Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: Rev. Virgil C. Funk

Pray Tell continues its series of interviews with liturgical leaders, loosely inspired by a series in Time Magazine. Interviewees are invited to be witty, engaging, and humorous in their responses. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Pray Tell.


funkv_tLifetime in liturgy—any regrets?

My lifetime in liturgy consisted of working with wonderful musicians and clergy, and I have no regrets about my life’s work. Most people have dreams bigger than what they were able to accomplish in life; in founding the National Association of Pastoral Musicians [NPM], my work turned out to be bigger than my dreams!

I was fortunate to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills and training. The shift from Latin to English in 1969 left almost a total vacuum in the Catholic Church repertoire, and it was at that moment in history when composers, clergy, parish musicians, old and new, rushed in to fill the vacuum. I was trained in Music and Liturgy (Gene Walsh), Scripture (Ray Brown), Parish Work (Pastor of St Patrick’s) and Organizing (Social Work School-Community Organizing). In the forming and shaping of an organization for musicians, I was able to use all of those skills—and some that I didn’t know I had! My first experience of the liturgical movement was at the 1957 Liturgical Week—six years before the Second Vatican Council, which meant that I was formed on the principle that the reform of liturgical practices would lead to the renewal of the Catholic Church. It was a vision, a wide vision, about Christianity and one which is still in process. But I have absolutely no regrets of using my life to participate in bringing about that vision.

Are there particular decisions made along the way that could have been better, and therefore with hindsight I now regret? Of course. For example, I regret having delegated all the responsibility for repertoire development to commercial publishers, but I am happy that someone focused exclusively on the parish musicians—for they were, and to some extent, still are, under-appreciated in the conversations about liturgy, as well as musical development.

What are you most proud of in your liturgical work?

The National Association of Pastoral Musicians, of course. Not something that I did alone, by any means, but with a whole lot of wonderful and gifted people—who contributed time and talent. And I am proud that NPM has survived my departure.  If you examine failed Catholic Church musician organizations throughout history, the second may be more important than the first.

I am also proud of facilitating the connection of the best liturgical scholarship to the musical field through speakers, convention themes, and publications. I’m even proud of the names I created: Pastoral Musicians, Pastoral Music, Director of Music Ministries, etc.  And I am proud of the role I had in shaping and forming various musical ministries, especially the cantor, the animator, etc.

But I am most proud of providing an opportunity for so many wonderful musicians to discover their call as a vocation, to encourage them to improve their skills, expand their liturgical knowledge and skills, and to have shared in the formation of their spiritual life.

Any book you wish you had written? 

As Anthony Ruff knows well, I have spent over ten years in retirement working on the six articles published by Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope, which I had hoped to turn into a book tentatively entitled: Faith Becoming Music: Insights of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [1974-1999].

I found the articles stimulating and challenging, and especially relevant to my life’s work since they were written over the same period and deal with the same issues I dealt with during the formation of NPM. These articles present Ratzinger’s theory of music in general as well as music of faith and then applied to music used at the Catholic Liturgy. A central point is “the musification of faith is part of the process of word becoming flesh,” or Incarnation is paralleled to faith becoming music. The on-going incarnation, and the revelation that takes place with incarnation, occurs in music making. These articles explore a Catholic theologian’s view of music, as well as Sacred music.

On the other hand, I found it interesting that Ratzinger’s initial failure in his Habilitation (the post doctoral certification to hold the rank of professor) and his necessary correction to his theology of on-going revelation in order to pass his Habilitation provides one explanation for his theoretical support for the Latin Liturgy.

I am into the sixth draft…and still dreaming about finishing it.

Three things to fix the liturgy—what would they be?

I don’t believe you “fix” the liturgy, but I do believe that a living liturgy, as Karl Barth said, is semper reformanda. All of my concerns deal with the present form of the Eucharistic Prayer.

1. The presider’s singing of the Eucharistic Prayer—there is a disconnect between theory [the presider should sing GIRM #40] and practice [presiders don’t feel culturally comfortable singing, and many don’t want or cannot sing]. More discussion is needed to clarify whether musical liturgy is normative, or not.

2. The celebrative model of the Eucharistic prayer still needs to be reformed.  The changes made around the EP were [1] simplifying gestures [2] reducing repetition [3] adding, initially, three new EPs and [4] providing vernacular translations. But there is a very important fifth area: namely, the element of the reform which guided all the other parts of the liturgy—reform the celebrative model to fit the ritual function–which was not used for the EP. I believe the EP was not fully reformed according to this fifth principle because the reformers felt they had “done enough,” they were “out of political capital” to make it happen.

