Huub Oosterhuis Receives Preaching Award

You probably know the hymn “What is This Place?”. It’s author (in Dutch), Huub Oosterhuis, has just received the German 2014 ecumenical Predigtpreis (“preaching award”) in the category “Life Work.”

Oosterhuis’ life story as given at the website is an interesting bit of Catholic postconciliar history.

Oosterhuis was born to a devout Catholic family in Amsterdam in 1933 and joined the Jesuits in 1953. It was soon rumored that he was writing poetry, which was considered overly individualistic for a member of a religious order. But later he was officially asked to write hymn texts, for which at first he used late medieval Dutch melodies. In 1960 he began writing texts for the liturgy of the newly-founded Studentenekklesia (“student church”) in Amsterdam.

Oosterhuis was ordained a priest in 1965 and assigned to be student chaplain in Amsterdam with three other young Jesuits, including Bernard Huijbers. The Studentenekklesia quickly developed into a laboratory of liturgical experimentation.

Oosterhuis sought to incorporate in his texts the existential reality of people today as much as the content and style of inherited tradition. His output of texts grew, with the increased use of melodies by Huijbers as well as traditional tunes. They became widely used in Protestant as well as Catholic churches.

Meanwhile, the Studentenekkesia had developed its own uniquely Dutch liturgy, which sought to be loosely Catholic in the sense of “universal, connected to the whole.” This led to conflicts with Roman Catholic authorities and separation from Catholic bishop of Harlem-Amsterdam. Oosterhuis was summoned to the Jesuit superiors in Rome and expelled from the order along with his colleagues. The Studentenekklesia was expelled from Jesuit facilities and found a new home in a Protestant church.

In 1970 Oosterhuis married Josefien Melief, and they had two children. They parted on friendly terms and Oosterhuis has been married ever since to Colet van der Ven.

In the 1970s, Oosterhuis’ texts increasingly emphasized seeking and questioning. Themes of liberation theology were incorporated, along with a striking aspect of mysticism. With a growing interest in making the Bible speak to contemporary people, Oosterhuis translated all 150 psalms in free and striking manner from 1995 to 2010. He has also written free poetry, and he wrote a large novel in poetic form in which the mythical King Arthur is portrayed as a messianic figure.

Oosterhuis has been politically active, for example as president of the Chile Movement, as advocate for various leftist parties, and as advocate for those seeking asylum. He became close to Princess Beatrice before she was queen, and at the request of the family he preached at the funeral of Prince Klaus in 2002.

In 2002 Oosterhuis received an honorary doctorate from the Vrij Universiteit of Amsterdam for his hymn text writing.

In 2010 a wealthy admirer donated a completed renovated former parish house to the Studentenekklesia. It is where they now celebrate their weekly liturgy, along with being a meeting place for a broad public.

Because of a history of conflict with church authorities, Oosterhuis’ texts are not officially permitted in Dutch Catholic publications, but they are widely used in Protestant churches. Five of his texts appeared in the official German Catholic hymnal Gotteslob of 1975; after some heated discussion it was decided that six of his texts would appear in the revised Gotteslob that appeared last year.

What is this place where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor …
Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here
and know our God is near.

21 comments

  1. Huub was indeed a significant figure in the development of liturgical celebration, affirming an adult Christian attitude toward authority, ritual and indeed belief/faith. His ideas were too challenging for most–even many members of his parish. But for others, his texts for liturgical music are a life-line for the search for meaning in a post-modern cultural setting. The search continues, but there are few who are willing to risk as Huub has.

    1. @Ben Yanke – comment #2:
      Ben – no, just reporting, not “positively promoting.” I simply translated, paraphrased, and abbreviated an announcement made by others, with no editorial comment. I have some mixed feelings about all this. (I like the freshness of “What Is This Place,” but I think it falls short of a Catholic, sacramental view of the material things of worship including the building.)

      But in reporting on this, I hope it is helpful to people on all sides (including you) to have a bit more information about ‘what happened’ and where an important and influential leader is now. And to report that he has been selected for an honor by an ecumenical jury consisting of a priest, nun, Catholic laywoman in a diocesan office, Catholic theology professors, a journalist, and several Lutheran pastors and theology professors. They are listed here: http://www.predigtpreis.de/jury-predigtpreis/jury-2014.html.
      awr

    2. @Ben Yanke – comment #2:
      Technically speaking, his order expelled him. And for crimes considered less grave than child sexual abuse.

