The church lost an icon this week when Ray Repp died on April 26, the Third Sunday of Easter, after a long battle with cancer.
Repp was the creator of the first folk Mass music with his Mass for Young Americans. His folk music Psalm settings, first composed for his scripture classes in seminary, filled a void in the immediate time after the Second Vatican Council when people needed music to sing that connected with their hearts and the time in which they were living. His music was the music of his time: accessible, written for guitar and voices, and available when the church needed it. His lyrics spoke to themes of community, brotherhood, peace, justice, and unity, and they resonated with those excited about the winds of change they felt sweeping through the church.
Repp’s Mass for Young Americans was published by FEL (Friends of the English Liturgy) in 1966, as FEL became the first publisher of then-contemporary religious folk music in English for the reformed liturgy. His songs had already spread across the nation by that time. Many dioceses reacted by banning guitars in liturgy, which only fueled the enthusiasm for Ray’s music among young people. As the popularity of this music spread, parishes photocopied the music for congregations to use, eventually leading to a copyright lawsuit filed by FEL against the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1976. The Archdiocese responded by prohibiting the use of FEL’s music in its parishes, and some other dioceses followed suit.
Repp will be remembered as a composer whose music met people, especially young people, where they were. He helped them rediscover their singing voices and join in the song of the church, and it connected with their passion for social justice. Whether fans of folk music Masses or not, Catholics today can thank Ray Repp for helping a generation to find its voice and engage with the liturgy in new ways.