Father Clarence Rivers (1931-2004)
While many, when exploring the history of contemporary liturgical music that exploded forth after Vatican II, focus on the “folk-mass” phenomenon that was most assuredly pioneered by people like Ray Repp and Fr. Peter Scholtes, in the 1960’s, other sparks of the Spirit were emerging as well. And one of those amazing sparks was a composer who emerged after the first editions of the well- known “Peoples Mass Book” (from the World Library of Sacred Music) came to be. That composer, that force, was Cincinnati priest Father Clarence Rufus Rivers.
Clarence was born in 1931 in Selma, Alabama. He was born a Baptist, but attended Catholic school and soon became passionate about the Church and its liturgical tradition. This led to his baptism and eventually, being ordained in 1956 as the first African American priest for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Father Rivers also taught at St. Joseph School in the West End and Purcell High School in East Walnut Hills, where he directed the Queen’s Men, a theater guild specializing in the works of William Shakespeare. Father Rivers was first assigned to serve at a white parish. He transferred to St. Joseph when the first congregation didn’t want him, according to his sister, Maxine. “He really was a pioneer because he did endure a lot of racism in his early years,” she said. “When he was ordained the first black priest in 1956, that was unheard of.”
Clarence was a dreamer, and even before the Second Vatican Council was to convene he dreamed about the possibilities that the African American and Gospel traditions could bring to Catholic worship. The roots of this for him, was of course, the tradition of the African-American Spirituals. He was lucky as a young associate priest at his parish to have a pastor who encouraged him to pursue these dreams. It was during this pastoral experience that he began composing songs in English that brought to light a soulful approach to sung prayer. Remember, this was before the renewal of Vatican II!
In 1963, Omer Westendorf at World Library of Sacred Music published and recorded An American Mass Program in 1963 (to give this some historical perspective, this was the year of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy). This collection was simple but radical for its time. The recording basically presented all of this music a cappella – no organ, no guitars, no piano – just the human voice (which is, after all, the primary instrument of a sung liturgy, yes?).
Soon after this publication hit the scene, Father Rivers then attended the Catholic University of America, where he was introduced and influenced by many of the groundbreakings liturgists and liturgical scholars that were beginning to sound the trumpet of the liturgical renewal of Vatican II. At the meeting of the Liturgical Conference in St. Louis in 1964, he was invited to share and lead his music for some 20,000 people who attended what was, the first Mass in English. This was a watershed moment not only for Father Rivers but for the praying and singing Church in the United States. And it was at this groundbreaking liturgy, that we first heard his iconic communion song, “God is Love.”
This was the introduction of “blue notes” into Catholic liturgical music! Call and response style music! Bible texts being sung in contemporary English! Passionate and energetic vocal and choral presentation! The first noticeable and contemporary exploration of the role of the cantor! It might be difficult to imagine – but this was and made, news for those who had been involved in Church music prior to this time. Again, we need to remember that all of this was happening when society was in the midst of tremendous social change.
After “God is Love” was “premiered” and sung for the first time at this Mass, Rawn Harbor (a tremendous composer in his own right) recalled that at the conclusion of the song, it was followed by “the assembly standing and applauding for 10 minutes!”
Things most certainly, would never be the same.
Right alongside the influence of Ray Repp with his guitar-based “folk” style religious songs, Clarence Rivers is most deserving as being the one who got things moving – actually, his An American Mass Program preceded Ray’s Mass for Young Americans by two years. Now, River’s compositions were challenging for many “white” Catholic musicians who had no formation or education in this style of music. So much of Clarence’s life-long ministry was to form Catholic musicians as to how to get inside this genre of sung prayer.
He was the author of three books, “Soulful Worship,” “The Spirit in Worship,” and “Freeing the Spirit,” as well as countless articles, and the first Catholic African-American Hymnal “Lead Me, Guide Me” (GIA Publications), was dedicated to him. In 2002 Clarence was the recipient of the Berekah Award from the North American Academy of Liturgy. In addition to “God is Love,” other well-known liturgical songs by Clarence include “Bless the Lord,” “God the Father,” and “A Mass for the Brotherhood of Man.”
Father Rivers was director of the department of culture and worship for the National Office for Black Catholics for many years, and he was a member of the board of directors of the National Liturgical Conference. He narrated the ABC-TV civil rights documentary “We Shall Be Heard,” and he appeared on many television programs.
When he officially “retired” in 2003, that didn’t slow him down. “Ha-ha, I’m retired on paper, but I have the same amount of workload,” he told his sister. “He was so much in demand around the country,” she said. “He would give talks on the art of soulful worship.”
Clarence also spoke often about his dream: establishing a college apprenticeship program for the liturgical arts. He would have called his college the Lion of Judah, his sister said. “Although small in physical stature, he had a presence that was larger than life. Once he entered a room or a gathering, you knew you were in the midst of someone extraordinary.” His death in 2006 was a “shock to everybody because he wasn’t sick,” Maxine has shared. He was only 73 years old. 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 Reign of God that they pointed toward.
The courage and vision of Father Clarence Rivers opened doors and inspiration for many African-American liturgical composers whose music has become well known over the years: Rawn Harbor, Grayson Warren Brown, Leon C. Roberts, Derek Campbell, James Moore, W. Clifford Petty, Kenneth Louis, Norah Duncan IV, Richard Cheri, Lynne’ Gray, Fr. Ray East, Jalonda Robertson and M. Roger Holland, just to name a few. Most of these composers and ministers would point to Clarence as being their “patron saint.”
It has been difficult to locate printed editions of his music in recent years – but his music and his energy and vision has gifted the Church in far too many ways to examine. We give thanks to God in memory of his life, his charism, and his love of his tradition and the Church. (DH: 4.24.18).
God Is Love by Father Clarence Rivers
Litany of the Saints by Grayson Warren Brown
Sung by Father Clarence Rivers (1979)