The Guitar Blessing at Mass: There Was More That You Missed

Tracing the Sign of the Cross with the acoustic instrument, the suburban Chicago pastor ended the Feb. 13 Mass, which included other irregularites.

Father Terrence Keehan, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness, Illinois, uses a guitar to give the final blessing at a Mass livestreamed on Feb. 13.
Father Terrence Keehan, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness, Illinois, uses a guitar to give the final blessing at a Mass livestreamed on Feb. 13. (photo: Screenshot of YouTube video / Screenshot of YouTube video via CNA)

Standing in front of the altar and framed by a shimmering backdrop, Father Terrence Keehan did an unusual thing at the end of Sunday Mass on Feb. 13.

The 65-year-old pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in the Chicago suburb of Inverness, Illinois, reached for a guitar and held it aloft by the neck.

"Loving God, rock with us as we roll with you. Affirm us, so that we may affirm others. Sing your song in us, that we may sing it with others,” the masked priest prayed.

“May Almighty God bless us today, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” he said, tracing the Sign of the Cross with the acoustic instrument, as a priest might do with a crucifix or a monstrance. 

“Our Mass never ends; we go in peace to love and serve the Lord and each other,” Father Keehan said.

“Thanks be to God,” came the reply from several dozen people at the 9am liturgy.

The response from the faithful on social media, however, had a much different tone.

A tweeted video clip of Father Keehan and the guitar quickly went viral. Outraged commenters blasted the blessing as deeply offensive. One called it “a disgrace approaching an abomination.” A priest, Father Stephen Vrazel, tweeted: “I hate this. Profoundly. I don’t know if the striking similarity to Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance was intended, but I don’t care. It’s a mockery of Catholicism, a ridiculous parody. End it now.”

A more lighthearted reply came in the form of a page of sheet music to a satirical hymn titled, Send Us Thine Asteroid, O Lord. (Among the lyrics: “Just like you did with dinosaurs/Destroy mankind with meteors.”)

“This,” tweeted Catholic actress Patricia Heaton, “is why Catholics can’t have nice things.”

A Jarring Chord

Guitars, which figured more prominently in the Holy Family Mass than those who only saw the short video clip may have guessed, are no strangers to Catholic liturgies, of course.

Perhaps the most inventive use of the instrument came in 1818, when Franz Xaver Gruber strummed Stille Nacht (Silent Night) for the first time on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t until the folk Masses of the 1960s and ’70s, however, that guitars gained a foothold in Catholic liturgies.

But the timing of Father Keehan’s guitar blessing struck a jarring chord with many Catholics who believe that Church leaders are turning a blind eye to liturgical abuses in the post-Vatican II Novus Ordo Mass, while simultaneously sharply restricting the use of the traditional Latin Mass, as has happened in the Archdiocese of Chicago and other dioceses across the U.S. in the wake of Pope Francis’ strongly worded motu proprio Traditionis Custodes.

The Pope himself has called for consistent enforcement of the Church’s carefully considered liturgical norms. "I ask you to be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses,” he wrote in a letter to bishops accompanying the July 16 motu proprio.

Only a few months ago, an improvisational Christmas Eve Mass at a Catholic church on Chicago’s South Side that featured elaborate dance routines, jazz musicians and theatrical light effects sparked a similar furor on social media. Much of the vitriol was aimed at Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, who had just announced new restrictions on Masses using the old Roman Rite.

Then, as in the case of the Holy Family Mass, the archdiocese did not respond to CNA’s request for comment. Reached by CNA, Father Keehan declined comment, citing a medical issue.

Father Terrence M. Keehan, pastor of Holy Family Church in Inverness, Illinois, blesses the congregation with a guitar at the end of Sunday Mass on Feb. 13, 2022. Screenshot of YouTube video

Father Terrence Keehan, pastor of Holy Family Church in Inverness, Illinois, blesses the congregation with a guitar at the end of Sunday Mass on Feb. 13. | Screenshot of YouTube video via CNA

Other Irregularities

It turns out, however, that the guitar blessing wasn’t the only irregularity at the Feb. 13 liturgy, which featured a band playing contemporary Christian music. A video of the full, livestreamed Mass viewed by CNA revealed other questionable elements within the liturgy at Holy Family. Among the irregularities:

“Hail holy family, full of grace, the Lord is with you”: Father Keehan greeted parishioners this way at the start of the Mass, playing off the words of the Hail Mary.

Music video: The nearly 20-minute-long homily featured a concert video of rocker Bruce Springsteen jamming on stage with a young fan. The homilist used the clip to explore the theme of sharing one’s gifts, especially the gift of faith.

A layperson gave the homily: After a brief introduction, Father Keehan handed the homily over to a lay Catholic speaker, Terry Nelson-Johnson, a theologian and founder of a ministry called Soul Play, who was leading a mission at the parish. But laypeople aren’t permitted to give homilies. The Code of Canon Law states that the homily “is reserved to a priest or deacon” (CIC, 767.) The General Instruction of the Roman Missal also expressly forbids this practice. “The homily should ordinarily be given by the priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating priest or, occasionally, according to circumstances, to the deacon, but never to a layperson” (GIRM, 66).

Glass chalice: The video showed that Father Keehan used a glass chalice, which is not permitted under the rubrics  of the Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that the sacred vessels containing the Body and Blood of the Lord “are to be made from precious metal. If they are made from metal that rusts or from a metal less precious than gold, then ordinarily they should be gilded on the inside” (GIRM, 328). Redemptionis Sacramentum sets forth the following instructions: “Sacred vessels for containing the Body and Blood of the Lord must be made in strict conformity with the norms of tradition and of the liturgical books. … Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or that are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily.”

Nelson-Johnson, the speaker at the Feb. 13 Mass, did not respond to a voice message seeking comment. In an earlier talk he gave at Holy Family, he spoke from the altar wearing a bathing suit and swim goggles and had a beach towel and a floatation device around his neck, according to a video CNA viewed. At another point during Nelson-Johnson's mission, Father Keehan encouraged people in attendance to place items of personal significance on the main altar and two adjoining “altars.” One of the items placed on one of the side tables was a bottle of beer, a video showed.

Nelson-Johnson said in the video that he had been criticized in the past for asking people to place personal items on the altar, but he defended that practice, which appears to contradict Church law, as outlined in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The document states: “For only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the altar table: namely, from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the Presentation of the Gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium, if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the Missal" (GIRM, 306.) 

Shortly after CNA left the voice message for Nelson-Johnson on Feb. 22, the video of the full Mass on Feb. 13 — and other videos of Masses and Nelson-Johnson’s talks at Holy Family — disappeared from the parish’s website and YouTube channel.