Church Music

One of the most regular grumbles I receive is about my choice of hymns for Mass. It’s a minefield because I am convinced that the vast majority of people like or dislike a hymn in a purely subjective manner. I guess usually they have memories of hymns they like because of their childhood or because a particular hymn pushes a particular emotional button for them.

What people don’t seem to realize is that there are actually some criteria for choosing good hymns. The fact that so many of the hymns in our Catholic hymnals are terrible musically, heterodox theologically, contain execrable poetry, maudlin sentiments and trashy pop psychology doesn’t help. People need to learn that just because a hymn is published doesn’t make it good. Furthermore, just because it’s popular doesn’t make it good.

So what are the criteria for decent hymns? I’m going to do several posts on this topic to cover the territory. I hope they help. First thing: we choose a hymn for what it contributes to the liturgy. A gospel song may be inspirational. It may be decent musically. It may be okay poetically. It may be very popular, but it may not be suitable for the liturgy. Everything in the liturgy is meant to complement and focus on the action of the Mass. The music needs to be appropriate for the particular part of the Mass in which it is used.

In other words, we don’t just choose hymns because we like to sing them. The processional hymn is a modern form of the introit. The words should lead us in praise to God as we enter into his presence. This is a first and basic principle for a hymn. It should be obvious that a hymn is a song of praise to God. It is directed from us to God. It’s simple. However, an awful lot of modern hymns are not songs of praise to God at all. They’re about us. Go through your contemporary Catholic hymnbook (Notice that it is called ‘Gather’ not ‘Worship’) and see how many of the hymns are not about God at all, but they are about us, our gathering together, our mission in the world, our life, our love, our fellowship. Read the words. It’s amazing how many hardly mention God at all. These are not hymns. They’re pep songs and when we use them we turn worship into a pep rally.

The processional should not only use words of praise to God, but the music should be suitable for a procession. It should be singable with a dependable rhythm and accessible tune. It should be positive, reverent and stately for we are entering into the court of the King. The organ should lead with a strong and firm tone as the procession enters. As it does our hearts are lifted and prepared for worship.

The offertory should be a quieter hymn of reverent offering of ourselves and our gifts to God. It too is a hymn of praise to God, and not a hymn of personal devotion or subjective emotion. This hymn voices a corporate action of worship and should not be about ‘me and Jesus’. A great offertory hymn is Now Thank We All Our God.

Communion music (in my opinion) should not be sung by the congregation, but by the choir. This is the opportunity for a eucharistic hymn or anthem. Here the more devotional, personal and intimate hymns are appropriate. How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds or I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. If contemporary chant and reverent, personal gospel songs are used, this is the place for them. However, it should be noted that an awful lot of contemporary communion hymns used in Catholic worship do not express Catholic theology. Go through your contemporary Catholic hymnbook and see how many Eucharistic hymns talk about our ‘eating the bread and drinking the wine.’ Uhhh. We’re Catholics. It’s not bread and wine. Remember? Heretical Eucharistic theology is expressed in these hymns which are often written by Protestants. Considering that the only theology most Catholics receive is through their hymns, not wonder belief in the Real Presence is fading.

I’m of the opinion that the final hymn (if there must be one at all) should be sung after communion while the ablutions are going on. Here is where some of the upbeat, strong and inspiring Eucharistic hymns like Alleluia Sing to Jesus can be used. It’s also a good place for solid hymns of thanksgiving, praise and worship like Love Divine All Loves Excelling or O God Beyond All Praising.

This leave the organist to play a postlude for the recessional which leaves people in the mood to get up and go. No more fiddling about with hymnsheets and hymnbooks. Just listen to the music, watch them leave and then go out to love and serve the Lord.

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  • Patricius

    An excellent post, Father. Hymns at mass are a personal bugbear of mine for many of the reasons you discuss. Perhaps there is a need for a "What does the hymn really say?" blog offering a detailed interpretation and commentary upon the hymns in use in English speaking parts of the Church!

  • torculus

    Amen Father!We desperately need a worthy hymnal. There's a new translation of the Mass coming – when, O when, will there be a hymnal to match the improvements in the next text!

  • Adrienne

    It was the music that finally drove us out of our "main" parish church. We now attend either a NO at one of our other parish churches (we have 3) which has no choir, or we attend an FSSP church.Since both hubby and I are musicians, we hold the same views you expressed in this fine post. Music is not a subjective subject. Bad is bad and nothing short of taking it outside and shooting it will make it good.

  • antonia

    Wonderful post father! I look forward to reading more!

  • Babs

    Agreed, Father….and we had this evening as our closing hymn, "America the Beautiful," which has no place at Mass.For the most part, I don't think people give a thought to what the hymn expresses. But, words mean something.

