What Were You Doing in 1964?

As a liturgical historian, I’ve spent most of my time in the first two quarters of the twentieth century-United States. And yet, of late, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about what happened in the years immediately following the Council.  I must read about it, because I am one of the ever-growing pool of Catholics who has no memories, and no experiences, of the 1960s, or even the 1970s!

As a historian, however, I’m somewhat frustrated when I try to learn about this era, with respect to liturgical practice.  While Worship (formerly Orate Fratres) studiously reported on the everyday goings-on of liturgical hopefuls in its three decades before the Council, by the 1960s it turns to analysis of much bigger-picture ideas, and technical liturgical-historical studies.  No more delightful “Liturgical Briefs” from around the United States (and the world!).  Likewise, Georgetown’s excellent Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), even with its some 2,000 studies on Roman Catholic life, vocations, and parishes, has no data regarding the reception of the liturgy and liturgical practices in the decade following the Council.

And, feel free to tell me I’m exaggerating, but when perusing the work of liturgists and professional ministers contemporary to the some 15 years following the Council, I feel I inevitably find one of two threads:  1) The post-Conciliar period was innovative, freeing, and expansive, throwing the doors open to the bright new world, and drawing the People of God to the center of the Mass in a way in which they had never been so alive.  OR 2) The post-Conciliar period was a vast storm of untested, unbridled, and uninformed decisions which systematically dismantled the Church’s liturgical ritual, shattered vocations, and left a vapid shell of aesthetics in its wake.


Surely there is some middle ground between these two extremes?  And, while some parishes were probably “innovative, freeing, and expansive” in their worship style, what, exactly, did it look like?  And how many parishes were really making any changes?  On the other extreme, who was trying to “systematically” dismantle the Church’s worship?  Historical investigation into the practice of liturgical worship in the period between 1964-1979 seems to be an exercise in discovering the aesthetic preferences held by the most vocal minorities.

Before you ask, I’ve done my own informal querying of members of the faithful who have memories of this period.  I have anecdotes about composing music on the fly; about a disembodied voice floating over a creaky 1960’s microphone set-up in a sacristy; about parishioners sledge-hammering apart an altar rail imported from Italy and chucking it in the parish basement (while other parishioners snuck in to take away “souvenirs” of the dismembered marble).

I’ve also done my own researching…ever hear of the Underground Mass Book , edited by Stephen W. McNierney and published in 1968?  It’s fascinating, with the inclusion of “new Canons,” a set of “readings” from (male) authors of classic texts like Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Merton’s Ode to the Present Century.  A lyrics section provides words to 27 songs (all but one by male composers, and 1/3 are by Ray Repp, of blessed memory).

In this volume, McNierney describes how the “underground [Mass movement] has proliferated,” but has felt if must maintain “at least a semblance of secrecy” (McNierney 11).  In editing the resource, McNierney hoped to both help “liturgies of  the underground” draw on each others’ experiences, and to include some resources which were “used most widely” but had heretofore “never appeared in print” (McNierney 18, 15).

But…were people really, actually doing such things?  Did Catholic folks gather together, explicitly identifying as “liturgies of the underground,” and pray “The Jesus Canon” instead of what was in the Missal-soon-to-be-Sacramentary?  Did everybody play folk music with three chords on two guitars?  Did the infamous “beer and pizza” Mass really happen in the vicinity of Notre Dame?  Is this all just an incredibly elaborate urban legend fabricated by so-called Latin Mass Catholics seeking a return to the 1962 Missal???

And so, I ask you:  What were you doing in 1964?  Were you part of the “underground Mass movement”?  Were you sitting upstairs in the nave, sad and disappointed about what liturgical aesthetics were unfolding as your altar rail was carted out the door?  Or did the Mass simply “change” overnight, gradually, or amorphously, into some bright, new, and hopeful vision of the People of God?


  1. This must be a very fresh post, because I would expect at least 100 comments to this topic :-).

    Alas, I was three years old in 1964, so my memories and impressions are spotty and not to be trusted. What sticks in my mind was the “People’s Mass Book” in the pews (I recall singing “O may we all one bread, one body be …” while in the bathtub, although I think I was alone so probably that was a few years later), and an actual, honest-to-goodness commentator up on the altar during mass, explaining what we were to do. Contra GIRM 105.b., I think he stood at what we eventually learned to call the ambo.

