e-mail us

Cover story

Funk -- the man behind the music

NCR Staff

If the National Association of Pastoral Musicians had a heraldic shield over the door, the motto underneath would read: “Good musicians make good music, bad musicians make bad music.” Fr. Virgil Funk would have carved it there.

For a quarter century, the Richmond, Va., diocesan priest has had an enormous impact on Catholic music, yet if all 62 million American Catholics turned up at Mass one Sunday, sung their hearts out and lifted the roof off the church, they still wouldn’t know who Funk was.

He’s a former social worker, community organizer, inner-city priest and chanter -- lead singer in his seminary choir for eight years -- totally formed in the Gregorian chant and by Sulpician Fr. Eugene Walsh’s commitment to liturgical renewal. Funk founded the National Association of Pastoral Musicians to renew, and raise the pay and educational levels of Catholic church musicians, and has seen the post-Vatican Council (1962-65) liturgical renewal through its next phase.

If Funk’s name is unknown to Catholics in the pews, it’s not to most of the organists, guitar players, cantors, choirmasters and directors of music ministry around the country who urge Catholics to sing out. They know what he’s given them.

“Most musicians are more interested in the repertoire than they are in their salary,” said Funk. “I was more interested in their salary than solving the repertoire question.”

Which means that in at least 3,500, and perhaps as many as 5,000 Catholic parishes (from a possible 19,000), a church musician can earn enough to support his or her family. The mean salary today is $35,000-$45,000 with highs in the rare few places of $65,000-$85,000 and lows in rural parishes of $25,000.

In fact, 62 million Catholics aren’t in church every Sunday. Worse, a significant proportion of those who are don’t and won’t sing (see accompanying story). And if they’re not singing, said Funk, it’s because the parishioners haven’t discovered anything to sing about, and that’s because the musician leading them is inadequate to the task of facilitating community song.

“Musical liturgy is normative,” said Funk. “When it’s effective, music isn’t an add-on to liturgy. When it’s effective, it is the liturgy. The people know bad music, they know when the liturgy is crumbling around their eyes and ears. And in order to prevent bad liturgy from happening, parishes are stretching themselves to find a way to engage an adequate musician.”

The 64-year-old Funk added, “I’m not a gifted musician. I am a gifted critic of music. That’s different.”

During this year’s July 2-6 National Association of Pastoral Musicians meeting here, Funk handed over the presidency and executive directorship to J. Michael McMahon, director of music and liturgy at St. Mark Parish in Vienna, Va., and founder of association chapters in the Wilmington, Del., and Arlington, Va., dioceses.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Funk, who has a master’s in social work and community organizing, was active in the church’s social outreach. As pastor of St. Patrick’s in Richmond’s east end, the predominantly black Church Hill section, he had three communities: rural, urban and ghetto, “and I was responsible for bringing them together.” The music and community development, “was a major part of it.”

His day job was diocesan director of social ministries, and he’d served, too, as diocesan director of music when, in the mid-’70s he became executive director of the Liturgical Conference in Washington, D.C. “Bob Hovda, Virginia Sloyan and Gabe Huck [important names in the U.S. liturgical movement] were all employees.”

But Funk was eyeing the musicians. He knew in the turmoil of Second Vatican Council (1962-65) reforms, “the organists and the guitarists didn’t get along.” He’d been trying to raise the musicianship levels for both in Richmond, through two separate programs -- “my orientation in those days was the use of music within the liturgy” -- when an organist named Constance Beck asked him, “Why don’t we have an organization for musicians?”

Funk replied, “We do, the American Guild of Organists.” She replied it was a good organization but didn’t “do what we really need.” Funk remembered this at the Liturgical Conference and suggested it expand into the music area. When that didn’t go anywhere, he left and sent out a random mailing to 3,000 priests.

“I wanted a 2 percent return,” said Funk, who knows his sociology, “got a 1.87 percent, which was close.” He sent out another 300 as a test market, talked to friends, met with five consultation groups. The majority each time told him not to do it. He did it anyway. He formed the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in 1976.

His approach was a five-legged stool: that the musician needed competency in music, in weekly planning, in communications (speaking with the pastor and the assembly), in seasonal planning, and in spirituality. The association started with 1,600 members at the end of 1976, and has 9,875 in 2001.

The learning, the professionalization, the mentoring has been a key in what the association has attempted to achieve. Three years ago it launched accreditation, the DMM (director of music ministries). “It’s in the kernel phase, this is long term, we are doing this for the grandchildren.”

The association has established a set of qualifications that enables a parish to judge whether the musician merits the salary being offered. The DMM certification is built around a mentoring concept, the musician operating in his and her own environment with a mentor observing what’s going on in the practicum environment.

Funk, who celebrates liturgy locally when he’s in town, said, “We work with those parishes that are motivated and seeking education. We do not try to motivate parishes -- we are interested in parishes that are motivated and uneducated, so to speak, in any of the five areas we talk about.”

Asked what the weakest link is in the liturgy, Funk, who usually has a humorous refrain running through his sometimes-gruff comments, answered, “Whenever musicians gather they say it’s the priest, when priests gather they say it’s the musicians. The honest truth is the weakest link is the assembly. The assembly doesn’t identify itself as the primary worshiper. The Catholic congregation does not possess the conviction of its baptismal call. They don’t get it.

“Now you can say,” continued Funk, “that it’s the clergy and the musicians’ problem that they’re not allowing or forming the assembly in that way, and I’ll agree. But the biggest problem remains, in my opinion, that Catholics are still unconvinced of the divinization that takes place in baptism.”

Worship, he said, is not “group dynamic. The act of worship is more profound than the social phenomenon.” Similarly, he says, there is no “perfect liturgy out there” to conform to -- “God is praised when the alleluia of someone who knows that they have been transformed is authentically sung. When the Kyrie eleison for those who are poor is authentically sung. That we are standing in mercy before God. And Marinatha is proclaimed that the Kingdom is yet to come. And that happens a hundred thousand times more often than we know.” If it happens to an individual, it’s happening for the congregation.

Bags packed, sabbatical planned -- he won’t say where he’s going -- Funk is headed out of the metaphoric door. It bears the heraldic motto he’s carved on American Catholic music.

And in thousands of parishes around the country there are pastoral musicians who’d say that for 25 years, Funk struck the right chord.

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001