The good ol’ days: a memory

A PrayTell reader shares a memory of liturgy in the good ol’ days – back when priests preached the Catholic faith, bishops were in agreement on moral questions, and following of the rubrics made for reverent liturgies.        – Ed.

When I was a kid back in the 40s and 50s, the curate at my home parish on the East Coast was a priest named Fr. X. Now Fr. X was what you might call a Catholic McCarthyite. After the bishop got tired of moving him around, Fr. X finally accepted early retirement and became the National Treasurer of the John Birch Society. Even in the late 40s and early 50s, Fr. X saw a clear and causal connection between teenagers necking at the drive-in on Saturday night and the Advancing Godless Yellow Horde of Chinese Communism. Exposés of this evil conspiracy were deftly woven into all his sermons. No Gospel or Epistle reading was so extraneous that Fr. X couldn’t extract from it some fuel for his fury. He could reach an emotional pitch in the pulpit that those Pentecostal televangelists can only hope to mimic.

For some reason Fr. X always gave the sermon at the 9:00 AM Children’s Mass, even though he rarely celebrated it and his tirades certainly did not serve the edification of the children. One Sunday his topic was a movie that Cardinal Spellman had just condemned, saying that it would be a mortal sin for anyone in the Archdiocese of New York to see it. The trouble was that we weren’t in the Archdiocese of New York, and our bishop had declined to endorse the Cardinal’s review of the film. Adding to Fr. X’s consternation in the pulpit that morning, he couldn’t remember the name of the movie. But with scarlet face and purple veins bulging in his throat, he shook his fist at us and hollered sternly, “But you all know which one it is!!”

The celebrant then resumed Mass. This was the old Latin rite, so the celebrant’s back was turned to the pulpit. A couple of minutes into the Offertory, Fr. X strode back out to pulpit, shook his fist once again, and hollered out the name of the movie – BABY DOLL!!” The celebrant jumped and dropped the paten. It rolled down the altar steps, struck the Communion rail, and spun like a saucer until it dropped. I must tell you, that was one very quiet church as Fr. X retreated back to the sacristy while the altar boy retrieved the runaway paten. And Mass continued.


  1. It was an entertaining story, but how does it pertain to liturgy? I suppose it dispels some nostalgic notions held by a tiny minority of traditionalists about the Church in the 40’s and 50’s, but that’s about it. If it is supposed to be a comment about the Tridentine Mass, then I would suggest that people stop associating the EF so strongly with the culture of the 40’s-early 60’s (indeed, I grow tired of people saying they don’t want the Latin Mass because some nun was mean to them when they were a third grader in 1960). The EF is no more tied to the 50’s as the OF is to the 1970’s.

      1. Considering the general thrust of most of this blog’s posts and comments, it was difficult to view it as a bit of innocent humor without at least *wondering* if it was meant to imply something else. When my dad tells cute stories about the Catholicism of his childhood (40’s and 50’s) – I take them as cute stories about his childhood without any other intent. That’s because he doesn’t go on the rest of the time about useless/horrible/dangerous the old Mass is and how divisive people who like it are and how they are practically idolaters. He likes and prefers the OF, but isn’t all bitter about anything that even hints of the Church of his childhood. PrayTell isn’t neutral like that.

        Seeing this story on PrayTell is sort of like going to the Fisheaters Forum and seeing an innocent “just for fun” story about contemporary Catholicism – people are going to read something deeper (and very negative) into it regardless of the poster’s intent.

  2. I suspect all of us would have horror stories to tell of priests going crazy over a particular topic as they preached from the pulpit extemporaneously. I know I have some from the parish in which I grew up with newly ordained Irish priests assigned as parochial vicars but the guilty shall remain nameless, God rest their souls! In the late 1960’s the line I remember the most was all Catholics who belonged to the Augusta Country Club would go to hell since this club was exclusionary and did not allow for black members at the time. Never mind that no one in our humble little parish belonged to the Augusta Country Club or even played golf for that matter. The Mass then continued as usual, except the priest who had preached the homily was still a bit on an adrenalin high and after Holy Communion an altar server accidentally knocked the priest’s arm which held the wicker basket of consecrated hosts, knocking the hosts skyward and landing in a hundred places on the bright red carpet. He was not pleased!

  3. What I find interesting is that if this were said to have taken place in a parish in 1976, it wouldn’t seem at all outrageous or shocking, and therein is the “rub” I think. Tales of even modest abuse seem to have more impact when they are set in the “Pre-Vatican II” era because, for some reason or another we have a strong mental image about what things should have been like then and that image is quite different from the Post-Vatican II reality. Consider how movies depict Catholicism in contemporary settings… dark and heavily decorated Gothic style interiors… always a gregorian schola practicing chant in the background…nuns in full habit… communicants kneeling at a rail receiving communion on the tongue…

    That’s why it is possible to criticise the “Old Mass” as it was practised by pointing to liturgical abuse as a reason for change being required, and yet pointing to much more serious abuse in the OF as it is practised isn’t seen as reason for needing change because it is somewhat expected.

