 Pope Benedict
      XVI gave a similar diagnosis: “The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings….”9 Even among those who affirm that God exists, many are living a “practical atheism”—that is, they are living as if God did not exist.
      Underlying the rejection of Christian faith at a deep level are often false or pseudo religions, belief systems based on profoundly misguided assumptions. Many people hold these beliefs unreflectively, not aware of their underlying premises. Some of the most common false religions today are the following.

      Scientific fundamentalism. Scientific fundamentalism is a belief that all questions about human existence and the world can be answered by experimental science. The universe is regarded as a closed system in which everything can be explained by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and evolution. God, if he exists at all, does not intervene in the world.
      Anything that cannot be proven scientifically is assumed to be false or at least unimportant. In reality, such a belief attributes to science a role that is far beyond its competence, since there are vast domains of existence that experimental science cannot account for, including ethical goods, aesthetic values, love, friendship, sacrifice, knowledge, and even science itself
      Moralistic therapeutic deism. This term was famously coined by two sociologists to
      describe the amorphous set of religious beliefs to which many American young people subscribe.10 This belief system is moralistic in that it emphasizes moral behavior, vaguely defined as being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, and so on. It is therapeutic in that it envisions God as on call to take care of problems that arise in our lives, but not otherwise interested in us nor holding us accountable for our choices. It is deistic in that it views God as 7having created the world but not personally involved in it. Such views fall far short of the Christian understanding of God, who does hold us accountable, who gave his Son for us to save us from the devastating consequences of sin, and who desires to be deeply involved in our lives.

      Secular messianism. Secular messianism is a politicized version of Christianity that makes the Gospel subservient to a human agenda. It comes in various forms (both liberal and conservative), but in every case it reduces Christianity to a program of social progress in this world. Such an outlook has lost sight of the eschatological vision of the Gospel—the fact that what we believe and do in this life has eternal consequences, because the world as we know itwill one day come to an end and Christ will return as the Lord before whom every knee will bow
      (Phil 2:9-11).All these false answers to the deepest questions of life are not reasons for discouragement but for hope, because they show that people are hungry and searching for truth even if they areknocking on the wrong door.

      • nothing in that excerpt suggests that the program is anything more than the same old VII bs they’ve been trying to sell for years.

      • “I charge AOD Central Services: Office for Christian Worship to lead the development of a plan for equipping parishes with the necessary resources and formation to plan transformative Sunday liturgies, and liturgical events that will commission and send forth individuals and families for mission. This plan should be proposed by June 2018.”

        Sounds like a lot of pep rallies and touchy-feely masses every week to me!

      • “I charge the Judicial Vicar and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Detroit to form a committee to review the Particular Law of the Archdiocese in light of the results of Synod 16. By January 7, 2020, the Judicial Vicar and Chancellor will present to the Archbishop of Detroit the work of the committee which will propose possible changes to Particular Law that are necessary in order to fulfill the work of Synod 16.” AND

        “Lead the parish in a spirit of radical hospitality that permeates all parish activity and flows out to the community.” AND

        “Provide “shallow entry points” for people who are seeking Jesus.”

        i.e. – communion for everyone!

  2. There are a lot of good men in the Church who want good things to happen. George Weigel is one. The state of affairs is so grim that anything resembling resurgence of faith is irresistible. That must encompass resurgence of faithful practice. Dr Weigel hasn’t quaffed the cool aid. He offers a wait and see approach for Detroit and Archbishop’s Vigneron’s assault on a despairing disinterested Church. Aptly pointing out conscientiousness as the Bete Noir. Perhaps the Pontiff’s Grand Scheme is what Vigneron is is seeking to implement. A slight loosening of doctrine and welcome to the disenfranchised wounded majority of Catholics. The true story. Is it Church inflicted woundedness or self inflicted. It seems the latter. Senor Weigel should have given the doctrinal thesis of the “pastoral letter, ‘Unleash the Gospel,'”. If the Archbishop can translate Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia and Evangelii Gaudium into a doctrinally sound pastoral policy he’s doing magnificently. To date no Hierarchy has come close. I hope Archbishop Vigneron is has achieved the remarkable.

  3. This is a good lesson for every diocese. JP II went home from Vatican II and held a several years long synod in his home diocese in Poland. They really understood the Vatican II documents, and Vatican II was impplemented correctly and as the Council wished. The results were lots of vocations, a very healthy church in Poland, and very few problems.

    The American Bishops did no such thing. Instead, the came home, and many of them twisted Vatican II for their own purposes. So we got gitar masses, hippy liturgies, and general disgust.

