(Note to the squeamish: I am not making a word of this up. I have fogged the identities of some people. I have no desire to be sued.)
INTO THE ABYSS:
THE ERA OF LITURGY COMMITTEES
Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff
Everybody say his own Kyrie Eleison
Doin' the Vatican Rag
Make a cross on your abdomen
When in Rome do like a Roman
Ave Maria, gee it's good to see ya
Gettin' ecstatic an' sorta dramatic an'
Doin' the Vatican Rag
So go the lyrics of a song recorded in 1965 by the Harvard mathematics professor/comedian, Tom Lehrer. In the preamble to what is an amazingly offensive song by one of my favorite humorists, Professor Lehrer says that the Vatican, “...in an attempt to make the Mass more entertaining, has allowed more popular music to be used at Mass” or words to that effect. When I say offensive, I really mean it. If you love our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament the song can make you weep. Still, the song sums up a very strange moment in history. I remember about that time, going into a darkened church where a wooden altar had been set up in preparation for the first mass facing the people in our parish. Monsignor O’Brien, a veteran of the old Liturgical Movement, had held off until the last possible moment, but the liturgists had told him that he could postpone things no longer. I remember looking at that flimsy wooden table that now hid the marble altar on which Mass had been said for years and thinking that tomorrow the world would change forever. “Everybody say his own Kyrie Eleison.” Being a young man at the time, I was all for change, but as I saw that wooden table, a wave of sadness swept over me. And now that I am an old man, the sadness sweeps back reminding me of all that has been swept away.
All the old rules about liturgical propriety were melting away like gray March snow on a beautiful spring day. Permission could be given to say “home masses.” It had been forbidden to say Mass outside an approved place without special permission. Now permission was given at a local level, and when it wasn’t given, well who cared? We lived a few doors from a huge Romanesque church, and the young assistant pastor came to our house one night to celebrate the first home Mass in the parish. We “had” Mass sitting around the dining room table. A choir of habited nuns perched on the dining room radiator and the house was filled with neighbors who’d come to experience this wondrous new thing in the life of the Church. We really believed that this was what the early Church must have been like, guitar playing nuns and all. By the way, the nuns’ habits were gone within the year, and the nuns themselves were gone a few years after that. I myself was a folk singer at the time, folk singers being defined as anyone who could play three major chords and two minor ones on a guitar and could sing badly enough to sound authentic. I was drafted into playing for the first small group Mass at my high school. We sang those classic Catholic hymns, “Sons of God”, “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and “Kumbaya.” (I was not sure what Kumbaya really meant. I assumed it was religious, perhaps a form of speaking in tongues.)
From there, the slide downhill continued unabated. Any song that anybody liked now became liturgical music, especially if the words could be adapted. I remember hearing the Jim Morrison tune, “Come on Jesus, Light my Fire” played as an offertory song. And there was that inspiring communion hymn, “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I’ve got God in my Tummy.” And of course almost anything by Bob Dylan was essentially religious. As I went off to the college seminary, such great lyrics as “Today while the blossoms still cling to the vine...” made splendid offertory songs, after all, the song does mention wine. I remember an old seminary professor preaching an extended homily on the lyrics of the Judy Collins song “Clouds,” which I believe was the communion hymn that day. We had regular small group masses celebrated with loaves of pita bread and port wine on coffee tables in recreation rooms. Some clergy actually used coffee and doughnuts for Mass, though I myself never participated in a Dunkin’ Doughnuts Liturgy. At the first such small group Mass in my dormitory, the music played on a record player by the celebrant was taken from the Beatles “Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. For a while in my first year of college seminary, we would still troop in to chapel for morning prayer, (if we were awake) and evening prayer (if we were still awake). For Lent and Advent, the different dorms would plan the services. I remember one vespers service that consisted entirely of the playing of the musical sound track of the “Wizard of Oz.” Lauds and Vespers definitively ended one fateful morning when the morning prayer service was designed around that Christian classic, the movie “Easy Rider.” There we sat, a few hundred groggy adolescents recovering form the disciplined academic life of the late sixties seminary in which we had immersed ourselves on the previous evening. From the back of the chapel we heard the revving of a motor, and a liturgical presenter did a wheelie up the main aisle of the chapel. I do not remember another morning or evening prayer being held in the chapel for the rest of my college career.
And thus were trained the pastors, theologians and liturgists of today by the glorious experimentation of the sixties. The competition to make the next liturgy more exciting than the last was huge in my college seminary. Plans were kept hush-hush, lest the competition figure out how to top what we were planning. I remember a great theologian, on loan to us from another diocese. He was furious with me because I had figured out the chords to a Jacques Brel song that his liturgy committee was planning on using. I had, he said, no right to steal a song that they had already stolen, and I was to stop playing it immediately. He went on to be the director of a prestigious pastoral institute, a renowned author on moral theology and the moral consultant to an archbishop, who is long since dead. His career hit a bit of a speed bump when he announced that he was leaving the priesthood and the Church to marry someone who was very, very interesting. He has since resumed lecturing on moral theology and is a very popular speaker in some Catholic circles. His theories on the near impossibility of committing a mortal sin had a major effect on the thinking of the times and still exercise a great influence in Catholic morality even now.
You cannot imagine how exciting it all was, this return to the spontaneity of the early Church. It was such fun to go to Mass. You never knew what you were going to get. The hootenanny Mass quickly gave way to liturgical dancers, rock bands, clown Masses in which priest and congregation dressed in clown costumes and the liturgical music was invariably taken from the musical “Godspell” along with the Beatles hymn “Fool on the Hill.” Some time after I was ordained and I had sobered up from the sixties (which seemed to drag on through the 70's and 80's), I was invited to be the celebrant of a special youth group Mass. I was carefully coached by the liturgist in charge how to time the words of the consecration to fit in with music and the visual images projected on a screen behind me. It was at that point that I had finally had enough. The unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary had become a joke, just like Tom Lehrer’s prophetic 1965 song, “Everybody say his own Kyrie Eleison.” Every priest his own pope, every theologian infallible, every opinion valid whether it comes from the bishop of Rome or a rock musician/liturgist. I actually remember my liturgy teacher from seminary say in reference to a papal statement about the liturgy, “Well, that’s one man’s opinion.” My liturgy teacher was certainly an exceptional American. He wasn’t about to let some Italian bishop stand in the way of liturgical progress. It seems that Luther got his way and more, Mass is no longer a sacrifice, but a vehicle for the consolation and instruction, and dare I add, the entertainment of the faithful.
Next week: ON THE LITURGICAL USE OF DRUMS, UMBRELLAS, AND FIRECRACKERS. and OUR MOTHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN