You probably know the hymn “What is This Place?”. It’s author (in Dutch), Huub Oosterhuis, has just received the German 2014 ecumenical Predigtpreis (“preaching award”) in the category “Life Work.”
Oosterhuis’ life story as given at the website is an interesting bit of Catholic postconciliar history.
Oosterhuis was born to a devout Catholic family in Amsterdam in 1933 and joined the Jesuits in 1953. It was soon rumored that he was writing poetry, which was considered overly individualistic for a member of a religious order. But later he was officially asked to write hymn texts, for which at first he used late medieval Dutch melodies. In 1960 he began writing texts for the liturgy of the newly-founded Studentenekklesia (“student church”) in Amsterdam.
Oosterhuis was ordained a priest in 1965 and assigned to be student chaplain in Amsterdam with three other young Jesuits, including Bernard Huijbers. The Studentenekklesia quickly developed into a laboratory of liturgical experimentation.
Oosterhuis sought to incorporate in his texts the existential reality of people today as much as the content and style of inherited tradition. His output of texts grew, with the increased use of melodies by Huijbers as well as traditional tunes. They became widely used in Protestant as well as Catholic churches.
Meanwhile, the Studentenekkesia had developed its own uniquely Dutch liturgy, which sought to be loosely Catholic in the sense of “universal, connected to the whole.” This led to conflicts with Roman Catholic authorities and separation from Catholic bishop of Harlem-Amsterdam. Oosterhuis was summoned to the Jesuit superiors in Rome and expelled from the order along with his colleagues. The Studentenekklesia was expelled from Jesuit facilities and found a new home in a Protestant church.
In 1970 Oosterhuis married Josefien Melief, and they had two children. They parted on friendly terms and Oosterhuis has been married ever since to Colet van der Ven.
In the 1970s, Oosterhuis’ texts increasingly emphasized seeking and questioning. Themes of liberation theology were incorporated, along with a striking aspect of mysticism. With a growing interest in making the Bible speak to contemporary people, Oosterhuis translated all 150 psalms in free and striking manner from 1995 to 2010. He has also written free poetry, and he wrote a large novel in poetic form in which the mythical King Arthur is portrayed as a messianic figure.
Oosterhuis has been politically active, for example as president of the Chile Movement, as advocate for various leftist parties, and as advocate for those seeking asylum. He became close to Princess Beatrice before she was queen, and at the request of the family he preached at the funeral of Prince Klaus in 2002.
In 2002 Oosterhuis received an honorary doctorate from the Vrij Universiteit of Amsterdam for his hymn text writing.
In 2010 a wealthy admirer donated a completed renovated former parish house to the Studentenekklesia. It is where they now celebrate their weekly liturgy, along with being a meeting place for a broad public.
Because of a history of conflict with church authorities, Oosterhuis’ texts are not officially permitted in Dutch Catholic publications, but they are widely used in Protestant churches. Five of his texts appeared in the official German Catholic hymnal Gotteslob of 1975; after some heated discussion it was decided that six of his texts would appear in the revised Gotteslob that appeared last year.
What is this place where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth its floor …
Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here
and know our God is near.