      It would seem the man is a Christian. So he’s still in the Faith. Catholicism, as such, does not qualify as a “faith.” Lamentable, I think, he is no longer a Catholic.

      It would be the practice of your other blogs, I believe, to publicly insult and ridicule the man and his work. You have a pleasantly muted opinion about such things here.

      Over my 44 years as a Catholic, I’ve known many people who have left Catholicism. They are not honored by ecumenical committees. They are not bad-mouthed on “orthodox” blogs by name. They are simply missing. I wish they were not. Their absence strikes me when I notice empty seats here and there at Mass.

      What is the response of a merciful missionary disciple to those missing? For me, not sarcasm and scorn. I think we can do better, if not well, to seek out the lost.

  2. I don’t believe Mr. Oosterhuis has in any way “left the faith.” He continues to live his Christian faith and contributes to the faith-life of many.

  3. This man was a HUGE influence on me in helping me to understand what being a Catholic Christian (in the widest sense) means back in the 1970s.

    I treasure his books, his poetry (in English translation) and his wonderful prayers, many of which have found their way into mainstream Roman liturgies over the years.
    Ad Multos Annos

  4. @Ben Yanke – comment #2:

    Have you never thought of leaving the faith? I think about doing so often. Mr Oosterhuis acted in his conscience and understanding of Christian faith. Perhaps that is better than being shackled to dead and former illusions.

  5. Todd Flowerday : @Ben Yanke – comment #2: Technically speaking, his order expelled him. And for crimes considered less grave than child sexual abuse. It would seem the man is a Christian. So he’s still in the Faith. Catholicism, as such, does not qualify as a “faith.” Lamentable, I think, he is no longer a Catholic. It would be the practice of your other blogs, I believe, to publicly insult and ridicule the man and his work. You have a pleasantly muted opinion about such things here. Over my 44 years as a Catholic, I’ve known many people who have left Catholicism. They are not honored by ecumenical committees. They are not bad-mouthed on “orthodox” blogs by name. They are simply missing. I wish they were not. Their absence strikes me when I notice empty seats here and there at Mass. What is the response of a merciful missionary disciple to those missing? For me, not sarcasm and scorn. I think we can do better, if not well, to seek out the lost.

    +1

  6. I’m surprised by the statement that his compositions are not permitted in official Dutch Catholic publications, because they are widely sung in Dutch and Flemish churches. In fact, I went two years where probably not a Sunday went by without signing at least one of his hymns, and sometimes two or three.

    I found that I appreciated his use of striking and vivid imagery, but I also found that for worship they were a bit too personal. I sort of felt like I was being asked to live someone else’s existential faith crisis each week.

  7. As for his collaboration with Bernard Huijbers, decades ago I found a vinyl recording from 1974/75, pre-OCP/Tom Conry days, of a parish choir in Baltimore performing a selection of their songs. I wish I still had it.

    A decade before Marty Haugen built a bridge across post-conciliar musical camps, this recording included piano, organ, instruments, and drum kit. I’m not sure every piece worked. I would echo Fritz’s appreciation and finding. I think John Bell’s musical reach is a bit wider than Dutch melodies. But there is something confrontative about Huub Oosterhuis’ texts that I can’t quite write off.

    “Hold Me In Life” is undoubtedly a personal paraphrase of Psalm 25. But I think it is an underrated gem in the post-conciliar repertoire.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #11:

      “Hold Me In Life” is undoubtedly a personal paraphrase of Psalm 25. But I think it is an underrated gem in the post-conciliar repertoire.

      +1

      The texts of Oosterhuis and the music of Huijbers are frequently to be found being sung in churches not just in the Netherlands and Flemish-speaking Belgium but in Germany (as the original post pointed out), German-speaking Switzerland, Luxembourg and Scandinavia, in addition to the small number of pieces used in English-speaking countries.

      There can be few living authors whose work has been so widely disseminated and which has helped so many people on their faith journey.

      I think the award is well-deserved. Huijbers, for his part, received a pension from the Dutch Bishops’ Conference until his death in 2003, in recognition of his immense contribution to the liturgical song of the Dutch people.

    2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #11:
      I have that recording — and the songbook that goes with it! It’s an NALR recording, entitled “When From Our Exile.”

      It’s the David Smith / Forrest Ingram translation, with revisions by Edmund Goldrick. A later translation rendered the title song “Home From Our Exile” which I always thought was clunky.

      I’d send you a copy, Todd, except I don’t have the equipment to make one. 🙁 I do not see any copies of this or the songbook for sale on line, so it really is a collector’s item!