  • Rachel Gray

    That works for me! :)

  • Dr. Eric

    Aren't there propers that actually should be sung which have been replaced by hymns?

  • truthfinder

    Thank you, thank you! I think that the "Jesus and me" songs can be okay in the car or at home, but I agree with you totally about what we sing and say during the Mass.

  • Just another mad Catholic

    You can't go wrong with the Salve Regina, Tantum Ergo, Thine Be the Glory and Adoro te devote.

  • JD Curtis

    Nice post.Last Sunday I heard He Leadeth Me for the first time in a very long time and it's been stuck in my head all week, but in a good way.And when my task on earth is done, when by thy grace the victory's won, e'en death's cold wave I will not flee, since God through Jordan leadeth me.

  • Kevin M. Clarke

    Thanks for posting that, Father.From Vatican II: “The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 121).Tom Conry’s “Anthem” comes to mind: “We are question we are creed!” His good intentions aside, what on earth is that supposed to mean anyway? The liturgical music born mostly out of the 1970s seems more like liberation theology or semi-Pelagianism than Catholicism.

  • Jamie

    I will be so interested to read what else you have to say about this topic. I sing with my choir and cantor and while I have no say in the choice of songs, I know that those decision makers are required to select liturgically correct pieces. But the subtleties (yet not subtle, such as bread and wine versus body and blood) are things I have never considered. Intrigued am I!

  • Jamie

    One more thought spawned from another comment…I would love to hear what you think about mass without music or without choir. I thought every celebration of mass should include music? Even the Liturgy of the Hours guides us to sing a hymn of praise. Shouldn't mass? I admit I am personally very moved my music and certain songs help me "find" God better than others. So, while I agree with your points, I also wonder if it isn't subjective in some respect.

  • Paul Stilwell

    For me, Communion hymns – both heterodox and orthodox – are a damned distraction. The very words, "Communion" and "Hymn" together are like an oxymoron – or a redundancy. There should just be straight organ-playing, or organ with trumpet, whatever the case may be, and nothing else – no words.

  • Paul Stilwell

    Excellent post by the way!

  • flyingvic

    I'm puzzled. Why should it be a point of pride that 'Catholics' don't receive both the bread and the wine? And are you really linking the receiving of both bread and wine with diminishing belief in the Real Presence?Apart from that, it seems such a shame to sully a sensible piece on music and the liturgy with a gratuitous smear about the heretical Eucharistic theology being expressed in these hymns "which are often written by Protestants." So you agree that some heresy is written by Roman Catholics?

  • Dr. Eric

    Flyingvic,Catholics don't receive bread and wine at Communion.

  • flyingvic

    Dr Eric, I think you've missed the point of my question…

  • Dr. Eric

    Flyingvic,I think you've missed the point of Holy Communion and Transubstantiation.

  • flyingvic

    Dr Eric, shall we start again? I asked why it should be a point of pride that 'Catholics' don't receive both the bread and the wine, (that being my understanding of the original blog). Neither of your replies, it seems to me, has any logical connection to my question; and you certainly offer nothing to diminish an enquirer's puzzlement.Could it be that you don't know the answer either?

  • Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin

    flyingvic, I will charitably hope that you are not being deliberately obtuse.The Eucharist is Christ's gift of Himself to us – His body, His blood, His soul, and His divinity. While it arrives as bread and wine, and remains largely indistinguishable from bread and wine, it is not bread and wine. It is God, Himself.

  • Fr Longenecker

    I think FlyingVic may have misunderstood the post. He talks about 'both' bread and wine and I think Flying Vic has somehow thought that I was making some sort of point about receiving communion under both species.I don't think FlyingVic was debating the Real Presence, and this has been the cause for the confusion.However, the whole topic of the Real Presence and what we mean by it would be an interesting discussion.I don't think FV is referring to that here however, and is talking about Catholics often only receiving communion under one species.

  • Dr. Eric

    I know what Flyingvic meant. I was driving home the point that at Holy Communion, Catholics don't receive bread and wine. Anglicans and Epsicopalians do, on the other hand.As far as whether or not receiving one or both species at Communion is good or bad or indifferent, in the past there were heretics that claimed that one didn't really receive Christ unless one received under both species. To combat this, the Western Church only gave Communion to the laity under one species, namely the Sacred Host.I for one like the symbolism of receiving both species but understand why one one could be permitted. For instance, alcoholics, those with celiac disease, little kids, and during cold and flu season. I think a nice compromise would be intinction by the priest with all the congregation kneeling at the altar rail.

