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Fr. Clarence Rivers, liturgy pioneer, dead at 73.

Fr. Clarence J. Rivers, a pioneer African-American liturgist and musician, died Nov. 21 at his home in Cincinnati. He was 73.

He was buried Nov. 27 at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Cincinnati following a funeral Mass celebrated by Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains.

The first African-American to be ordained in the Cincinnati archdiocese, Rivers "was an iconic figure for the black Catholic community throughout the country," Pilarczyk said in a statement.

"He was a member of the presbyterate that few of us will ever forget," the archbishop said. "He made a significant contribution to black Catholic liturgy."

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said: "Fr. Clarence Rivers was a musical and cultural genius who provided great pride for African-American Catholics by composing music for the Catholic liturgy that clearly and proudly reflected the cultural gifts of black people in our country,"

Gregory, who recently completed his term as the first African-American president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Rivers' music "brought the church closer to African-Americans while at the same time enriching the Catholic church with a spiritual vibrancy and artistic expression that crossed all racial barriers.

"The church in the United States has lost a pioneer musician, liturgist and cultural treasure," he said.

Rivers was the author of several books, including Soulfull Worship and The Spirit in Worship, and wrote numerous liturgical compositions and countless articles, and delivered many lectures and presentations on liturgy and liturgical music. He deliberately misspelled the title of Soulfull Worship to call attention to the meaning of "soulful."

He first came to national attention in 1963 during the Second Vatican Council with the recording of "An American Mass Program." It was a series of compositions blending Gregorian chant with the melodic patterns and rhythmic traditions of Negro spirituals that he had developed to promote more active participation in the liturgy at St. Joseph Parish in Cincinnati, where he was then a 32-year-old assistant pastor.

"An American Mass Program" received wide critical acclaim and was heralded as the start of a revolution in American Catholic liturgical music. It was used in parishes across the country and received a gold medal from the Catholic Art Association in 1966.

In 1964, when the National Liturgical Conference meeting in St. Louis celebrated the first official high Mass said in English in the U.S. Catholic church, Rivers led the singing. The Communion song, "God Is Love," was his first musical composition for liturgy. Rawn Harbor, coordinator of liturgy at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., said the song "had the" assembly standing and applauding for 10 minutes."

Clarence Joseph Rufus Rivers Jr. was born in Selma, Ala., on Sept. 9, 1931. His family wasn't Catholic, but when they moved to Cincinnati his parents enrolled him in the fourth grade at St. Ann School. Eventually the entire family became Catholic.

He decided to study for the priesthood midway through high school and was ordained a priest in 1956. As the Cincinnati archdiocese's first black priest, he had to endure racism from the start. The first parish to which he was assigned did not accept him and he was transferred after a short time to St. Joseph Parish.

While in the seminary he earned a master's degree in philosophy from the Athenaeum of Ohio. In his early years after ordination he did graduate studies in English literature at Xavier University in Cincinnati and at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He also did graduate studies in speech and drama at The Catholic University of America in Washington and in liturgy at the Institut Catholique in Paris. He earned a doctorate in black culture and religion from the Union Institute and University, then called Union Graduate School, in Cincinnati.

In his early years as a priest, he also taught English at Purcell High School and directed the Queen's Men, a Cincinnati theater guild specializing in Shakespeare's works.

In 1965 Archbishop Karl Alter of Cincinnati released Rivers from his teaching and parish assignments to work full time on Stimuli, his program of inculturating African-American culture with Catholic worship.

In 1971 the National Office of Black Catholics named him to head its newly created Department of Culture and Worship. He started the office's yearly national workshop on African-American liturgy, "Freeing the Spirit," which made its debut in Detroit in 1971 with about 1,000 participants. The workshops gave rise to a magazine on African-American liturgy of the same name, with Rivers as editor.

Rivers is survived by a sister, Maxine Rivers of Washington, and two nieces.
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Title Annotation:Appreciation
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 7, 2005
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