Taking a Long... a Very Long View

Graduate Theological Union 2006 commencement address by Louis Weil, GTU core doctoral faculty member and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

May 11, 2006

Louis WeilAbout five years ago, I participated in a conference at which a large number of faculty members from seminaries all over the country had been invited to gather and to reflect together on our craft, the craft of teaching. At one of the sessions, a speaker commented on the accumulated total of years of teaching which we together represented. He then asked for those who had taught for twenty-five years or more to raise their hands, and quite a few of us lifted our hands. When he asked about thirty years and thirty-five years, the number of hands, of course, diminished. When he said “forty years,” I was the only one left with my hand lifted. And that was five years ago. Hence the title, “Taking a long … a very long view.”

I want to share with you what led me to teach, and to say that my passion for the vocation to teach is as profound today as ever in the long stretch of time since I first began. In the year of my ordination to the priesthood, the Episcopal Church founded a seminary in Puerto Rico to offer the same standard of education to Latin American candidates as was expected in the United States. I knew several faculty members of the new seminary. Since I had accepted an assignment for pastoral ministry in Puerto Rico, I was asked if I could give two days a week to the school, to oversee musical training and to offer an introductory course in liturgy.

When I began preparing to teach the introductory course in liturgy, I soon discovered two things. First, that my own seminary course in liturgy had not made the connections between theory and praxis which I had come to see as essential. And second, I discovered that I did not really know very much at all about what I was supposed to teach.

So I took advantage of an opportunity to begin serious liturgical studies during a sabbatical year in France. My plan was a single year of study. But things worked out differently. The Second Vatican Council was in progress, and the field of liturgical studies was emerging dramatically in response to the promulgation of the first document of the council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. My professors in Paris were actively involved in the work of the council, often commuting between their work in Rome and our classes in Paris.

My liturgical horizon soon stretched far beyond what I had known within the context of the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer. As a result, my fellow students and I found we were participants in a revolution in the way the liturgy is understood within the life of the Church. Before the end of my first year, I realized that I had found the work that I had been called to do:  one year eventually became three and a half years of study, a doctorate, and a lifetime of teaching. From the start, my goal has been to contribute to building a bridge between academia and pastoral ministry, a bridge that was scarcely visible at that time, at least in my own tradition.

A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since that time. I remain deeply convinced that good scholarship is fundamental to good pastoral liturgy, and more generally that a healthy relationship between academia and the whole range of pastoral ministries is beneficial to the vitality of our various communities of faith. Taking the long view, I have to admit that we have not embraced that common work as fully as I had hoped. In academia, we are heirs to the fruit of decades of biblical, historical and textual research. But simply to refer to my own field of liturgical studies, pastoral implementation often seems to lag behind the vision which many of us caught from our own teachers.

Both academia and pastoral ministry benefit when our distinct areas of ministry are brought together in a kind of counterpoint in which both are mutually engaged in the revitalization of the living tradition of our faith assemblies. For a variety of reasons, communication continues to be problematic at times, and I know of situations in which each side is suspicious of the other. At least in part this may result from the challenges of unprecedented cultural pluralism and the often confusing task of seeking to respond to radically new situations.

It seems to me imperative that we not despair of building the bridge between our academic work and pastoral ministry. In my own life this has meant, whenever possible, teaching, preaching and celebrating the sacraments in parish communities, both to share the fruit of my own work, and also to hear the questions which our people are anxious to ask. I continue to return to my life in academia with the conviction that this is the context from which I can make a contribution. But I return to my work with a clearer sense of the communities where I hope my work will bear fruit.

The long view for me is that providentially I have been led to stand on this bridge, to link together our academic enterprise with the lived reality of the faith communities of which we are a part – an important part. I hope that all of you here today who are beginning this work will, in perhaps twenty-five or thirty-five, or even forty-five years, say with me, “I have done the work God created me to do.”