  • flyingvic

    Thank you, one and all, for your kind elucidation! (Me? Deliberately obtuse? I have a choice?)I must say that I see neither point nor justification in the practice of communion in one kind. Jesus told us to do both in remembrance of him.Nor do I see why we should object to hymns talking about eating bread and drinking wine: that is, after all, exactly what we are doing. Provided that the hymn goes on to express the true significance of that particular bread and wine, we run no danger of missing the mystery, so to speak.The mystery of the Incarnation is that the Word became flesh, that Christ, the Son of Man and Son of God, came as and remains both fully human and fully divine. If, in pursuit of the fullest possible expression of the doctrine of the Real Presence, we go so far as to deny that at communion we are actually eating bread and drinking wine, we are in fact denying the Incarnation. It is truly bread and wine and it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ.

  • Steve Cavanaugh

    As Dr. Eric pointed out via his question, there is official music appointed for every Mass; the propers, found in the Roman Gradual. These propers consist of the Introit (entrance chant), gradual (psalm after the first lesson), alleluia, offertory and communion. Additionally, there is the Kyriale which has the music for the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.A problem for Masses celebrated in the vernacular is that the Roman Gradual has not yet been translated into English (or any other language that I'm aware of). To use the official music, you must use Latin.The Second Vatican Council decreed that a collection of simpler melodies, that also appointed seasonal chants, be created, and this Simple Gradual was duly put together, but again, was not translated officially. Dr. Paul Ford did create a translation in the 1990s called By Flowing Waters and this has received ecclesiastical approval for use in the U.S.Hymns at Mass, other than the relatively rare sequences, are not official. The Bishops' Conference is supposed to draw up an official hymnal, but in the U.S. has neglected to do so. Hymns should be used as a last resort if the chants of the Roman Gradual or Simple Gradual or of some other collection (such as the Rossini propers in the old rite or William Byrd's Gradualia).Jamie rightly notes the instructions in the Liturgy of the Hours…but the Liturgy of the Hours, i.e., Divine Office, has always had a hymn as part of its official structure. Unfortunately, the collection of hymns in both Christian Prayer and the full 4 volume set of the LotH is pretty bad. To get the official hymns that were included in the Latin original (with very nice English translations) you can get the Mundelein Psalter which, like Christian Prayer, has Morning and Evening Prayer for the entire year in one book.

  • Steve Cavanaugh

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Wine in the Water

    flyingvic,Fr. L is not lauding that we don't receive *both* bread and wine at Communion, but rather that we receive *neither* bread nor wine at Communion. Catholics do not receive bread and wine because we receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

  • barnbyvilla

    Flyingvic says:"If, in pursuit of the fullest possible expression of the doctrine of the Real Presence, we go so far as to deny that at communion we are actually eating bread and drinking wine, we are in fact denying the Incarnation. It is truly bread and wine and it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ."What you are in fact expressing is the theological position of "consubstantiation", or that the resence of Christ exists in conjunction with the bread and wine's form and structure. The Roman Catholic theology of the real presence is defined as "transubstantiation". Our belief is that the bread and wine are transformed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. In other words the bread and wine may be the outward appearance, but it ceases to be bread and wine with Christ inside it (as consubstantiation would pretend), rather it IS Christ no differntly than if He were stood in front of you.This brings us onto the argument of species. Christ is truely present in both species. meaning that He is received fully no matter which species the receiient communicates. Arguably, if the theology of consubstantiation were true it wuld be a logical extension to presume that both secies would have to be consumed to be fully communicated, though I accept some people may argue this is not the case. The reason that as catholics we don't always receive under both kinds is essentially linked to the fact that receiveing under both kinds can lead to confusion over the true position that communion is fully received under one species. The church exhorts priests to teach the truth of transubstantiation so that the faithful fully understand what they are receiving and why they are receiving it before communion under both kinds is administered. sadly too few priests do this and too many Catholics think that they have not received both the body and blood of Christ unless they have communion under both kinds.

  • flyingvic

    An interesting response but one that is fundamentally incorrect. What I am NOT in fact expressing is the theological position of "consubstantiation": I am not attempting any philosophical explanation of what happens in the mystery of the sacrament.I am saying, quite simply, as befits my faith, that AS Christ is fully human and fully divine (and we know that whole libraries have been written just about that belief) SO the bread and wine are, as Jesus said, his body and his blood. It is both/and, not either/or.If you want to push word-pictures about matters of faith into hard and fast, graven in stone dogma, then that is your choice. Personally speaking, with many years' experience of trying to come to a better understanding so that I may better teach others, such an approach is not at all helpful. To say, "…rather it IS Christ no differently than if He were stood in front of you," is simply to open the door to such as Ian Paisley to start talking about cannibalism. And that is a door I would rather not open at all.