    I also remember the reaction of the parishioners. They did what they were told – we were an obedient lot – but in that time and place they weren’t necessarily pleased about it. They were not agents for change.

  2. I didn’t become a Catholic until 1970. The year before, to honor the pastor’s 25th anniversary, all the parish musicians–folk group, organist, choirs of adults and children–pooled their abilities and recorded an album. While the music at my new parish was segregated Mass by Mass, I never detected any particular animosity. My godparents assumed I would prefer the mid-morning folk Mass and the younger crowd. I preferred the pipe organ. “At That First Eucharist” was a frequent choice, and I attached to that hymn as my day of baptism approached.

    It was a surprise to me when I heard from college peers many years later that some parishes had guitar/organ feuds and all. Maybe 1964 was more traumatic for the Catholics of my parents’ generation, but I heard more fussing about the young associate who smoked and swore than I did about Ray Repp. My parents’ Catholics friends mostly communicated a hopefulness about change. That was certainly part of my college experience in the later 70s.

  3. I recommend this article for excellent research:


    It would seem that most of what you are describing happened, if only because so many photographs exist of loaves of bread being passed around, and giant cups, and so forth. I mean, those COULD be photoshopped, but that’s taking conspiracy theory pretty far.

    As for “underground Masses,” I happen to know that plenty of underground traditional Latin Masses were taking place throughout the 70s and 80s, and, indeed, into the early part of this century. And they will happen again if Rome ever tries to remove permission for using the older form of the Mass.

  4. I was baptized before the Council, and just shy of being brought to Mass (instead of being left home with a family member) in 1964; I started the following year. Being a child of the Interim Missal in my formative memories of liturgy, I have lots of them, starting right in 1965, with First Confession/Communion in 1968 all the way through being the last cohort with the older form of Confirmation (the form with the slap, albeit in vernacular) in 1972, and learning new wordings of prayers for the latter (to titters, chuckles and eyerolls of fellow students, which new wordings were promptly dropped after “passing” our “tests”). Going from using a spare St Joseph’s hand missal to the years of Changes.

  5. Remembering those years, I would lean toward thesis number one. At the same time, as a seminarian in the 1960s I acknowledge that some of us were much more prepared to embrace the reformed liturgy than others. Those might have a different appreciation of what was happening, and choose thesis two.

    By Advent 1964, I noticed that my classmates and I were hungry for vernacular and more vernacular. And at that point when the two (by then) mass readings went that way and we ourselves could declare the epistle, the movement toward more vernacular began. As for music, I remember several waves, one after another, each to some extent replacing the last. First we appropriated hymns with organ accompaniment from the Episcopalians, then came the psalm rhythms of Fr. Joseph Gelineau also with organ, then by late 1965 Fr. Clarence Rivers began his integrating workshops with piano or a cappella, until by about 1967 several guitar singers held the stage and brought in secular as well as sacred texts. There were occasional moments of thinness, of course, but looking back over that half decade I recall a sense of propriety but also of searching in what musicians were doing. There was so much catching up to do in such a short time. Thank the Lord for masters such as Fr. Gelineau, Alexander Peloquin and Theodore Marier! I seldom felt deprived during those first few years of a liturgical sensitivity, though clearly we shifted from singing the mass to singing at mass.

    1. Paul -I’ve always wondered why something along the lines of your wonderful Psallite Mass settings weren’t able to be developed once the texts were set in 1970? Or even begun earlier on a provisional basis with the English texts approved locally for use prior to 1970 and then developed further once the texts were set? Or why plain English chant was never really in the running (or at least borrowing from the sung liturgy of Episcopal or Lutheran Churches at the time)? I guess it was the broader zeitgeist – as evidenced by the 1970’s Lutheran Church of my teen years which also had at least some importation of folk music into our traditional musical liturgy (and a wonderful traditional liturgy it was and is).

