Old Folks’ Folk Mass

Note: TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal will join Raymond Arroyo tomorrow night (10/17/19) at 8:00 PM to discuss the Amazon Synod on “The World Over.” Check your local listings for the EWTN channel in your area. Shows also appear soon after they are broadcast on EWTN’s YouTube page.

It is always a privilege to go to Mass, one for which some people in the world risk their lives. And if I weren’t such a wretched sinner, I am sure I wouldn’t notice it as much as I do, but the only thing more painful to me than a guitar-strumming “folk mass” by baby boomers with songs from the 1970s is listening to them after Mass, justifying this awful adventure in irrelevance with the comment: “We do it for the young people.”

I defy them to go through the music of young adults and find even one CD or mp3 with St. Louis Jesuit-type music.  If some people in a parish favor such music, fine.  But please, don’t claim it is being done for the young people.  That is a falsehood and, in its way, a dangerous one.

Frankly, it hasn’t been the music “of the young” perhaps ever, but certainly not since the mid-sixties. I was in college in the early 1980s, and no one listened (without being forced) to the music of the St. Louis Jesuits and their ilk.  We liked the Beatles, the Who, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, the Cars, and a host of others.  The small cultural group that liked “folk music” had passed on years before. Even Dylan moved on. Did people assume that Peter, Paul, and Mary would be popular forever?

I can remember going to my first Catholic Mass and thinking:  “These Catholics have the right idea: stand up, sit down, kneel, stand up: keep the blood flowing.”  The “sermon” was mercifully short.  But the music!  After it was over, I said to my Catholic friends:  “I liked it, but two things. You need to get rid of the orange carpet, and you need a good Methodist hymnal.” I said this as someone who always hated singing those long Methodist hymns. I still do.  But a test-your-patience, eight-verses long Methodist hymn was still preferable to “Gather Us In.”

Now, granted, being the sinner I was, I had always hated this sort of sappy religious music.  In my teens, I rejected all Christianity because “youth ministry” taught me that “Christianity” meant guitar music and sappy slogans on posters of waterfalls or sunrises, and so I wanted nothing to do with any of it.  It didn’t help that many of the guys doing “youth ministry” were using it as a way to pick up girls.


When I got to college and started reading Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, I thought Catholics were different.  They actually cared about important things.  They still took the writings of all these amazing thinkers seriously.  But then I went to my first Mass, and there was all that sweet Jesus music again – only worse.  At least the Protestants actually knew how to play their instruments and insisted on singing in tune.  The Catholics, not so much.

And the Protestants had been “youth ministers,” so it made sense for them to act like young idiots.  But at the Catholic Mass, I saw forty-somethings strumming guitars and swaying to the music as though they were the Mamas and the Papas.  Not only did it not appeal to me, it appealed to no one.

Some people just tolerated it better than others. And although I know scores of converts to Catholicism, not one of them came into the Church lured by the tender strains of “On Eagle’s Wings.”  Quite the contrary.  They entered despite the music.

In England, converts to Catholicism must give up beautiful chapels and superb choirs to worship in modernist boats and spaceships singing tunes from the 1970s. What the Protestants couldn’t do to the Catholic Church in 400 years, the Church did to herself in ten.

In a similar vein, how much damage has been done, do you suppose, by that one little book The Environment and Arts in Catholic Worship (1978) – something that was never ratified by the U.S. bishops but was taken as the visual blueprint for Catholic churches over the next forty years?

So you start building soulless modernist churches and fill them with ugly art and music, and ad hoc banal liturgies, and you’re shocked, shocked to find the places emptying out?

And so what do we do now?  For some, the obvious answer is to double-down on the same.  I stopped off at a Catholic church recently that still had liturgical dance.  The leader of the group is ninety.  The bishop of the diocese disallowed liturgical dance, so the group changed their name to “the motion choir.”  The old gang is undoubtedly pleased with themselves: baby boomers who still style themselves as rebels against “the man.”

Priests should at least recognize that, whatever their personal tastes, when they allow bad art and music, when they don’t stand up against the boomers who still think they’re the cutting edge of a new age, they may be avoiding trouble, but they are also losing any chance they might have had of recruiting young Catholics.  Everything in the Church that smacks of falsity and “posing” alienates them.  And few things will set young people off faster than being forced to listen to music they consider boring and awful.

Keep the guitars if you want.  But such groups should just admit that they have become the recalcitrant old folks they used to demonstrate against: the ones who “couldn’t change” and “just didn’t get it.”  After fifty years of the same old, worn out tunes and the same ugly modernist churches, neither of which were responses to popular demand, both of which were forced on unwilling congregations by more “knowing” ecclesiastical functionaries, the old stuff just isn’t “new” and “trendy” anymore.

How about a new aggiornamento – a new “updating”?  Perhaps a new re-birth, a “renaissance,” is in order – one that, as with all true renaissances, would be based on recovering the best traditions of the past and rejecting all the dross that has collected in the meantime.


*Image: Music in the Cloister by August Wilhelm Roesler, c. 1878 [private collection]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.