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The Vatican Rag, Deconstructed

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The book Mom’s holding, Christian Theology, is the one that put Enrico to sleep here.

Erin: Today, a very special karaoke: one with Mom’s theological annotations on the side!

She didn’t grow up in the Roman Catholic church…

Mom: Attending the evening ecumenical division of a Roman Catholic seminary does not an expert make!

Erin: …but she’s working on her master’s degree in theology, and is expert enough to say “ecumenical division of a roman Catholic seminary” and know what she’s talking about.

Mom: I also happen to think that Christian Theology is an interesting book.

Erin: She also wants you to know that she doesn’t need reading glasses yet. (I’ve been trying to convince her that glasses are sexy. No luck.)

Tom Lehrer: Another big news story of the year concerned the ecumenical council in Rome, known as Vatican II. Among the things they did, in an attempt to make the church more… commercial, was to introduce the vernacular into portions of the Mass to replace Latin, and to widen somewhat the range of music permissible in the liturgy. But I feel that if they really want to sell the product in this secular age, what they ought to do is to redo some of the liturgical music in popular song forms. I have a modest example here; it’s called The Vatican Rag!

Mom: Vatican II (1962-65) was a major overhaul, designed to bring the Roman Catholic church into the 20th century.

(Ragtime music’s peak popularity was at the turn of the century, though it’s been revived a few times since, most significantly in the 1950s.)

[Tom Lehrer]
First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Mom: Ritual and repetition are very important in the Church — kneeling, bowing, and genuflecting at the altar. (Genuflecting is like a cross between a kneel and a bow, though it most often just looks like a bow to me.) Rosaries are chains of beads used to keep track of a set of prayers; one moves the beads as various prayers are said.

[Tom Lehrer]
Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie Eleison,
Doin’ the Vatican Rag!

Mom: The Pontiff is the Pope — in charge of everything. (From the French pont, “bridge” — he’s a bridge from God to the people.)

“Kyrie Eleison” is Greek for “Lord, have mercy” — sung by the congregation in response to various chanted prayers and readings. Imported from the Greek-speaking East (major city: Constantinople) to the Latin-speaking West (major city: Rome) before the Great Schism of 1054 split them.

[Tom Lehrer]
Get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original

Mom: Processional brings all the church bigwigs into the surface. Confessional allows church members to admit their sins on a regular basis. The concept of original sin comes from church father Augustine, around the 300s or 400s. The idea is that Adam and Eve blew it, so now we’re all born tainted by the “original” sin.

[Tom Lehrer]
If it is, try playin’ it safer
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight
Time to transubstantiate!

Mom: The wine and wafer are for Communion, during which they become Christ’s actual body and blood (transubstantiation).

[Tom Lehrer]
So get down upon your knees
Fiddle with your rosaries
Bow your head with great respect
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Make a cross on your abdomen
When in Rome do like a Roman
Ave Maria
Gee, it’s good to see ya
Gettin’ ecstatic an’ sorta dramatic an’
Doin’ the Vatican Rag!

Mom: Crossing oneself is a reverent gesture, though it’s not done as low as the abdomen. Ave Maria (Latin) is a prayer. the Hail Mary. It’s also a song.

Erin: And now you can appreciate how clever Tom Lehrer is.

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