      1. I suspect that music was still seen as an “extra” in those days. The four-hymn sandwich from the Low Mass was just imported. It took most of the 70s just to see Mass settings settle in, and another decade before the psalm was majority practice.

    2. Thanks for bringing these volumes into the conversation following this post! These are both very informative, and highlight especially well the work of FEL publications, and the composers who wrote for them.

  6. ” 1) The post-Conciliar period was innovative, freeing, and expansive, throwing the doors open to the bright new world, and drawing the People of God to the center of the Mass in a way in which they had never been so alive. OR 2) The post-Conciliar period was a vast storm of untested, unbridled, and uninformed decisions which systematically dismantled the Church’s liturgical ritual, shattered vocations, and left a vapid shell of aesthetics in its wake. “

    The idea that there must be some middle ground between these two positions seems misplaced to me. They are both true, and your position doesn’t have anything to do with what happened; the only thing that makes a difference is what you like. If the first position is true then the position is also going to be true because the Church’s liturgical ritual will have been dismantled. You can’t have both.

    In 1964 I was 13. I had been an altar boy (no girls allowed then) and knew all the Latin responses so you might think I would be frustrated having to learn the English, but I loved it. The music over the years has been sometimes good and sometimes not so good, but on balance I have found it much better – and far more religious – to be involved in the liturgy even when not acting as a server.

  7. I am old enough to remember life before Vat 2 and was at the seminary during the first changes.
    Musically my memory is of a change from 100% plainsong from the Liber Usualis massacred by all despite a weekly practice, to a speedy adoption of the hymn repertoire from our fellow christians sung to a much higher standard. And Mass settings from Trotman and Gregory Murray et al. Personally as I was the organist at the time I found myself composing settings of the new translated texts as they appeared. The very first thing I composed was the Compline antiphon “My soul longs for you in the night” to a modal tune in 9/8. We had other musicians there including John Glynn who wrote “I watched the sunrise” while there. It was all very English and polite apart from the occasional use of a large African drum.
    We used to have smaller group masses where a certain lattitude was allowed in the name of experimentation. I seem to remember once having one of the readings replaced by an extract from the Lord of the Rings – how 1960/70s is that! And rather than being offered the chalice we took it from the altar and communicated ourselves – hardly earth-shattering when its a bunch of seminarians.

  8. Paul – thank you for those two history references.

    Was in 8th grade in 1964 and then first year high school seminary – no changes, continued latin and altar was not turned around.
    Liturgy changed between freshman and sophomore high school – even our Oblate parish began to make changes. Remember the on-going education – carefully explained as each liturgical change happened. Do not remember pushback in the parish but then I was in boarding school and we sure did not push back in the minor seminary. Welcomed the changes which became notable with a new chapel my 3rd year incorporating the best of liturgical changes. What I do remember (even back home at vacations) was that we were asked to participate in the liturgy – and some began to lector, etc. Communion under both species followed (favorite memory is educating and implementing this in two parishes in Louisiana as a deacon). Music was broadened and included more than just traditional latin songs on the organ. Okay, I was a teen and welcomed these changes. All of this led to my novice year reading twice Jungmann’s study.

  9. I was 11, a daily Mass acolyte and over the next 7 years I entered and became an interchangable stand-in as Commentator, Cantor (though I could not read music, my Pastor put me at the microphone right next to the organ to “lead the singing”…..I was terrified!). The rock band Mass with the full band in the chancel, very loud and seeming very irreverent. I loved the free-standing altar, the fuller chasubles. I was commentator from a podium on the Epistle side of the chancel and introduced innovations (I also impressed my first Sadie Hawkin’s Day date, who was in church the next morning to see me serve, never again to return to the church of her youth). For me, going from rapidly speaking the Latin responses of the congregation, as I was often the only one in the church not praying the Rosary, beside the celebrant. Now we spoke things together, now the senior pastor stood at the back doors with his arms crossed making the habit of leaving Mass after receiving the Eucharist one fraught with at least his scowl. My recollections here are not well organized and seem random. In retrospect that is the dominant metaphor for my recollection of a very formative part of my spiritual life, one that quite accidentally lead me to a vocation of “catholicizing” a series of conservative Lutheran parishes where I served as Deacon and then as Pastor.

