Clarence Rufus Joseph Rivers
September 9, 1931 - November 21, 2004
September 9, 1931 - November 21, 2004
The Reverend Dr. Clarence Rufus Joseph Rivers, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, died on Sunday, November 21, 2004, the Solemnity of Christ the King, in his home. Fr. Rivers, a pioneer in the American Church, was a famous liturgist and composer whose music was used at the first official American mass in English after the Second Vatican Council in 1963. In 1966 he received the annual award of the Catholic Art Association for excellence in music. The first African American priest of Cincinnati, Rivers had a national reputation as the father of black Catholic liturgy and the dean of black liturgists. He traveled the country and the world teaching about the drama of worship and the power of the African American religious experience as well as his own music.
Clarence Rufus Rivers, Jr. was born on September 9, 1931 in Selma, Alabama to Clarence Rufus and Lorraine Echols Rivers. At an early age, his family moved to Cincinnati where he became very involved in his parish church and school. Later, he transferred into the high school seminary after faithful prodding from his pastor to consider the priesthood.
Rivers was ordained a priest in 1956 and began teaching English and drama at Purcell High School while serving as associate pastor of St. Joseph Church. At Purcell he founded and directed the Queen’s Men, a Shakespearean theatre guild. He later did graduate studies in English at Xavier and Yale universities, theatre at The Catholic University of America, and liturgy at L’Institut Catholique de Paris. He completed a PhD in African American culture and Catholic liturgy at the Union Institute in 1978. He was also a consultant with the Martin Luther King Fellows of the Colgate Rochester Divinity School who were studying black religion and culture around the world.
Rivers considered himself a “professional liturgist” and artist in the strictest sense; not a liturgiologist. His whole career was spent implementing a vision of liturgy that he often called “the drama of worship.” He believed that worship was a drama and all involved, especially the assembly, were its actors. His academic pursuits were all directed toward enhancing his practical ability to design and produce effective worship. Rivers was a liturgical impresario who saw liturgy as that place where believing people (maybe even un-believing people) should encounter God and the affective experience of metanoia and conversion.
Clarence had a deep passion for the traditions of the Roman Church and always encouraged students never to ignore the rubrics, but to absorb them and breathe life into them with an artistic eye for the whole. He believed that the black religious experience had a great gift to offer the Western liturgical traditions: soul. He used his platform on the national liturgical scene to begin the work of synthesizing an authentic black Catholic liturgical tradition. This was the subject of his two seminal books Soulfull (1) Worship and The Spirit in Worship and numerous articles.
A founding member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, he received its prestigious Berakah Award in 2002. Rivers also served as the first director of the National Office of Black Catholics Department of Culture and Worship and the editor of its journal, Freeing the Spirit. Rivers also founded his own firm, Stimuli, Inc. through which he collaborated with his closest associates to form a team that traveled the country teaching and producing effective liturgy.
Composition was an important part of Rivers’ work. Beginning even before the Second Vatican Council with God is Love, some of his other music includes: An American Mass Program, Mass Dedicated the Brotherhood of Man, Glory to God, Glory, Resurrection, Black Thankfulness, Hail Mary, Anamnesis, and Anaphora of the Lion and Lamb. His music was performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and featured on CBS. He made numerous television appearances himself including as the narrator of an ABC civil rights documentary called “We Shall Be Heard.”
Clarence was a man full of life. He had an impeccable sense of style and a collection of Converse All-Stars that is unparalleled. He always referred to people as ‘Your Grace’ and told them that they were deserving of such a title because they were “peers in the realm of God and co-Heirs with the Christ!” Clarence loved William Shakespeare, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and the poetry of the Negro Spirituals. No one would ever see him preside at the Eucharist without what he considered the appropriately lavish vestments and his distinctive jewelry. He was never afraid to shock, cajole, embarrass, or sweet-talk a congregation into singing and had an insatiable appetite for grand pomp and ceremony. He loved African American culture and never let anyone box it in with preconceived ideas. He was a man who loved the Church even when it often painfully seemed as if it did not love him.
At the time of his unexpected death, Clarence was working on a number of projects: to have all his music recorded together and a single volume of the scores published in a book worthy of the Kingdom of God that they pointed toward. He also had been developing a vision for an institute that trained ministers as professional liturgists in the art of worship primarily through a method of practice, reflection, study, and more practice.
(1) deliberate misspelling, made in the original, for emphasis.
Tribute prepared by Jesuit Novice Eric T. Styles, email@example.com