On Wednesday night, 9 March 2022, Louis Weil fell asleep in the Lord at the skilled nursing home where he lived in Oakland, California. From a circle of friends who surrounded him near and far through months of ill health the news spread around the world, with tributes personal and official pouring in the next day. Most Episcopalians will know his name, as will many Anglicans around the world, Roman Catholics working in the academic field of liturgy, and many others. For those who did not have the pleasure of knowing him, I would love to introduce you in this memoria of a faithful priest, long-serving seminary professor of liturgy, delightful friend, and mentor to many.
A simple chronological outline of his life and work hints at the richness of background and experiences on which Louis would draw for his teaching and leadership. He was born in Houston, Texas, in 1935 and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. His religious background was not the “usual”, his father was Jewish and his mother, in his childhood, not linked to a religious tradition. His Jewish background was formational as Louis always retained a deeply-felt double identity, not denying his identity in Christ, but claiming his Jewish heritage as a responsibility and privilege. He became an Episcopalian while attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, a fortuitous alignment for the Episcopal Church in the US, moving from there to earn a master’s degree in musicology from Harvard University and then seminary at General Theological Seminary, with ordination to the ministerial priesthood in 1962.
His ordained ministerial path began in a series of small churches in Diócesis Episcopal de Puerto Rico over a period of ten years which he later described as both immensely frustrating and the most rewarding period of his ministry. While serving there, he developed two pastoral academic interests – the first on engaging children in the liturgy in more fulsome ways, and the second in liturgical adaptation, publishing “Liturgia Anglicana y su adaptacion en hispanoamerica” in Dialogo Ecumenico in 1969, the very title of which points to his strong conviction that liturgical challenges are best addressed with the wisdom of the broader ecumenical body of Christ. He applied his insights from the wisdom of parishioners to his teaching at El Seminario Episcopal del Caribe (San Juan, Puerto Rico), an exercise in continuity between parish practice and liturgical reflection which would lead to a confirmation of his life’s work in liturgy.
Louis chose (and was chosen) to be the first Anglican to study at the doctoral level at lnstitut Catholique de Paris, a vibrant centre of liturgical renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. It was there that Louis studied with the stars of a generation who shaped the liturgical renewal leading into and flowering from Vatican II: Pierre-Marie Gy, Pierre Journel, Aimé-Georges Martimort, Louis Bouyer, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar and others. Louis became the bridge between this centre of liturgical renewal and his US students to come, bringing back to a seminary teaching career the conversations, excitement, and convictions of an essential ressourcement for liturgy. Louis also met Fr. Gerard Austin, OP there, where they became lifelong friends and whose joy-filled remembrances of personalities and experiences from the world of academic life in Paris entertained many of us for years. Returning to the US, Louis joined the faculty of Nashotah House (an Episcopal Seminary) in Wisconsin in 1971 to teach liturgics where the small residential community became home for him and his widowed mother. It was first there that many of the ideas from the liturgical movement conversations in Paris took shape. I still remember an altar, a small square of beautiful wood, which lived in his garage after he left Nashotah, built according to a new understanding of the community gathering around the altar as a table, rather than the over-sized coffin-shaped altars typical of so many Episcopal Churches. The plethora of families at Nashotah House also provided a lab for Louis’ ongoing interest in how children engage in liturgy, resulting in several publications around rites of initiation with children as well as “Children and Worship,” in The Sacred Play of Children (edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, 1983). It was also at Nashotah House that Louis’ summary of teaching and doing Anglican liturgy (a liturgical primer really) was created. His Liturgy for Living (originally published in 1979 and revised in 2000) has introduced new Episcopalians to their chosen church, provided an entry for many to begin liturgical studies, and provided insights for parish book clubs for years.
Louis moved to Berkeley, California to take up a post at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 1988 (the Episcopal Seminary within the ecumenical and interfaith consortium of the Graduate Theological Union). He remained there, teaching fulltime until 2009 as the Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at CDSP and as a member of the doctoral teaching faculty at the GTU. Eventually I became his colleague, learning so much from him about the Episcopal adaptation and adoption of the ressourcement of Vatican II, and sharing daily joys and frustrations from the classroom and chapel. During these years his writing included a breadth of interests; issues in Episcopal liturgy, Anglo-Catholic interests, reflections on specific sacraments such as ordinations and marriages, Anglican Eucharistic issues, and reconciliation on the individual and the corporate levels, particularly with regard to ecumenism. Much of these different liturgical interests were founded in his pastoral and teaching service, and much of it came together in his focus on ecclesiology, particularly in his well-read “Baptismal Ecclesiology: Uncovering a Paradigm” (Equipping the Saints: Ordination in Anglicanism Today, 2006).
To focus on his seminary teaching alone, however, would leave out a substantial focus of Louis’ ministry and teaching. He had always been part of national and international ecumenical conversations in liturgy, being one of the founding members of the North American Academy of Liturgy (which gave him the Berakah Award in 2012) and active in Societas Liturgica, but it is his service to the US Episcopal Church which is central for so many who remember him. Louis served four terms on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and is one of the often-unnamed architects of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the process and reflections on which shaped his last book Liturgical Sense: The Logic of Rite (2013). This volume published out of Church Publishing, Inc. (the publishing house of the Episcopal Church in the US) is the first in a series of books called “the Weil Series in Liturgics…in recognition of his work in and on behalf of the Church he so loves.” (viii, Liturgical Sense).
There is much more that could be said, but a blog is intended to have the virtue of brevity. Two last categories: character and prayer. One of my (thankfully) living colleagues in liturgy has often remarked that we are losing the ‘characters’ in academic liturgy, but he personally is doing his utmost to continue to maintain that role in being a character, brilliant and never-to-be-forgotten to his students. In the last couple days social media has been filled with Louis’ former students, many of whom tell funny and endearing stories of being terrified, inspired, and mystified by Louis – they will never forget him, and by extension, will never forget what he taught and modelled for them.
The second is prayer. I remember entering his second house (second in my experience) and immediately coming into his home chapel – a prayer space filled with icons and images, a prie-dieu, and prayer books. There was a continuity in spirit and space with the earliest Christian monastics of the Egyptian desert, a cell for contemplation. Louis was very clear that engaging in the liturgy meant space for silence and prayer– his recurring phrase echoes in my head “just do the goddamned Mass” rather than fill it up with extra words (which I always threatened would end up on his gravestone). I loved that he returned again and again to replenish and expand his own spirit in a house of prayer, going frequently on retreat to the Anglican Benedictine sisters of West Malling in England. Every time we happened to have been in Paris for meetings or other, he insisted we go to the parish of St. Gervais et St. Protais, associated with his beloved Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, where the whole community held a half-hour of silent prayer before Mass each Sunday – the “way it should be done.” He knew in and through his own personal struggles that these communities of intentional silence and space for the holy were essential and encouraged all of us to find where it was for us, to “come home” to prayer and community.
Don Saliers’ wonderful poetic summary of Louis Weil’s passions and faith in the Berakah citation of 2012 provide an appropriate conclusion to this reflection:
Relishing the Feast, you know the taste and fragrance of Christ
in many cultures, sounding the deep waters of Baptism.
The world has been your classroom,
the ecumenical Church your care,
the surprise of God your idiom,
the gracious cadence of prayer your music
wit and good theology for worshiping assemblies, your style.
Requiescat in pace