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The Bitter Fruits of a Fashionable, Unserious Liturgist | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Reflections on Toward Ritual Transformation: Remembering Robert W. Hovda: Articles contributed by Gabe Huck, Robert W. Hovda, Virgil C. Funk, J. Michael Joncas, Nathan D. Mitchell, James Savage, and John Foley. (Collegeville, Minnesota: A Pueblo Book published by The Liturgical Press, 2003) | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's note: This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly (Vol. 27, No. 2). In reviewing Toward Ritual Transformation: Remembering Robert W. Hovda, Fr. Van Hove has provided a helpful introduction and significant critique of the influential and problematic thought of Fr. Hovda, one of the key figures in "liturgical reform" in the United States following the Second Vatican Council.

In 1983 it was baffling to me when I learned that partisans of The National Association of Pastoral Musicians would object to the publication of Monsignor George A. Kelly's The New Biblical Theorists whose foreword was by René Laurentin. [1] Why would musicians be interested in the historical-critical method? However today, looking back, it is easy to see. What helped was the festschrift Toward Ritual Transformation: Remembering Robert W. Hovda, although the book is more conspicuous for what it does not say and for what is left out of this story. On page 48 the founder of The National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Virgil C. Funk, wrote:
We are challenged to maintain our roots in the biblical renewal. Central to my own understanding of the liturgy was my training in Sacred Scripture. The primary sources of revelation are the Scriptures and the liturgy. We will be challenged to expand our awareness of the Scriptures, of their meaning and interpretation based on modern techniques and the tradition of the Church.
But in 1983 it was unacceptable for Kelly to call into question those "modern techniques." And is not Sacred Tradition presumed to be a primary source of revelation, especially since the definition of the Council of Trent?

Kelly, after conversations with Manuel Miguens and even Hans Urs von Balthasar, [2] criticized the use or misuse of the historical-critical method by Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998). Kelly insisted Brown did not admit the weaknesses of the method, instead allowing it to have a virtual monopoly as a way to the truth about Scripture with implications therefore for later issues concerning the development of doctrine. This created doubt among ordinary people in the church since Brown did not write only for specialists. [3] Kelly, too, decided to write for the non-specialist. He understood that ours is not a religion of the professors. Kelly asserted that what Brown called "science" was no more than unprovable theorizing, perhaps akin to sophisticated science fiction. It happened that some of these doctrinal topics were of interest to the liturgists as well.

Not all the connections were made in 1983. I had not reflected enough upon the classic significance of "lex orandi, lex credendi." By then, to me the liturgists were technicians and choreographers rather than the pure scholars who studied texts in various languages. I distinguished "liturgists" from "liturgiologists". In this reckoning, Robert Hovda was a liturgist, [4] and Josef Andreas Jungmann was a liturgiologist. One was not serious, while the other was. True, the older generation of pastor-liturgists such as Martin B. Hellriegel in St. Louis had fostered a noble movement. But the next generation of liturgists presented themselves to us, when we were much younger than they and eagerly watching, with a peculiar affinity for fastidious liturgical aestheticism coupled with a deep hatred for the old rites and devotions. [5] Their punctilious attention to aesthetic details, their hyper-sensitivity to "tassels and brocade," often their demanding and petty nature, were well known. They seemed to have coalesced into a guild more interested in celebrational style and their own egos [6] than in the symbolic language of our Catholic identity. [7] Jokes were made about them—comparing them to terrorists. They knew how to shop for threads. Little did I know they had also shopped for doctrines.

When he wrote about the theorists—he refrained from calling them "scripture scholars"—Kelly specifically referred to the following points, either doctrinal in nature or with strong doctrinal implications. These, he claimed, were the victims of a great divorce promoted by many Catholic exegetes, including Raymond Brown, who by a selected method [8] had severed the classical union between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition:
• The stories of Christ's birth are dubious history.
• Early Christians understood themselves as a renewed Israel, not immediately as a new Israel.
• We must nuance any statement which would have the historical Jesus institute the Church or the priesthood at the Last Supper.
• In the New Testament we are never told that the Eucharistic power was passed from the Twelve to missionary apostles to presbyter-bishops.
• Only in the third and fourth century can one take for granted that when "priests" are mentioned, ministers of the Eucharist are meant.
• The Twelve were neither missionaries nor bishops.
• Sacramental powers were given to the Christian Community in the persons of the Twelve.
• Presbyter-bishops described in the New Testament are not traceable "in any way" to the successors of the Twelve.
• The episcopate gradually emerged, but can be defended "as divinely established by Christ" only if one says it emerged under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not Christ.
• Peter cannot be looked upon as the Bishop of the early Roman Church community. Succession to his Church just fell to the Bishop of Rome, the city where Peter died. However, that concentration of authority produces, says Brown, "difficulties such as those we are now encountering within Catholicism."
• Vatican II was "biblically naive" when it called Catholic bishops successors of the Apostles.
• It is dangerous to assume that second century structures existed in the first century. [9]
But the liturgists, at least the ones most in fashion, had already separated themselves from their roots in Catholic dogma. To realize this took me quite a while. Perhaps here we have the real meaning of "ritual transformation" —the concoction of a new religion? [10]

