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Reflections on cathedral life span two decades

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placeholder January 9, 2012   •   VOL. 50, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA

One of the many creative celebrations that took place in a place internationally recognized for its leading-edge liturgies.
Oakland Diocese archives

Reflections on cathedral life
span two decades

As the Diocese of Oakland begins the celebration of its golden jubilee, a memoir by the Rev. E. Donald Osuna offers insight into the early years, particularly at St. Francis de Sales, the first cathedral.

In “How Awesome Is This Place!” Father Osuna offers his memories and reflections on cathedral life from 1967 to 1986. During this time, the cathedral gained international recognition for its creative, leading-edge liturgies implemented in accordance with the new vision of the Second Vatican Council.

This is the first in a series of articles to explore the history, personalities and spirit of the diocese as it celebrates its 50th year. The following is an exchange between The Catholic Voice’s Michele Jurich and Father Osuna.


How Awesome Is This Place!
By E. Donald Osuna
Aventine Press; 204 pages
$24.95 hardcover; $12.50 paper

Book signing and more
Rev. E. Donald Osuna will sign copies of his book after an evening of prayer and reflection celebrating St. Francis de Sales, the first Cathedral of the Diocese of Oakland. Bishop Emertius John Cummins will be among the speakers. The event will begin at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 in the parish hall of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, 2121 Harrison St., Oakland.
 
 
What is the story behind publishing “How Awesome Is This Place!”
The reason I published the book is because in January we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Oakland. I was ordained in 1963, that following year. I wanted to pay tribute to Bishop Begin and Bishop Cummins, under whom I worked, and recall their character, their personalities and their contributions to this diocese, which did become quite well-known throughout the country.

How did the new diocese become so well-known so quickly?

Bishop Begin wanted his new cathedral, which was the first one remodeled in the United States according to the norms of Vatican II, to become a model for his diocese, and, I guess, for the country as well.

Was there any question about which church would become the cathedral?

Not to my knowledge. This is something that’s done in Rome; possibly they considered several other churches. They determined this one would be central. I think they were considering St. Jarlath’s on Fruitvale Avenue. The monsignor who built that church had in mind that it might become a cathedral church when Oakland was made a diocese, but it never did.

The fact that it was downtown Oakland, inner-city, rundown, was typical of the cathedrals in the country. They were in very poor sections of the inner-city. Eventually, I was able to go around the country giving workshops to cathedral rectors. They wanted to know how you could make an inner-city, poor area into a thriving community. I was able to share some of the ways we did it.

And you did this through creative liturgy?

Liturgy is able to create community. The cathedral church should be where community and unity around the bishop is the focus. We proved that liturgy can bring people together. It was one of the highlights of our community. A third were local, a third came regularly from around the diocese and another third were visitors who came on occasion. Every Sunday we had two-thirds of regulars, and a third of visitors from all kinds of universities and places around the country and the world.

We had our vision. We were creating liturgy for the two-thirds, the regulars, bouncing off their culture and their way of praying and reinforcing it. From that liturgy and that community came the parish with its council, very strong leadership and also came its outreach.

Father E. Donald Osuna, longtime rector at St. Francis de Sales cathedral, was challenged to write music every week.
Jerry A. Rubino photo

How did this reflect Vatican II?
The first two aims of the Vatican Council were within: increasing and invigorating the spirituality of the people, and adapt the institutions within the church more suitably to the needs of our time.

The other two were extra: promotion of Christian unity and reaching out to people all over the world — that’s evangelization.

What we did was to deal with those first two, trying to foster the spirituality of the people through liturgy and eventually through the parish ministries. Ecumenism was something we tackled. In the process, the outreach to the world happened on its own. People came to us, lots of people came to us, people doing research came to us. We were very lucky in that we happened upon, I think, a very creative approach to the vision of Vatican Council. Admittedly, much of it was experimental, but the Vatican Council document allows for that in paragraph 37:

Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

That’s where we took our inspiration. What did we have in front of us? We had demoralized people to begin with because the local people saw their Church gutted.

How often was Bishop Begin at the cathedral?
Not very often. He used to go around to the parishes, mostly on Sundays. He would come for the major feast days. But it’s really a good thing. Not having him there allowed us the freedom to experiment. He realized our experiments were speaking something significant, not only to his people, who were flocking to his cathedral. After the Mass we had in 1971 for the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, the whole country recognized that we had something special there. Bishop Begin was elated.

What was Bishop Begin like?

His genius was that he loved his younger priests and he loved the priests of his own generation. He loved the younger crowd who were inventive and socially conscious and doing outreach and giving him a lot of trouble. But he loved us. He appointed very young priests to positions. He felt comfortable with the older crowd. He knew them. He had a unique way of being open to both sides.

He was very volatile, he was very French, very emotional, but he had a great heart and that won out in the end.

He discerned talent. He had the gift of discernment in that respect. He sent Brian Joyce and Dan Danielson to get their degrees in theology and education. Anybody who wanted to study, if you went to him, he said sure, and he’d pay. On the other hand, his inclinations were of the old school.

He had a doctorate in philosophy, a doctorate in theology and a doctorate in canon law. Three Ph.Ds. His saving factor was not only did he have a lot of head training, but he had a lot of heart training at St. Lucy’s in Cleveland. That’s a very mixed racial parish. His pastoral experience was responsible for his success in the diocese.

And Bishop Begin’s legacy?
His legacy was to foster within the diocese the vision of Vatican II, which was revolutionary and very challenging at the time. He also listened to his priests, those who were forward-looking as well as those who were more conservative. He actually listened to them. That was a great gift. He allowed the forward-looking to go forward and the conservatives to feel more comfortable.

Then came Bishop John Cummins.

John Cummins with the First Communion smile and great love for people. He is extremely smart not just as a student — he was summa cum laude — he has a photographic, retentive memory. Very well-read, he’s a historian.

He lived among the people. He sold the bishop’s residence and came and lived with us. Again, he was challenged by the forces that were going on. He was bishop in 1977, into the ’80s and ’90s, when, again, the turmoil of the political ’70s, things that were going on within the country and Church, the polarization that started to happen and that increased under John Paul II. He was responsible for establishing the Graduate Theological Union, bringing in the Catholic components, the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans. He gives credit to Bishop Begin, but it was Bishop John Cummins who facilitated that whole move. He’s extremely respected by the academics. And, of course, as a result, Berkeley got a bad rap in Rome for being overly liberal in theology.

He was born on the border of Oakland and Berkeley. He knew the area. He was a local product. Just a delightful person.

Are you still composing?

The first couple years after I retired I revised my compositions and had them professionally printed. That gave me time to go over all my major compositions and finish them off in a final edition. Since then, I haven’t composed many new. I was challenged every single week to write music because when we were doing this, there wasn’t music for the “Holy Holy” or the Acclamation or the “Alleluia.” Then I had to write all of the orchestrations for the people singing.

 
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