Edited from Knocking On Heaven's Door -
American Religion In The Age Of Counterculture
by Mark Oppenheimer
From Chapter Two
"Roman Catholics and The Folk Mass"
"There is a singing group in this Catholic
church today," writes Annie Dillard,
"a singing group which calls itself
'Wildflowers.' The lead is a tall, square-
jawed teen-aged boy, buoyant, and glad to
be here. He carries a guitar; he plucks out
a little bluesy riff and hits some chords.
With him are the rest of the Wildflowers.
There is an old woman, wonderfully determined;
she has long orange hair and is dressed country-
and-western style. A long embroidered strap
around her neck slings a big western guitar
low over her pelvis. Beside her stands a frail,
withdrawn fourteen-year-old boy, and a large
Chinese man in his twenties who seems to want
to enjoy himself but is not quite sure how to.
He looks around wildly as he sings, and shuffles
his feet. There is also a very tall teen-aged
girl, presumably the lead singer's girlfriend;
she is delicate of feature, half-serene and
petrified, a wispy soprano. They straggle out
in front of the altar and teach us a brand
It all seems a pity at first, for I have overcome
a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order
to attend Mass simply and solely to escape
Protestant guitars. Why am I here?
Who gave these nice Catholics guitars?
Why are they not mumbling in Latin and
performing superstitious rituals?
What is the Pope thinking of?"
Guitars - to answer Annie Dillard's
question - were not exactly what the
pope was thinking of, but rather what some
liberal American Catholics hoped the pope
was thinking of. Or what traditional Catholics
feared he was thinking of. American
Catholics once thought their religion was
timeless, perfectly designed to withstand
the corrosive pressures of the world outside
its cathedrals. But in the United States,
religion must constantly sell itself, and
so it must change to suit the new moods.
Adopting to the culture is a chore incumbent
on all American religions - except, it was
once thought, if the religion was Catholicism.
In his dyspeptic book about bad church
music, Thomas Day tells the story of a friend
at a mass in the early 1970's:
"The time came around for the Handshake
of Peace....My friend turned to the elderly
lady at this point and, holding out his hand
in friendship, said, 'May the peace of the
Lord be with you.' The old lady scowled.
She looked at the proffered hand as if
it were diseased. 'I don't believe in
that shit,' she replied and, without
missing a breath, went back to the
quiet mumbling of her rosary."
The Catholic Church looks different today.
It reacted to the counterculture by
providing a place for the aesthetics of
the late 1960's, but without liberalizing
in any other sense. Any political changes
resulted from the perestroika ushered in
by the new, more liberal feel of the church -
and that feel was created by the new Mass.
The countercultural legacy in the Catholic
Church is primarily aesthetic, and the
leadership did not contest these aesthetic
changes. Though Catholics had had the
most standardized liturgy of any American
religion, a Mass fashioned by Rome, they
became famous for guitar masses. But it was
the Catholic Church whose official stands
on other matters changed the least:
abortion would not be approved, or
birth control. Women never became priests.
Because Vatican II had given the folkies
permission, aesthetic changes were almost
entirely decoupled from politics. In the
Catholic Church, the hierarchy retained
its tight, conservative control on what
Catholics were supposed to believe, while
the iconography of liberalism - the
sandals, guitars, and hugging -
seized the day easily.