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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
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.  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:
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?
after conversations with Manuel Miguens and even Hans Urs von Balthasar, 
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.  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
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,  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.  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  than in the symbolic language of our Catholic identity.  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.
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  had severed the classical
union between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition:
The stories of Christ's birth are dubious history.
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? 
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.
in the New Testament are not traceable "in any way" to the successors of the
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,
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. 
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
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.  The "social
sanctification" theme developed by Gerald Ellard  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.
Virgil C. Funk,  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."
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,  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." 
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
(founds) legem credendi. And since they produce the lex orandi they also decide what is the lex
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.
 That they could be the best minds of our church did not seem to matter.
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." 
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."  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.
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
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.
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
#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.
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
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
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,  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,
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
Part One | Part Two | Part Three (Endnotes)
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