    A time of rapid and seeming random change, indeed.

  10. I was in 7th grade, liturgical changes had not yet really started that I can remember, but in 8th grade, I was one of the first to read the lections in English at our Catholic school Masses. My first lection — the geneology in Mt 1:1-17, for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (back then). In 8th grade with all those names to pronounce! My parents helped me quite a bit, and my Dad reminded me, “Lee, don’t worry if you make a mistake, no one will even notice!” I think I bungled 4 or 5, but keps my Dad’s advice in mind.

  11. My home parish was Ealing Abbey in West London, and I attended their school. I served Mass on a Friday morning until I was 25, in 1963, when I got a job teaching at University in Leeds. And I have always fulfilled the obligations to Mass, fasting etc. but at that stage I was not deeply spiritually engaged. I was hopeful, but somewhat apprehensive about VII, because I found the Church quite unneccesssarily ossified.
    I remember finding the vernacular very liberating, it engaged me spiritually. I found the progresssive vernacularisation stimulating, because it forced me to pay attention. I remember clearly that the translation occured bit by bit, for example the Lord’s Prayer was updated at some point in a seperate move. But I have no memory of the way in which music was changed, although I enjoy singing, and I recall joining in with gusto later. I do not recall ever (then or since) hearing anything at Mass tainted by the commercial pop world, but I recall the first guitar I heard in church was not at Mass but some sort of ecumencal event, and that I was deeply moved by Sidney Carter’s ‘Friday Morning’. But I can give no coherent account of developments between 1964 and 1974, just a few names – Inwood(!), Walker, the Thomas More Centre.

  12. I was four, and just starting to be liturgically aware. I do remember some highly crowded Low Masses on Sundays at my grandparents’ Milwaukee church, where Masses were on the hour in the main church and on the half-hour in the basement all morning, with a high Mass at 11, or something like that. Dad made sure we routed ourselves to the low Mass in the basement. I was highly interested in the music at High Mass. But anyway, back home in the Detroit Archdiocese, it was a new parish with a new temporary building, and the little brown St. Joseph Sunday Missal and Hymnal (1965 rite), which I treasured, weird kid that I was. Commentators telling us what the Archbishop told them to tell us about every detail, some new mysterious change every week, and lots of wordy explanations in the bulletin. I’m fascinated with that rite and wish there were videos of how it all was done. On the eve of the First Sunday of Advent in 1969, there was a liturgical earthquake and everything was completely new, with no more St. Joseph missals but freshly printed Monthly Missalettes, a new wireless microphone system, and Father walked up the aisle to the boom-de-boom of a new drum set and a folk song. I grew up disoriented, liturgically speaking. Now I’m an Anglo-Catholic. 🙂

    1. Yes, I thank Almighty God for Anglo-Catholicism every day. As I commented a few years back it saved me from the nightmare of Vatican II but gave me an appreciation for its many positive insights. Alas, that took many years.

  13. I seem to remember hearing an LP of Mass in English before any translations had happened. I think it was American. That would have been early 1960s.
    Apart from being in English there was the frisson of hearing the Canon spoken aloud ….. or was it chanted?
    And were there experimental translations to start with?

  14. I was a young person in the 60s and 70s and actively involved in our parish. We were fortunate to have a very forward-thinking pastor who keenly followed the dialog and documents [schemas] issuing from the sessions of Vatican II. He began early on to make incremental changes to the liturgy and took great pains to explain those changes to the congregation at each Mass. Even as a child altar server, I was recruited to be a lector [reading the epistle and certain parts of the Mass in English to the assembly after the priest had pronounced them in Latin] and to be what the pastor called a “commentator” [delivering a sometimes rather lengthy treatise to the assembly before the Mass began about the feast of the day and the readings]. As a result of this approach, even though all the talk sometimes put people to sleep(!), we never experienced the upheaval that other parishes endured when the liturgical changes became mandatory; we had already been doing them long before, executed with utmost dignity and decorum.
    Yes, I experienced the silliness of “clown masses” and other liturgical experimentation nonsense in other venues. I remember one intimate mass celebrated around the table in a camper bus with soda crackers for hosts and grape juice in glasses. No vestments. No Missal. It was all very cozy. But by and large, these things were exceptional, not the norm. There was a certain headiness though as the fresh winds of change began to blow through the Church. No doubt some damage occurred as the fresh winds occasionally became cyclonic.
    I recall the exhilaration of being able to pray (sometimes spontaneous) prayers in English that did not come from a missal. That I could talk to God in my own language moved me very deeply. I recall the wonderment and delight of learning the hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past sung in a funeral liturgy rather than the somber Requiem æternam that I was used to.