So, in #79 of the GIRM, the celebrative model does not match the ritual function, especially for the Assembly. The directives indicate that while it is the “priest [with the whole people]” who gives the “Thanksgiving” [79a], it is the Church which performs the epiclesis[79c], the anamnesis [79e], and the oblation[79f].  Our present celebrative model does not support these ritual functions. The priest recites the words of these actions, but the Church does not have a ritual activity by which it identifies itself as participating in these actions, a reform yet to take place.

3. The Eucharistic Prayer needs to be experienced as a covenant renewal ceremony. Because the Eucharistic Prayer’s celebrative model does not match its ritual function, the entire Church (Assembly, Scholars, Authorities) have an inadequate experience on which to understand the central element of the Liturgy, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” [CSL #10]. The Liturgy as an actual Covenant Renewal Ceremony (that is to say, following the directive “do this [new covenant] in memory of Me”) is yet to be consistently experienced. And so the liturgy is semper reformanda.

Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?

Yes, raising awareness of social mission of the People of God is central to the liturgy; yes, raising the need for authenticity and integrity in the personal life of all its ministers, especially its bureaucracy, is very helpful to liturgical authenticity and integrity (even with opus operatum theology).

The vision of the Second Vatican Council was that the reform of the liturgy would lead to the renewal of the Church. Papa Francis’ emphasis on reform of the Curia is but another step in the renewal of the Church—due, in part, to the reform of the liturgy.

And, for all of us with an academic bent, contrasting the effectiveness of Benedict XVI, as scholar, with Francis, as practitioner, reminds us that there are different forms of ivory towers, sometimes even when we don’t believe we live in them. Benedict is recognized as a better liturgical theoretician than Francis; Francis’ use of ritual gestures work more effectively, because they are based on integrity. That is good for the liturgical renewal.

Is the Vatican II liturgical renewal secure or endangered?

Because I was ordained before the Second Vatican Council, I did not and still do not see the Vatican II Liturgical renewal as an end or a final product. I experienced the Vatican II liturgical renewal as a compromise between different viewpoints, especially an unsettled compromise in the section on Music, apparently due to irascible Church musicians.

So from my viewpoint, the Vatican II Liturgical renewal is, hopefully, a long way from secure and I hope it is “endangered”, meaning that yet another, and another, and another renewal of a living liturgy will follow. When it becomes secure and not endangered, the Liturgy will be dead. Liturgical Renewal is not a one and done activity.

Anything good coming out of Summorum Pontificum?           

Yes, encouraging the use of a Latin Rite, expresses the catholic (small c) of the Church. All are welcome. It also clarifies that catholic unity does not exist in uniformity.

Sociologically, it took media pressure off a relatively unimportant, but potentially, contentious issue. When I speak of “relatively unimportant” I am referring to a Latin liturgical rite as compared to world food crises, refugee issue in Jordon, etc.

I find the theoretical justifications based on Benedict XIV’s personal theological experiences (mentioned above) clarifying the historical moment.

Is liturgical ecumenism still alive?

“Alive” means different things to different people.  

Certainly the loss of Common English Texts due to Vox Clara interventions was a serious setback, but there are always people of good will in every judicatory.

Certainly, the liturgical use of the ritual developed at Taize would be a sign of life.

For me, the mandate for ecumenism comes from the biblical directive: “That they all may be one.” Theoretically, since Ecumenism means the hope of one Church; liturgical ecumenism [your term] would mean “one Liturgy.”  In that sense, no, I don’t believe that there is anyone who has a hope for “one” liturgy.

Ecumenically in the area of liturgy, prior to the Second Vatican Council there was a generally shared position that all of our liturgies needed reform and academically there was a moment when many were examining our common liturgical history and learning from one another. Generally speaking, “that” moment has passed.  What remains, are deep friendships, common concerns and continued sharing of experiences—but there is no longer a sociological movement pressing for a common liturgy among the Churches in the United States.

Papa Francis’ gifts may bring about a breakthrough with the Orthodox communities in terms of ecumenism.

Is academic liturgical study relevant to the real world?

The obvious and easy answer is of course, absolutely. 

Is everyone interested in the North American Academy of Liturgy’s Hermeneutics discussions? No. Is it relevant to the real world? Maybe.  Does it have to be? Not necessarily. Should it be? I suppose so. But what if it isn’t, is it a waste of time? Sometimes, but not necessarily all the time.

