The first thing I look at when considering a hymn is the words. Believe it or not, there really are some objective criteria to consider when evaluating the words of a hymn. First of all we need to consider whether the words of the hymn express the Catholic faith. There are several problems here: first, many of the hymns we use are written by Protestants and therefore express (even if only subtly) a Protestant perspective or emphasis or a Protestant theology.
Hymns written by non-Catholics, however, are not necessarily in contradiction to Catholic theology. Most of the hymns by the Wesleys and most of the old Anglo Catholic hymns express perfectly fine theology. Furthermore, some of the worst of the modern Catholic hymns are written by Catholics. The worst ones are the hymns that do not mention God or praise God at all, but are all about the people of God, justice and peace issues or the loving fellowship we have together. These are not hymns. They’re usually a mixture of pep rally and protest marching song. If I had to say which is worse in terms of heterodox doctrine–Protestant hymns in Catholic Churches or awful modern Catholic hymns, the modern Catholic hymns win hands down.
Another category of hymn problems to watch out for is political correctness. Many of the modern Catholic hymns consciously avoid referring to God as Father and do not refer to Jesus Christ as the Son. This is an attempt to avoid sexist language. Furthermore, the revisionists have got their hands on many of the older hymns. Many of the revisions make sense. They are trying to get rid of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ or weeding out archaic images or turns of phrase that have changed meaning over time. These revisions are legitimate for the most part, but be aware that the feminists are also making every attempt to revise older hymns to get rid of all references to God the Father as well. This won’t do.
The last point about orthodoxy in hymns is to ask not only what hymns are being selected, but what hymns (and what content) are being omitted. They often say about news reports that what is not reported is usually more important than what is reported. Ask yourself what aspects of Catholic theology are never, ever referenced in the hymns in your church. Do you ever sing Marian hymns? Do you ever sing the Latin Eucharistic hymns–even in translation? Do you ever sing hymns about and worshipping with, the saints? Do you sing hymns of praise to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Are there ever any references to angels, spiritual warfare, heaven or hell? In many modern Catholic parishes the more supernatural aspects of the faith are simply never mentioned in hymns.
The reason a fully orthodox theology in hymns is so important is because so many Catholics receive little or no catechesis. The only place they are likely to confront Catholic theology is in the hymns they sing at Mass. If the hymns do not express Catholic eucharistic theology, if they emphasize the purely social justice ecclesiology, if they downplay orthodox doctrine and water down the faith by ignoring the supernatural elements, then we shouldn’t be surprised when Catholics turn out to be so wishy washy and ignorant of their faith.
A second category of non-hymns are the ‘comfort hymns’. Again, these are hymns that do not reference God at all except as a kind of comfort blanket. Usually very sentimental and subjective, they often have syrupy tunes and are all about how “I walked on the beach one day and felt alone, and when I only saw one set of footprints I knew that was when he carried me.” You can spot these hymns because they are all about me and us and how sweet it is to be loved by Jesus. They are Coca Cola hymns–sweet and fizzy but likely to rot your teeth/soul. There is nothing wrong, of course, with devotional hymns that turn our attention to God in time of need and praise him for his loving mercy. Psalm 23 and all its different versions do just that. However, if the focus is not on God, but on me, and this is the only sort of hymn that is ever chosen it becomes ridiculous.
When considering the words and content of hymns we should also ask ourselves to whom the words are being addressed. A very strange tradition has developed in modern hymns in which words of Scripture are put to music. Someone must assume that because it is Scripture it must therefore make a good hymn. Why should that be? The words of Scripture might make a good hymn if the words are words of praise to God, but just because it is Scripture doesn’t make it a hymn. To make it worse, very often these words of Scripture are God’s words spoken to us. We then sing them back to God as worship? I don’t get it.
Let me give you a few examples: The popular song, “I am the Bread of Life, he who comes to me shall not hunger…” These are worthy thoughts and far be it from me to speak ill of these beautiful words by Jesus himself, however they are not a hymn. He spoke those words to us. Does it make sense for us to sing them back to him in worship? No. You see what has happened? Because the worship has become all people centered we actually now sing God’s words of comfort and instruction to ourselves. Instead of the worship being our words to God the direction of worship is reversed and we’re singing God’s words to us. Bizarre, but not surprising. If the worship is all about us its no surprise that the hymns express this.
Here’s another example: the popular Here I am Lord. The verse goes: “I the Lord of Sea and Sky. I have heard my people’s cry. I have wept for love of them. Whom shall I send?” Then the refrain is, “Here I am Lord. It is I Lord. I have heard you calling in the night.” OK. The verse is God speaking to us. Shall we sing that back to him as worship? It makes no sense. If this pleasant song is to be used in liturgy at all it should be sung at communion (because it is personal and devotional) and a soloist in the choir should sing the verse (as it were God singing to us) and then we reply with the refrain. This makes logical sense and can redeem what is otherwise a pleasant, but illogical piece of congregational music.
Finally, when regarding the words in a hymn we have to consider the quality of the poetry. There really is such a thing as good poetry and bad poetry. It is not good poetry if you like the sentiment it expresses or just because ‘everyone likes it’. While not going the whole way to being a liturgical or literary snob, it is necessary to reject some hymns simply because they’re written so very badly. I don’t have a hymnbook with me here at camp, but it wouldn’t take me long to open almost any modern Catholic hymnbook and find instant examples of execrable rhymes, maudlin sentiments, trite concepts, cliches, vulgarities and downright hilariously awful poetry. Honestly, some of the stuff makes the old Evangelical hymn “I walk through the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice I hear, whispering soft and clear, the Son of God discloses…’ sound positively like Shakespeare.
To summarize then, a good hymn will address our praise and worship to God. It will consistent with Catholic doctrine, and if possible actually teach Catholic doctrine in an acceptable and beautiful way. It will do so with good, solid, serviceable poetry at least, and at best the poetry will actually be part of the beauty and permanence of the classic hymn.
Tomorrow I will try to address the music of a good hymn, and then discuss whether we ought to have hymns at Mass at all.