  15. I would never want to return to those times of experimentation. Nor do I understand those younger folks now who want to return to pre-Vatican II times in Latin, etc. While the Tridentine Mass could be lovely and uplifting, I also experienced plenty of those Masses that were sloppy and rushed beyond belief with cut-corner rubrics.
    Goffredo Boselli in his lovely work The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy describes the liturgy as “a mystery of reciprocal presence: the Lord in the midst of his people and the people assembled before the Lord.” May this reverent attitude guide us as we stand upon the struggles of the past and look forward with Hope to the future.

  16. “That I could talk to God in my own language moved me very deeply.”

    I think we always speak our deepest prayers in our mother tongue; our “langue natale” as the French say. It’s where we’re closest and most comfortable to ourselves, and to God. It’s where we’re able to be most expressive. It’s where our hearts and minds are most spontaneously in tune.

    See: Dante.

  17. Re: the commentator role, which some folks have mentioned: I guess there are still vestiges of it in the deacon’s instructions “Let us offer each other the sign of peace” and “Bow down for the blessing”.

  18. I was born in 1962, so I don’t remember Latin, but I remember the masses as early as 1969, all in English. (Obviously I attended Latin mass, because my parents took me, but it could have been Slovenian for all I knew). So here are some snippets of my early experiences:
    1. Even though Mass was in English, the custom of giving a child a hand missal, and my parents bringing their missals, had not died. My dad had several. Later, I noticed that he had many places in his missal where he scratched things out on the English side, as the venacular was gradually introduced and apparently the written translations weren’t correct, like “And with your spirit.”
    2. We kids loved the folk masses and the tambourines, and the clapping, the FEL super-simple stuff. .
    3. “Home Masses” were a thing. We had one of the young associates come over and say mass at our house. There were other Catholics there besides my family, but I honestly can’t remember where they came from. There was only one other practicing Catholic family across the street…I expect they were there. Mass was on a small table set up in the living room. Nothing crazy…father brought the hosts and wine. No beer and pizza.
    4. The song book, and album, “Mass For Young Christians” — Ray Repp and FEL, I think…were in our house. My mom played the Hammond Organ in our living room, but never in public. But I guess she liked the music enough to buy the music book and album. (Had chords for guitar, too, but so my sister might have played a bit on her guitar before she turned into a horrid teenager).
    5. My parents (my dad) chose the Mass not for the folk music or contemporary music. Our family went to the 8am Mass without fail, the one with minimal music. Because that was the best way to keep everything/everyone on schedule and get on with the day.

  19. It’s terrifying, the speed with which I recognized Holy Trinity Cathedral in New Ulm, Minn. in the first photograph.

    1. I am sorry to be late to this party because I experienced liturgical change the way everyone should have. Our pastor insisted all through the Council that “nothing” ever changes in the Church. He insisted even after his assistants gave him a copy of Sacrasanctum Concillium, and he read it and said it was wonderful, and did the Council put out anything else like that? One Sunday he announced that “the Church never changes, and to get you ready for the changes, we will be joined by –” and he introduced the lay theologian he had hired to help him implement the Councill.

      Then one weekday morning, he said we were going to have the Mass in English soon. To get us ready for that, he read each section of the Mass in English from he Maryknoll missal before reciting it in Latin. He did that every weekday until the new translation was available and the First Sunday of Advent and the switch became official.

      And that is how our very conservative pastor, who never had a thought that wasn’t a thought “with the Church,” prepared his congregation. RIP Msgr. JP.

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