Msgr. William Busch died on February 5, 1971, in St. Paul, Minnesota, after having been hospitalized for nearly thirteen months as a result of a heart attach. In his death the American liturgical movement lost one of its great pioneers. For more than fifty years, as professor of church history at the St. Paul Seminary, he had shared with successive generations of future priests his critical understanding of cultural, political, and theological currents as they affected the church's liturgy and devotional life through the centuries. He thereby gave his students reasoned insights into the wherefore of existing imbalances and hoped-for reforms.
There existed, moreover, what might be called a tacit conspiracy of affection between teacher and taught. There can be few among the latter, one suspects, who do not have their favorite story about "innocent" questions diverting the history lesson into the expected liturgical channel.
When Virgil Michel organized the Liturgical Press and began publication of Orate Fratres in 1926, Fr. Busch had been carrying on his liturgical apostolate in the classroom for more than a decade. Not only was he, therefore, an obvious choice as one of the eight original American associate editors of the magazine; he was closest at hand, always available for advice and support, a co-founder rather than an associate editor. It was in Orate Fratres - Worship, too, that he published most of his writings. Forty-two articles appeared in the course of the years over his signature; several of these were combined into the booklet The Mass-Drama, which long remained a standard study guide. His role as prophet is perhaps best illustrated in his essay "Death and Resurrection" (April 1931), in which he anticipated by some twenty years the contemporary reemphasis on the redemptive character of Christ's rising from the dead. The essay makes remarkably good reading even today.
When the National Liturgical Weeks began their annual meetings in 1940, it was again Fr. Busch's name among the sponsors that helped allay some of the still prevalent fears and suspicions. He, after all, as many hundreds of priests and bishops who had been his pupils were happy to testify, was a sound man!
Perhaps the fact that his own love for the liturgy had been fashioned by the "classic" liturgical style of some of the European monasteries which he visited during his student days in Louvain contributed to his increasingly critical stance towards some of the liturgical developments since Vatican II. He rightly insisted on the need for reverence, on the priority of spiritual transformation as the goal of liturgical reforms; and he feared that these ideals were disappearing in the rush of reformist activism. One can only deeply regret that in his declining years the patriarch of the American liturgical movement was unable, because of diverging viewpoints, to take well-earned pleasure in the renewal he himself had done so much to launch.
He had, of course, himself been considered revolutionary as early as 1919 when, in a letter in the October Ecclesiastical Review, he advocated an altar of wood, with four legs, "the simple table of the Last Supper. . . the essential table, with the addition of things that have meaning and fitness, not with accretions drawn from commercial catalogues" (p. 440). And no doubt all of us could profit from keeping in mind his overriding concern: to advocate only those reforms which, in the light of history and theology, have "meaning and fitness" - and, as good teachers a la Wm. Busch, to make that meaning and fitness clear to others.
May our good friend and benefactor rest in peace.
Tribute from Worship, 1971, pg. 179. Reprinted with permission.