Wherein We Snap & Play Guitar at Folk Mass

Christ the King Sunday, when it was instituted by Pius the XI in 1925, was placed on the Last Sunday in October. That made it a little awkward for Bible Readings (which still had to be doubled up) and for Calendar keeping. But it made perfect sense: it always came before All Saints Day and All Souls Day. You had Christ the King, and then the Saints, and then the Holy Souls.

Vatican II moved this feast to the last Sunday of the Church Year. This, happened in 1970 and, along with other things, cause d a bit of a kerfuffle with those who like Liturgy to stay the same for at least one generation at a time. But it dawned on me today that Christ the King has been in the new place, now, for 3 years longer than it was in the old place.

That tells us something perhaps rather hopeful about Vatican II and the liturgy that grew out of it. 

A friend of mine, who is Orthodox, asked me a pointed question about Catholic worship the other day. Thankfully it was in text, so I had a moment to pray before I replied.

Why, he asked, does most Catholic worship look like dressed-up Protestant worship?

Now, to be fair: I get it. This very question was why I didn’t enter the Catholic Church when I was running away from ECUSA. Even ECUSA (bereft of most things historically Christian) does the Western Liturgy rather better than many Catholic parishes. Orthodoxy, too, has a largely traditional liturgy. Yes, certainly, some of the modern recensions are from the era between the two world wars, and, yes, certainly, there are more things skipped in more places than one might care to admit, but it’s still kinda all there, although only New Skete (with its mid-1980s archaeological liturgy) comes anywhere near the glory of the great rites of Hagia Sophia. Still, even in the worst places, Byzantine Liturgy is rather more stately than not, rather more high church than not. 

Then there’s the Novus Ordo Missae of Vatican II – and all the things that happened that should not have happened: clown masses, folk masses, guitar masses, priest celebrating in their stoles without the rest of the vestments. (Face it, a “cassock-alb” plus a stole is liturgically the same as wearing only your underpants and a necktie to a wedding.)

So I honestly get it. The question is legit. And, implied complaining aside, it is coming from a place of love.

I prayed for help.

In 1967 the standard of Protestant worship was what is known as the Hymn Sandwich: 

  1. Entrance hymn, 
  2. Some prayers and Bible readings
  3. Offering (with music from the Choir and/or the Congregation) 
  4. Sermon (30 – 60 mins)
  5. Exit hymn

On a Communion Sunday (once a month, once a quarter, or once a year – if ever) the above would be slightly modified to have (usually) a shorter sermon and a brief communion plug-in before the last hymn.

This is still the standard in many denominations, although there are now “contemporary” service options, with overhead projectors, and extra instruments, some speakers and entertaining lighting.

Today, however in a vast number of Protestant congregations, from Methodist and Presbyterian, to ECUSA and Lutheran flavors, the style has changed. It may still be a hymn sandwich most Sundays (outside of ELCA and Lutherans) but the pastor is probably wearing only underpants and a necktie. That’s very new.

In ECUSAn and Lutheran worlds (which are in full communion, now) the style is a basic communion service that anyone who has gone to an RC Mass since the 1960s would recognize. This is a huge change. Read any of the liturgy books for Anglicans or Lutherans from before 1967 and you’ll see: they were hymn sandwiches. Highly decorated ones, yes, and very much more structured as liturgies than their fellow Protestants, yes, but hymn sandwiches. And communion was once a month in these times – or maybe always at the 8:30 Sunday service, but not at 11:00.

Communion suddenly became the center point of Protestant worship, just as it was for Catholics. From the outside looking in, 50 years after the fact, this totally escapes us.

Vatican II fixed that.

Did you know that the vast majority of Protestants use a three year Sunday lectionary that runs on the same cycle as ours, that it has most of the same readings (but not all) and that it replaced the absolute chaos that had preceded it? Some communities had lectionaries, but none were the same from denomination to denomination, but now, on any given Sunday, in most ECUSA, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and even some flavors of Baptist, you’re likely to hear much the same readings you hear in the Catholic Church.

In many cases, even the ones who had big blowouts for Reformation Sunday on the the last Sunday of October are celebrating Christ the King with us on the Sunday before Advent. A feast invented by the Pope in the early 20th century to combat Marxism and Fascism, is a common celebration in Catholic and Protestant worlds.

Vatican II fixed that.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that (as I told my friend) Vatican II has subtly evangelized the Protestant world. The question is not “Why do Catholic Masses look so Protestant?” but rather “How has it come to pass that 50 years after Vatican II most Christians in the world use the Vatican II liturgy, locally adapted?

Certainly the local folks in their underpants and neck ties don’t think they’re doing the Novus Ordo Missae, but they are. (And as of a few years ago, the Liturgy of the Hours – a.k.a. the Little Office of Paul VI – is essentially the standard format for all liturgical Daily Offices in the Protestant world, previously it was the BCP.)

Certainly if, for all eternity, Eagles Wings and Pass It On were lost in some great mental purification I would not weep (even if it involved the burnination of guitars). And if I never again hear a priest improvise an opening to the liturgy, I won’t care. If all hands raised or held during the Our Father were, tomorrow, chopped off by some divinely appointed Torquemada, I would, to be honest, ROFLMAO.

Burninating your guitars

Certainly there is a lot of theological work that still needs to be done, But the Holy Spirit has done a heck of a lot of work in 50 years. I think it’s ok to say he’s got this.