Folk Mass Guitarist

Confessions of a folk Mass guitarist
by Rory O’Day,

FOR SOME curious reason I have no memory of the Latin Mass, but can recall the first English Mass in my home town.

As a small schoolboy I clearly recall a group of older schoolgirls bursting out of the church after having timed the ceremony. To their dismay the new Mass had been only briefly shorter than the old one said the previous week.

This little event touches on what went wrong with the changes to the liturgy which took place post-Vatican II. Instead of dwelling on the mystery of the Eucharist, Catholics began to judge the Mass on what they got out of it. Innovation and experimentation, however distasteful, became a necessity in the search for relevance.

On a deeper level, of course, there was also the deliberate strategy of trying to soften the differences between the allegedly
over-ritualised Catholic Mass and the communion services of the Protestant churches. But the blurring of what distinguished the Catholic Mass actually resulted in its emasculation.

The stripping of the altars, the de-emphasis of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, have been superimposed instead by a new minimalist ritual based on the gathering of the Christian community to partake in a communal meal.

The destructive nature of the changes is something that took many years to fully comprehend. What is clear now is that the efforts of the liturgical renewal brigade were fundamentally flawed.

While much of the distrust and sectarianism of old has disappeared in Australia (for a variety of reasons unrelated to changes in the Catholic Mass) we are no closer to union with the Anglicans or Uniting Church, and on some issues (such as female priests and homosexual marriages) we are further apart than ever.

And the young people to whom many of the changes appeared to be directed no longer see the Church as “meeting their needs” and mostly give Sunday Mass the flick at the first opportunity either just before or just after leaving school.

Vague misgivings

I always had vague misgivings about the innovations. Going to Mass where chalices were replaced with odd bits of pottery, where crumbly damper replaced unleavened hosts, was disturbing, but few others seemed to see a problem.

At other times it was embarrassing, like the Christmas plastic angel which zoomed across the nave on a flying fox contraption, or the Palm Sunday when two people inside a donkey suit marched into church like an amateur vaudeville routine.

At high school I became a member of the school musical group which played for the so-called “youth Masses” on Sunday evenings. Although a pretty poor guitarist, being a 16-year-old I thought that being in a band (any band) might make me more attractive to the opposite sex.

In fact, the youth were rarely if ever enthralled by the rock Masses despite the best efforts of some nuns and youth leaders. The songs were mostly bland, uninspiring and quite often theologically unsound.

Studying Reformation history was a turning point for me. Like a university student in Stalinist Russia who came across a banned history book, I discovered that the martyrs of Reformation England had died for the things we were getting rid of. This was not anything I had been taught in my Catholic schools.

At university I found a group of conservative young men who were similarly baffled by what was going on. Once we tried to get the chaplain to have Benediction – looking back that in itself was extraordinary. But far from encouraging us his reluctance destroyed our enthusiasm, and when it was finally conducted it was so modernised, we did not bother pursuing it again.

Sometimes when things got really out of hand I’d go to Mass getting angrier and angrier — Satan’s strategem must have been going exactly to plan. Like countless others I gave up going to Mass for periods, but always returned because I knew deep down I had nowhere else to go. In hindsight I can see that if ever there was a point where folk Masses (and the even more improbable ‘rock Masses’) fulfilled their objective in capturing the spirit of the times, they were ultimately destined for failure.

There are two reasons.

First, the Church would never be able to keep up with the rapidly changing fashions which exploded onto western society from the 1960s. Is there anything more unfashionable than a thoroughly modern nun?

Making the Mass relevant to young people might have worked for the milli-second of history which coincided with Woodstock, Peter, Paul and Mary and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. But after that the Church was always going to be embarrassingly out of sync. At the risk of being sacrilegious, should the Church have adapted liturgical music to include the new disco sound, dance music, rap, ska, even punk? Instead of admitting the absurdity of being relevant, liturgists decided instead to impose a freeze on modern hymns around the late 1970s and early 1980s. Any music which went before was expurgated and a time warp created.

Time warp

The irony is that a period of bad taste and inferior music has become a kind of cultural apex of 2000 years of Christendom. Most churches in Australia are locked into this interminable rehash of the 1970s. And while the youth fled, the older Catholics were denied their own Irish Catholic heritage. Faith of Our Fathers joined the forbidden list of what Catholics could not read or sing.

The second problem was that liturgists were setting young people up for disappointment and disillusionment.

If a school Mass was filled with liturgical dancing, multiple readers, greeters and commentators, elaborate offertory processions, student decorations of the church and altar, Gospel miming, slide shows, drums, tambourines and electric guitars, what happens when they went to their normal (and obligatory) Sunday Mass?

What incenses me most is the sight of a Baby Boomer group at Mass (no doubt partly because I’m on the cusp of becoming middle aged myself) trying to thrash the last life out of the ‘folk Mass’ Young people are absent from the pews, just a sad greying congregation of Catholics sprinkled with the equally bewildered ethnic Australians. Where no Baby Boomers are available there is the ubiquitous casette player?the ultimate symbol of the failed new liturgy.

Some conservative Catholic friends encouraged me to go to the Latin Mass, and I approached it with some trepidation.

While I railed against the seeming total autonomy parishes seemed to have in determining what was allowed and what was not allowed during Mass, I feared the rigidity of the Latin rite.

There was also a resistance to becoming part of a group of Catholic reactionaries or, even worse, sentimentalists.

It took several return visits to the new rite, and back to the old to find my way. Gradually I have built an attachment to the old Mass to its richness, depth and profundity.

And the people who go to the old Mass are Catholics who are very positive about their faith, who go to the old rite because they love it, who evangalise and who live the faith.

The old Mass allows people to adore the real presence of Christ, to contemplate quietly the mystery of our faith which is more of an add-on in the new Mass. Instead of being self-centred it is Christ-centred.

There are still things that puzzle me ? barriers to my total acceptance. For example, I find it strange that the priest alone says the Our Father and that the readings are not in the vernacular.

For all that I have no wish to advocate change. The fact is I have never reflected on the Gospel and Epistle as I have at the traditional Mass. Despite lingering questions and obstacles, I have entered more deeply into the Mass.

The mistakes that were made in the post-Conciliar period range from the grave to the totally unnecessary: the four-year calendar, multiple choice Eucharistic prayers, changes to crucial words at Mass, down to relatively minor things such as standing in line to receive Holy Communion.

Fatal flaws

I have come to believe that the priest facing the people is a fatal error, making the priest the pivotal figure in the ceremony and the relationship between him and us more important than between God and us. Performance becomes all important. Adoration goes out the door.

Even worse, when a priest doubts the real presence, as many seem to do, they sometimes betray themselves by what they do at the altar, or pointedly omit. Mercifully the old rite throws a veil over these interior battles and saves the layman from the temptation to judge.

And surely the Sign of Peace is an almost diabolically placed event–designed to ensure that everyone is diverted from the great miracle which has just occurred. Instead in the traditional rite I have found a sense of peace and deepening wonder at the gift of Himself that Christ left us each time we go to Mass.

On the other hand it has left me with a terrible unresolved conundrum:
how could the Church have got it so wrong?