The Liturgical Conference's "Liturgical Week" in August of 1969 in Milwaukee was more like collective madness than liturgy—I was there—yet this embarrassing history is passed over in silence. On page 8 in Toward Ritual Transformation we learn only that Robert Hovda, starting in 1965, was with The Liturgical Conference for fourteen years, and that the Liturgical Weeks continued into the 1970s. On the program in 1969 were Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon—who droned on and on one evening about antiwar politics—and The Black Panther Party. They were more the object of interest at this gathering about the liturgy than the General Instruction of the Roman Missal which was still new at that moment and surely deserved wider study and appreciation. [11] The "social sanctification" theme developed by Gerald Ellard [12] and others in the 1940s and 1950s had become exaggerated and distorted by the 1960s. A confused notion of social justice and its relationship to the Catholic Mass was the product. [13]

Virgil C. Funk, [14] wrote on page 31: "Without a basic celebrative model and a common experience, we learn by doing. Lex orandi statuat legem credendi: How we pray shapes what we believe. By our diverse singing, we believe in diversity of belief."

Diversity of belief? Isn't this what the Unitarians boast of? Isn't this what comprehensive Anglicanism means by "high, low and broad"? In other words, for Funk, the connection between doctrinal orthodoxy and orthopraxis in the liturgy is explicitly and formally rejected. That the liturgy judges us, and that we do not judge the liturgy, is set aside in favor of novelty, [15] a reversal of all we have known and done in the sacred liturgy. "Diversity of belief" represents the age-old contest between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Any pretense at unity in the church is consequently annihilated. If there is no truth, then there is no heresy, echoing Karl Barth. On this question the liturgists of Catholic heritage seemed doomed in the 1970s to repeat the mistakes of the Liberal Protestants of the nineteenth century. As Kelly wrote years later and in another place, "Doctrinal purity and discipleship go together—injury to one weakens the other—hardly a desirable condition for the Mystical Body of Christ." [16]

Anglican writer Peter Toon put it well concerning that rule of prayer, the "lex orandi":
... as used by modern writers of the new mix-and-match liturgies the tag as a claim is true in the way they translate it only in so far as it tells us that what they pray is what they believe (which is usually a revisionist or progressivist form of Christianity). That is, they have written into their liturgies a revised form of the Christian Faith reflecting progressive thinking because that is where they are in terms of their own beliefs. Then what they pray is certainly what they believe. However, they ought not to claim that they speak for the whole Church: they speak only for themselves and their supporters.... What they really believe is lex orandi statuat (founds) legem credendi. And since they produce the lex orandi they also decide what is the lex credendi! [17]
Bingo. That explained why the liturgists preferred the speculations of Raymond Brown, harnessed to their agenda, rather than the dry and fixed formulations found in Denzinger-Schönmetzer or Neuner-Dupuis, the canons of the councils, the writings of the popes, or the revised liturgical books which came directly from The Second Vatican Council. Brown, who had achieved virtually untouchable celebrity status, could be used in a congenial way to justify their positions, or so it seemed, and the voices of resistance, such as those of Kelly and Miguens, or von Balthasar, were not to be admitted to the discussion. [18] That they could be the best minds of our church did not seem to matter.

No one hints in Toward Ritual Transformation that at the end of his life Raymond Brown explicitly reconnected his work to its Catholic nature. He wrote that there was a harmony between Scripture and Tradition. Here is what he wrote in his Introduction to the New Testament:
Indeed, the subsequent role of the Spirit in human history, in the history of the church and its pronouncements, in the writings of the Fathers and theologians enters into a Tradition that embodies the postscriptural interpretation of the salvific action God described in Scripture. The Bible has unique importance because it contains both the narrative of the foundational salvific action of God and the basic interpretation of that action, but there can be subsequent normative interpretation of that action which is not found in Scripture. Thus for example, the raising from death to glory of all the faithful disciples of Christ is an interpretation of salvation revealed in the NT; and although not found in Scripture, the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary can be seen by Roman Catholics as a particular application of that interpretation -- an interpretation developing from a late NT tendency visible in Luke and John to see Mary as a privileged disciple." Footnote 25 on the same page adds: "Of course, in a wider sense Scripture itself is tradition, viz., the written tradition of Israel and of the early church." [19]
Luke Timothy Johnson, who published Brown's obituary, maintained that Brown believed himself to be faithful to the Catholic Church. "For in an era when biblical scholarship increasingly turned toward the academy, Father Brown's work, while meeting the highest scholarly standards, was nonetheless rendered as a service in and for the church." [20] Brown called himself a centrist, whatever that might eventually mean to ecclesiastical history, and he said a quiet morning Mass all his priestly life, presumably according to the norms of the missal.