    The point is that you need to really study Vatican II very closely before you can implement it. JP II basically had several thousand people all reading the documents and taking them to heart, learning what they REALLY meant, not what some left wing trouble maker interpreted them to be.

    This is the hard work that Bishops were supposed to undertake. Instead, we got a lot of baloney from administrators and academics who obscured Vatican Ii until it was something unrecognizable. I was always surprised to learn that JP II and Benedict say that Vatican II had never been implemented. Something was implemented, but it was not Vatican II. We were just told it was.

    Time for Synods everywhere. Synods – real Synos where people can speak their minds openly – on Amoris Laetitia should be very interesting. But not in the way Pope Francis would like.

    • Samton:

      I think that the problem in the US Church was not a failure to read and understand V2 documents. It was simply that the Polish Cardinals and the majority of Polish Bishops intended a reform in Continuity with tradition, and their American counterparts were determined to implements a break from tradition.

      Pope JP2’s last book – “Memory and Identity” – is rooted in respecting tradition.

      To me – the Achilles Heal of the Post-V2 Church is the “coloring-book-Catholicism” that was spawned all over the RC Church, which threw Catholic culture in the garbage, and substituted cultural treasures with cheap pop culture innovations.

  4. “The Archdiocese of Detroit, however, is well on the way to becoming a shining model of how to gather and organize a local Church for the New Evangelization.”

    A bit premature for this judgment, especially if the American Church continues to push a multicultural (and yet homogeneous) national identity that fails to take into account local cultures and respect local (American) peoples.

  5. Having lived in the Detroit area every summer for the past 9 years, this laudatory post by George Weigel seems to be describing another place. The parishes I’ve attended are full of elderly people, with only a scattering of families with children. Although I have been impressed with the faith of the parishioners, I can’t say they show any signs of being a band of missionaries.

    This is typical of Weigel’s meliorist prose. Pollyanna has nothing on him…

    Admittedly I have not attended the very few Extraordinary Form parishes. So there’s that. But they’re not exactly what George lauds in his post, are they?

  6. Whenever I hear those words “the new…” in relation to anything coming from the church my BS meter goes off the s ale and I know to run and hide because there’s going to be a lot of Bologna followed by more loss of faith. The new evangelization is not an exception.

  7. Fr. Peter Morello. Mercy advocates like to bring up the image of the wounded sinner. Some of these sinners can be dangerous. A wounded animal can be very dangerous. So can a person who is drowning. Both can cause great harm to their would be caregivers. Wounded sinners drowning in their sins can be as hazardous as Saul of Tarsus was before Christ’s intervention on the road to Damascus.
    Cain killed Abel. Israel had the biblical reputation of being the killer of the prophets. Christ was crucified. St. Stephen was stoned to death. In these cases sinners found it easier to kill the righteous than to humble themselves and try to learn and benefit from them.

  8. The question that comes to mind is – has Weigel actually BEEN to the AoD? Seriously. The entire “Unleash the Gospel” effort is centered around the Protestant ALPHA program – barely Christian and practically speaking NOT Catholic. A number of people close to the Archbishop are very concerned that his efforts are essentially a charismatic renewal type program with emphasis on emotion and God handing and insufficient instruction in the nuts and bolts of the faith. It should be noted that the only thriving parishes, the traditional reverent novus ordo Masses or the couple Latin Mass parishes, want nothing to do with “unleashing the gospel” because they already do it, in a genuine Catholic manner.

  9. It’s my understanding that the Detroit Church is heavily invested in the active gay agenda. I do not see how it can grow the Church if it teaches only its version of social justice while ignoring the true spiritual teachings of the Church. A start would be to let go of all active gay clerics and those that actively support them.

  10. I have no idea what content is in the Detroit program.

    But there is no doubt that it any perceived connection or inspiration about “unleashing” the Gospel can have no credible foundation in Pope F and his “talk” about the “missionary church.”

    The actual mission of the Church is perfectly stated by Jesus at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

    The “current” problem for Team Francis is that their “theology” playbook (written by Pope F’s favorite theologian Cdl. Kasper) has indtructed Catholic young people to DISBELIEVE the Gospel. In Kasper’s book “Jesus the Christ,” 1st Ed. 1976, re-issued 2011, Kasper (pp 90-91) calls the miracles and Passion prophecies of Jesus “legends.”

    No man can “evangelize” when he denies the Evangelium.

    Evangelization – when discussed by the “current” pontificate has ZERO credibility.

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