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Aidan Kavanagh, liturgics expert, dies at the age of 77

Dean Harry Attridge takes a Aidan J. Kavanagh, professor emeritus of liturgics at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School, died July 9 at his home in Hamden, CT. He was 77. A Benedictine monk, Kavanagh was among the first faculty hired at the Institute soon after its founding at Yale in 1973 following the close of the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary in New York. During his tenure at Yale, Kavanagh served as acting director of the Institute and in 1989-90 was acting dean at Yale Divinity School, the first Roman Catholic priest to lead the School.

Though a renowned liturgical scholar himself, Kavanagh was not one to leave development of liturgical forms to the academic elite or to church leaders. For Kavanagh, it was the interaction of everyday Christians with the world that gives rise to liturgies that reflect and sustain a public order of life and meaning within the chaos of human existence. His influence was critical in the United States to the appropriation of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

On the occasion of Kavanagh's retirement from the Institute in 1994, Kavanagh's former student Thomas Schattauer, now a professor at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, IA, recalled the imaginary and commonplace "Mrs. Murphy" who stood at the center of the Kavanagh universe. "In the world according to Aidan," Schattauer noted, "she (Mrs. Murphy) possesses more liturgical wisdom than any liturgical scholar or reformer and more liturgical authority than any priest or pope." Kavanagh, said Schattauer, continually taught that "the holy things of the liturgy did not 'drop from Heaven in a Glad Bag.'"

Kavanagh was born in Mexia, TX, on April 20, 1929, the son of Joseph and Guarrel (Mullins) Suttle. Born Joseph Michael, he later adopted the surname of his foster father, Joseph Kavanagh. He attended the University of the South in Sewanee, TN from 1947-49. He later attended St. Meinrad Seminary, a German Catholic seminary in southern Indiana, from which he earned an A.B. degree in 1957, the year he was ordained to the priesthood. His passion at the time was moral theology-a passion that often found its way into his teaching of liturgy. However, it was Kavanagh's vow of obedience to a Benedictine superior at St. Meinrad that set him on his life's course, when his abbot chose to send him to the Theologische Fakultaet at Trier, in then West Germany, to study liturgy. He earned an S.T.D. degree there in 1963, graduating with highest honors. Along the way, he had also received an S.T.L. from the University of Ottawa in Canada.

Kavanagh began his academic career teaching liturgy in the school of theology at St. Meinrad's. In 1966 was named an associate professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame. He rose to the rank of professor in 1971. In 1972-73 he was a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School, and in 1974 he left Notre Dame to become acting director at the Institute of Sacred Music.

His seminal work, On Liturgical Theology, has been viewed as significant for establishing what came to be called his "theology of the congregation," illuminating the experience of people in the pews and the way they worship. In that book, he wrote that liturgy should be "festive, ordered, aesthetic, canonical, eschatological and, above all, normal." His Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style, continues to be used as a primary study guide for priests and other ministers.

Kavanagh described himself in On Liturgical Theology as "a living paradox." He wrote, "The creature of a deeply sacramental tradition who works professionally in the symbolic liturgical expression of that tradition, he tries to affirm and commend the embrace of the world which that tradition and its liturgical expression would convey to others of Christian faith met for worship. Simultaneously, however, his own monastic engagement whispers in his ear that such an embrace must be undertaken not with reluctance but with a certain wariness. He is one in whom the tension between love of God's world and adamant critique of what we have made of it has taken on living form, reinforced by professional commitment to both sides of the tension."

A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. (EST) on July 14 in the church at the Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 200 Hill Drive, St. Meinrad, IN. Preceding the Mass, and beginning at 6:30 a.m. in the Archabbey Church, will be a public visitation. Burial in the Archabbey Cemetery will follow the Mass, and a lunch for all guests and the community will then be held.

On July 13, at 7 p.m., a procession to the Archabbey Church with the Office of the Dead will take place, followed by a public visitation time in the church until 9 p.m.