  4. Yes, it was funny then and would be funny now. On the issue of nostalgia, my orientation has shifted since I began five years ago to attend the TLM regularly on Sundays, but continuing to attend the Novus Ordo on weekdays. Perhaps because most of those at the OF are as old as me (median age over 60) while most of those at the EF are younger than me (median age under 35) I’ve begun to think reflexively of the OF in past tense and the EF in future tense.

    Of course, I don’t mean this in any serious liturgical way. Because the OF seasoned with some of the EF ars celebranda and sacrality to reconnect with tradition is certainly the Mass of the future for the preponderant majority of Catholics.

    1. The median age at daily Mass is generally much higher than on Sundays. This may be a chicken-and-the-egg question, but such Masses are often scheduled when working people can’t attend.

      Perhaps if you went to the OF on Sundays you’d see the young people, families with children, etc. Certain parishes are bursting. Others do draw from an older demographic.

      Another factor is that we scoop off a large portion of our active Catholic youth from their parishes when they go to Catholic colleges. Many campus ministry liturgies are packed, and the home parish doesn’t see them. Then there’s the LifeTeen phenomenon, et al. Don’t get me started on that.

      Segregating youth does make the rest of the church look grayer. I think this does not happen in the TLM, because there is usually only one Mass. Maybe the peer experience is needed for youth, maybe not, but it’s certainly a factor in perception of “average age” for the rest of the congregation.

      1. Rita is right. The last EF weekday Mass I was able to attend (had the day off) was mostly made up of elderly people, which is what I usually experience at weekday Masses regardless of form. Young people usually don’t attend because of work/school/kids/etc.

  5. Thanks, Fr. Anthony – enjoyed this. Sorry, can’t say that I ever heard many of these types of “sermons”; not homilies after 1972 and I was exposed to daily preaching. Yes, every once in a while we were subjected to a “sermon” – usually from a much older priest who had never accepted VII.

    Allan – given your posted bulletins and writings and the fact that most pastors speak and write basically the same theme weekly – I would take this example at heart. My guess is that your “homilies” – “sermons” may be closer to this example than you realize.

    1. I would consult Fr. Allan’s parishoners before making such a claim. My guess is that he is quite well-liked. Seems like a very nice parish with excellent leadership to me.

  6. Bill: “the fact that most pastors speak and write basically the same theme weekly”

    Comments like this make me sometimes wonder whether I’m living in some kind of Catholic ghetto. Though the mountains of East Tennessee provide the farthest from that you can get–our diocese actually has the lowest per capita Catholic population of any in the country.

    But in a number of different parishes here and elsewhere, I don’t recall a priest who repeated generic sermons. My present pastor always, even at every daily Mass, gives a meticulously prepared 10-15 minute homily on the day’s readings, always with something new (even for one who’d otherwise think he’s heard it all in all these years). At another extreme, our assoc. pastor preaches sharply defined 3-minute sermons on his daily theme du jour–right now it’s successive sections of the Compendium of the CCC. (Guess which one virtually always uses EP II, the other one EP I.)

    Whereas the celebrant of our weekly TLM offers Mass in English, Spanish, and Latin each weekend, and prepares three different detailed homilies for them, always on the readings, usually mentioning some CCC references to them. (Of course, the EF and OF readings most often are different, thus requiring different preparations.)

    But while these are three exceptional cases, they’re not true outliers here, perhaps ours is still “mission territory” in many ways.

    1. I live in a long-established heavily Catholic area. I’m a five minute drive from five churches, and ten minutes away from five more – and that’s after they closed a few in recent years – and have an experience similar to yours in that most priests vary their homilies.

      Granted, I’ve heard my share of “fire and brimstone” homilies, along with a huge dose of “fluffy/cute” homilies about what a mischievous scamp the priest was when he was six, how fall leaves are pretty, or about the last vacation he went on. But a lot of priests have balanced, decent homilies that relate to the readings or Catechism.

      BTW, the sermon was very good at the Mass I attended while in East Tennessee – I’d never experienced a place with so few Catholics, but if you threw a rock you’d be sure to hit a Baptist church.

  7. Brad: “I would consult Fr. Allan’s parishoners before making such a claim. My guess is that he is quite well-liked.”

    I’m not sure what Bill DeHaas was trying to say, and am not a member of Fr. McDonald’s parish, but I spent several decades in Georgia, not all that far from his successive parishes in Augusta and Macon. Based on some familiarity with both him and the territory down there, I’d say he’s somewhat beyond merely “well-liked” in his parish. More like beloved, regarded by many as the model of what every pastor ought to be (but too few are).

  8. Thanks for this post…BABY DOLL just got moved to the top of my Netflix queue.

    Too funny – a great pick-me-up for a Friday!

    1. Hey, Baby Doll is noted for, among other things, being the only Oscar nomination for Mildred Dunnock, who while tending to be a character actress in film, was the original Big Mama in the stage production of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. One of those actors who was more important in life than the screen presence might otherwise indicate.

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