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #13:
        About the recording, that’s okay. I’m not really a collector any longer. It’s strange: I was used to the NALR recording so much that when the later ones came out from OCP, they seemed a bit off-putting to me.

        There were many fine recordings in those days, very underappreciated and overlooked, and often from artists sidelined by their publishers. Or self-published–people who did great work with fine parish choirs and assembled music ministries. (Likely still true to this day.) Who will we honor in another thirty, forty years, I wonder?

  8. If I’m not mistaken, Tony Barr, who has composed and published some pretty good music in his own right, has translated some of Oosterhuis’ work. I think Barr may have come to the US at least in part for this purpose.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #15:

      Tony Barr, with Bernard Huijbers, retranslated much of Oosterhuis’s work. He did not come to the US for that purpose but to seek work outside England. Having arrived in the US, and Tom Conry having already published (with OCP) versions of Oosterhuis/Huijbers work, Tony and Tom had violent arguments concerning Oosterhuis translations. I too have argued with Tony in the past about his versions.

      At one stage Tony decided to learn Dutch, but it is not an easy language and he has never been fluent in it. But it gave him enough knowledge to know what the Dutch originals actually say. However, the problem with Tony’s versions is that they are, if you like, formally equivalent, rather than dynamically equivalent. Often his versions are not really English, however faithful they may be to Oosterhuis’s original Dutch. Tony’s own language, Tyneside English, is itself not really English either. Bernard Huijbers’s English was very good, but he too did not understand all the nuances of the English tongue, and this enabled Tony to persuade Bernard that Tony’s versions were improvements. With Bernard’s backing, Tony was in a stronger position — hence some of the arguments with Conry and others.

      The early Forrest/Ingram/McGoldrick versions, while far from perfect, were in some ways better English than the later ones that followed, many of which were compromises between Conry and Barr.

      It is sad to say all this, given that Tony was such an enthusiastic promoter of the work of Oosterhuis and Huijbers, much of which might never have seen the light of day in English without his efforts. But the fact is that for many years now Oosterhuis’s texts in English have been in a kind of patchwork condition.

      I should add that I agree with Jim that some of Tony’s own compositions are excellent.

  9. Paul – many thanks for that comment. While I haven’t encountered many Oosterhuis texts in worship, I know I have seen two different translations of one of them, which I learned as When From Our Exile:

    “When from our exile, God brings us home again / we’ll think we’re dreaming”

    and

    “When from our exile, God brings us home again / that would be dream-like”

    (Those snippets are from memory, apologies if they are not word-for-word accurate)

    … and it appears that the octavo available from OCP is entitled Home From Our Exile and has yet another translation.

    “Home from our exile, God make our dream come true / be here among us”

    http://www.ocp.org/products/8980

  10. I am late to this conversation. I have been a colleague of Huub Oosterhuis since 1968, and today (August 3, 2020) I continue to translate his texts, not only to the music settings of Bernard Hijbers (10 years his senior and choir director on entering the Ignatius High Schoo), but also of Antoine Oomen, Tom Lowenthal and Thom Jansen. Oosterhuis never ‘lost his faith’ as stated early in this thread, he defined sicipleship not as a ‘head full of ideas but a living call to discipleship’, an this is a course which, now in his mid 80s, he continues to pursue. He seeks Jesus as one of us, not only as a memorry buut as a real presence (no upper case letters) within the human condition. At an early age, Latin American liberation theology permeated his biblical insights, and he continues the work of his predecessor, Jan van Kilsdonk, in rooting his liturgical assembly deeply in the Scriptures. He evaluate him with same respect as I do fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, as priest poet and mystic, albeit no longer exercising a Roman priestly ministry but one by appointement of his one local community. As a priest, poet, politician, he continues to hold great influence within Dutch society. His two adult kids, Trintje and Tjeerd Pietr, are also acclaimed individually in the Dutch music community, from their early days as pop starts to their current status as chanteuse and composer of his father’s liturgicl songs. I hope to some extent this sets the record straight.

  11. I was with Huub Oosterhuis in Amsterdam last year, October 2021. Having worked with his texts since the late 1960s, and now working as a volunteer archivist in t John’s University to develop the Huijbers-Oosterhuis section of the Archives, I am intimately familiar with his journey. What was widely reported in the Netherlands national media a year or so back was a personal letter he’d received from Pope Francis, affirming warm and loving support to him as a fellow Jesuit, in his ministry as pastor of what has now become Ekklesia Amsterdam. He will be 89 this November 1, 2022.

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