The same could not be said of Robert W. Hovda who said Mass in northern Virginia in the early 1970s. While a fleeting mention is made of the community known simply as Nova (p. 11), nothing is really said about it by Gabe Huck in Toward Ritual Transformation. Here are some particulars of what it was really like from an eyewitness who in 2004 submitted the following for this essay:
When I was a teenager, my parents wanted to get us kids (me, my two younger brothers, and younger sister) involved in church. So in the very early seventies, they began taking us to an "alternative liturgy" community—a "floating parish" that met in several places, most often in the "cafetorium" (a school cafeteria with a stage at one end) of Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in suburban Virginia.

Certain moments in my memories of Nova stand out. One couple (I remember them as young, attractive, and always smiling) planned a liturgy at which the first reading was (I'm not making this up) the bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Yes, in its entirety. With slides of wheeling gulls against a sheet in the background, as the lights were darkened in the cafetorium. By the end of the forty-five minutes the first reading took, about half the congregation had left, including my family. This was a little much, even for Nova.

At another liturgy, designed after much prodding by a group of teenaged sons and daughters—the Nova people were very anxious for "youth" to "get involved"—the offertory song was the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man." This, again, caused many to have a vague sense that something was not quite right, but the liturgy went ahead.

Another time, halfway through Litany of the Saints, the liturgy designers slightly anticipated the Vatican (to say the least) by invoking as "saints" Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Franz Fanon, and Thomas Merton. It's been thirty years, and I wouldn't swear it, but Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and Che Guevara might have been on the list. I dimly remember hearing of controversy among the lay planners of this particular service over whether to include the name of anyone who had advocated violence.

Most of the youngish-middle-aged couples who made up the congregation worked for the federal bureaucracy. Many had jobs in the Pentagon and Defense Department, even the CIA. You'd think that such Establishment types would be the last people to engage in liturgical experimentation. In fact, their iconoclasm did not extend to their jobs. I remember a Lenten service at which several members of the congregation were supposed to come forward to lay symbols of our worldly attachments at the foot of a large cross (with no corpus, of course). At the foot of the cross were reverently laid—to a chorus of approving murmurs—first a large image of a dollar bill, then an American flag.

Nova didn't have a regular pastor; instead, several visiting priests performed Mass more or less regularly. An occasional celebrant was a Jesuit who taught at my high school in inner-city Washington. One of the regulars was Fr. Bob Hovda, a liturgist at the Liturgical Office of the Conference of Catholic Bishops who was originally from North Dakota.

Fr. Hovda suffered from a voice constriction for which no organic cause had been found. He was a slight man with thinning hair, an oval face, and a grey goatee. He usually spoke in a labored, choking way, as if he were forcing the words out at great cost of effort, with many painful silences as he struggled. When he said Mass, however, his voice boomed out, unexpectedly loud and strong. He was considered prickly, and was sometimes at odds with members—not necessarily over the church's rules for liturgy, but over what we might call aesthetic correctness. For a baptism, for example, Fr. Hovda took great pains over an arrangement of an aged-copper basin with smooth rocks and a spray of dried reeds and ferns that graced a worn square wooden table, giving a Zen effect.

One of Fr. Hovda's chief irritations for me was the length of the Kiss of Peace, which often turned into fifteen-minute socializing sessions, as members chatted and criss-crossed the room to greet friends. It was not uncommon for a Nova Mass to last two or three hours.

The Nova wives took turns baking the bread for Communion. They knew it had to be unleavened, but they thought "leavening" meant yeast only. Irish soda bread, [21] they felt, complied sufficiently with Church directives. Of course, at the end of the service, Fr. Hovda was required to consume a half loaf or more of the consecrated Host, which could not be stored like traditional wafers, both because of spoilage and because there was no tabernacle at Joyce Kilmer School. More serious for Fr. Hovda—a recovered alcoholic who regularly attended AA meetings—were those occasions when too much wine had been consecrated.

As a typically obtuse teenage boy in the early seventies, I was unaware of much of the larger context. I was unable to appreciate how much these stolid bureaucratic parental types were, or considered themselves to be, liturgical revolutionaries.

From the distance of time, and from bare descriptions of the Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Rolling Stones Masses, it is easy to imagine that these people were bent on deliberate outrage and provocation. What I remember is mostly solemn, self-important silliness and extreme naiveté on the part of the members. These were grownups who saw the holy Mass as a place to act like kids again, to recreate in the secular suburban sense of the term rather than the older and more authentic sense. And they were playing in a space that traditional authority had vacated. That is a coda for much of what happened in those years."[22]
The dark side of the liturgy establishment has yet to be attested to, and it will not be found in the pages of Toward Ritual Transformation. Hardly had the ink dried on the revised liturgical books produced by the church when a cadre of quasi- or semi-professionals—against the explicit teaching of Sacrosanctum concilium #22—bypassed those books, or interpreted them very loosely, in the name of their own higher law and purpose. Their liturgy was in open competition with the church's liturgy.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three (Endnotes)


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