But the more profound aspect of the question is the term, “real world.” By “real” world are you referring to the post-modern American secular culture “world?” And can people fully immersed in that world without faith, can they find meaning in academic Liturgical study? Maybe not. The media-saturated brain formation may create too significant a barrier, requiring a surrender of the culture to experience the historical liturgy. I personally don’t believe it is a “real” world anymore, but one created by our own human doing.

Do you advise young people go into liturgical study?

I don’t move in these circles today—my advising young people these days has to do with believing in God—and then, believing in the Church. However, in my day, some of the best students of liturgy did indeed come from the world of music. [see Michael Joncas, John Foley, Ed Foley, etc!]


Rev. Virgil C. Funk is a Catholic presbyter of the Diocese of Richmond, VA, ordained in 1963, served as executive Director of the Liturgical Conference (1974-76), founder and president of National Association of Pastoral Musicians (1976-2001) a membership organization of clergy and musicians dedicated to fostering the art of musical liturgy. Retired to Portland, Oregon, he now serves as NPM’s President emeritus. 


  1. “A central point is “the musification of faith is part of the process of word becoming flesh,” or Incarnation is paralleled to faith becoming music. The on-going incarnation, and the revelation that takes place with incarnation, occurs in music making. ”

    What a fascinating insight. I have to admit I tend to think of the word as the corporal, earthy element and the music as the sublime, spiritual part of it. But I had never thought before of the parallel between word/music and divinity/humanity. (I may be the only person here who had never done so!)

    We musicians owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Fr. Funk. When I was a middle schooler in the 1970s, my memories of liturgical music were seven high school teenagers standing on the steps of the sanctuary, all with guitars, all playing exactly the same strum pattern (which I’ve seen described as ching, ching-ka, ka-ching-ka). We’ve come a long way since then, and it wasn’t be accident; it was through the leadership of NPM and Fr. Funk among others.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #1:
      Ratzinger as a theologian uses the words of music as a metaphor for The Word (as in John’s gospel), but his true insight is that it is faith becoming music, by composing, by singing, by playing (for his study does not restrict music to text only music). So when you sing, play or compose, your faith may not be consciously present, but it is present, nevertheless. And the presence of faith is part of the process of the Word becoming Flesh (the on-going or dynamic Incarnation.

  2. I am most grateful to Fr. Virgil Funk and the legacy of pastoral musicians he has created with NPM. What a gift to the church, a community of musicians of all skill levels; from those with Doctorates in music or liturgy, beloved and fully engaged Clergy, organists to self taught guitarists, and singers trained and untrained. The NPM conventions are always a time of renewal and great joy. I’ve been a member since 1994. Prayers for Fr Funk’s continued health, and for Msgr Rick Hilgartner as he leads NPM forward.

    1. @Melanie Smith – comment #3:
      Melanie, Thank you for your kind words. My health is quite well, but always appreciate prayers. And certainly the continued support of NPM and the work of Msgr Rick Hilgartner is most important for the whole Church, musicians, clergy, liturgy, and especially life-giving celebrations at the parish level. Every person counts!

  3. “So, in #79 of the GIRM, the celebrative model does not match the ritual function, especially for the Assembly. The directives indicate that while it is the “priest [with the whole people]” who gives the “Thanksgiving” [79a], it is the Church which performs the epiclesis[79c], the anamnesis [79e], and the oblation[79f]. Our present celebrative model does not support these ritual functions. The priest recites the words of these actions, but the Church does not have a ritual activity by which it identifies itself as participating in these actions, a reform yet to take place.”

    I find this to be the most interesting point raised in the interview. I would be very interested to hear people’s views on whether they consider this to be an important and/or urgent insight and, if they do, how it might be implemented.

  4. Hello Father Funk! I don’t know if you remember me but I was one of the members of the Board and in charge of the Eastern region, when Sr. Terasita was President of NPM/ME. I just wanted to say hello and hope you are doing well. After 50 years of teaching (1966 – 2016) I retired from my professorship at Gannon University in Erie, PA. I miss teaching a lot but my health condition (I was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease in 2017)was preventing me from continuing. My tremors are fairly well controlled with the meds my doctor prescribed. The tremors are still a little unpredictable so my keyboard work has pretty much ended….the arthritis in my fingers doesn’t help either. Now that I have more time on my hands I was thinking
    about some of the members of that Board, so I thought I’d try to locate you and see how you, and they, are doing? Hope to hear from you?

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