VATICAN CITY — The Vatican's request to suspend renovation of the Milwaukee cathedral while the plans are studied is meant to ensure respect for Church norms and to help defuse local controversy over the project, an official said.

Archbishop Francesco Tamburrino, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, said, “The Holy See is interested in resolving problems, not complicating them.”

Archbishop Tamburrino spoke to Catholic News Service June 5 following reports that the congregation had asked Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee to stop the renovation pending a discussion about complaints that changes planned for the cathedral would violate Church liturgical norms.

The Vatican official would not discuss whether or not any particular part of the renovation of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral appeared problematic to the congregation.

Archbishop Tamburrino said it was the congregation's job to promote “communion in the Church and the observance of those norms dictated by wisdom and respectful of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.”

He described the situation as one of dialogue with Archbishop Weakland aimed at clarifying concerns and offering suggestions to the archbishop on how the situation might be resolved.

The congregation became involved after a canon lawyer for opponents of the cathedral renovation wrote to the Vatican asking for intervention.

The planned changes to the cathedral's interior include moving the altar forward, having seating on three sides of the altar and constructing a separate chapel for the Blessed Sacrament. The $4.5 million work on the church is part of a $10 million project to renovate church property occupying a city block and to expand facilities for social services.

Archbishop Tamburrino said it was not unusual for the congregation to look into the concerns of lay people regarding the actions of their priests or bishops in matters related to liturgy and the celebration of the sacraments.

“Everyone has access to the congregation,” he said. “Anyone who is baptized has a right to turn to the Holy See, and we make no distinction between left and right, big or small.

“It is important that every Christian know there is an authority to whom he can turn,” the archbishop said, adding that “obviously, we must discern what we hear.”

James Reiter, a Milwaukee opponent of the renovation, hired Alan Kershaw, a Rome-based canon lawyer, to represent him in the matter.

Kershaw said he thinks the fact that the congregation asked Archbishop Weakland to suspend the work May 26 and the fact that Kershaw was given 30 days to file additional information with the congregation shows the Vatican believes the complaints may have merit.

Kershaw said his client asked for Vatican intervention based on “the violation of liturgical norms and the violation of canon law, including in the administration of the archdiocese itself.”

The canon lawyer would not go into more detail.

“I cannot go into too much detail,” Kershaw said. “I cannot give away my strategy.”

He said the archdiocese's Web site for the project quotes liturgical documents to support the proposed changes, but “they are giving a very liberal interpretation to excerpts of the liturgical norms without taking into consideration the overall meaning of them. They are trying to make the norms fit their own, very personal designs.”

In a telephone interview, Archbishop Weakland said he was “totally confused” by the Vatican congregation's intervention.

He asked why the group opposing the renovations “waited until the very last minute” to file their appeal, when broken contracts caused by delays could cost the archdiocese large amounts of money.

“I am absolutely convinced that I have followed the liturgical norms” in the renovation plans, he said.

Archbishop Weakland said Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, head of the worship congregation, had faxed him six points of objection raised by the opponents of the renovation “and I answered all six points.” All the objections concerned areas where Church law gives the local bishop competence to decide, he said.

The archbishop said one objection concerned the chairs with kneelers that will be used to replace the bench-style pews. Church law says benches or chairs — “scamma seu sedilia” in Latin — may be used. Archbishop Weakland said he regarded the objection as “rather silly.”

He said there was another objection to the removal of the two side altars, which “hadn't been used for 30 years.”

Under the renovation plan “we will actually have more devotional spaces than before,” he said.

He said the groups opposing the renovation are rather small, while Catholics all over the archdiocese have contributed to the renovation fund. The archdiocesan pastoral council, consultors and priests' council have all approved the renovation, he said.

They would be legitimately disturbed “if I failed to move ahead with it,” he said.

Kershaw said that, while an archbishop is the chief liturgist in his diocese, “he has authority if he abides by liturgical legislation; if he violates it, then he has absolutely no authority. And the archbishop does have to be obedient to the authority of Rome.”

The canon lawyer said the fact that the renovation began less than a year before Archbishop Weakland turns 75 and offers his resignation to the Pope “is not a principal part” of the case.

“That just raises eyebrows and questions,” he said. “He has had 25 years to renovate the cathedral; why is he doing it now to the tune of $10 million?”

Contributing to this story was Jerry Filteau in Washington.