Banal Hymns at Mass

Anthony Esolen has a good moan here about some of the hymns he has to endure at Mass. Anthony is an English professor and noted translator of Dante. So he knows something about poetry. Why oh why are such awful hymns allowed in the Catholic Church?

I’ve mused on the bad music myself in this post, but one of the reasons music at Mass is so bad is because Catholics are ignorant of the great tradition of decent hymns. Before Vatican II they didn’t sing hymns “That’s Protestant!” very much, then after Vatican II everybody went crazy for the folk Mass and most of the faithful wandered about singing (or not) what was dished up for them. Priests weren’t trained in the traditions of sacred music, so they were largely ignorant of what was good, and the pressure was on them anyway from the people–some of whom felt good when they sang songs like, “I was walking on the beach when I felt the good Lord reach….for my hand.” It was easier to go along with those who actually had an opinion or preference, and so reigned the dictatorship of sentimentality. Sentimentality is often an artificial kind of manufactured emotion–sort of like artificial flavoring in candy. Go here for further thoughts.

The mantra of “full participation” had a part to play as well. Everybody had to be involved and everybody’s taste and opinion was just as good as the next person’s. Here’s a post about the destructiveness of this sort of shallow egalitarianism. It brought in a superficial equality which was really a form of relativism–no one dared to suggest that one kind of hymn might actually better than another and nobody had any idea why one hymn could actually be better than another. There was no understanding of poetry, sacred music and the idea that one form of music could be superior would –shock horror–be perceived as snobbishness.

There are some standards for good hymns, and they’re not actually too difficult to figure out. Some time ago I wrote a four part series on what makes a good hymn. Here’s the first part. Here’s part two, here’s the third and here’s the fourth.



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  • Malvenu

    Father, do you have, or know of, a list of “hymns that every Catholic should know”?

    So, for example, were I to go on the LMS Pilgrimage to Walsingham in August I could do my best to learn the hymns on the list and join in when they were sung.

  • matthias

    hey Father if you want banal hymns go no further than osme of the stuff that is coming out of Hillsong here in Australia and they are circulating throughout a lot of the Australian Churches-Proddy mainly

  • Charlotte

    The sad thing is that there are people approaching 60 who don’t have any real memory of anything but faux folk and wannabe show tunes. The even sadder thing is that they can’t even imagine there could be anything better. They’re like children who’ve been raised on fast food who panic if anyone tries to introduce something different. I don’t know how you change this.

  • Dave

    I couldn’t agree more. This banal, saccharine music is bad enough when played the supposed “appropriate” moments in Mass but worse yet is that they have eliminated the Sacred Silence as we receive Holy Communion and for the meditative moments afterwards. Now I find myself mingling in a line of people waiting to get to the punch bowl at a cocktail party replete with cocktail music and all. It makes one wonder if anyone truly believes in the Real Presence anymore.

  • Jane

    One reason I love daily mass is: NO MUSIC!!!!

  • Will

    I appreciate chant, older and more modern hymns. My understanding is that the organ was once considered inappropriate in church. Many churches offer Mass options with different kinds of music. There is also the option of a Latin Mass for those that prefer that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Matthew the Wayfarer

    THANK GOD & POPE BENEDICT for the new Ordinariates – good music all around folks!
    I have been looking for traditional Catholic Hymns on CDs but the problem is the ones I’ve found are about 6 songs done in 2 or 3 various styles. Surely more than a half dozen songs were sung throughout the church year. I finally found a copy of an old hymnbook from the early 1950′s that seemed to have a selection of quality hymns.
    Normally I don’t care for them but dome properly in the correct place in Liturgy they are O.K. Mostly just give me chants!

  • Marie

    Today I arrived early for Mass since I was sacristan. The choir was practicing – as my son and I walked in we heard the strains of “Gather Us In”. We looked at each other, and I said “oh, no”. Then the music stopped for a moment and the piano player said “This is the best song! It tells the story of just what our church is like!”

    Could someone please shoot me now?

  • Al Bergstrazer

    Never in my life had I considered deliberately burning a book based upon its contents until I was given a copy of “GATHER” by a friend. Great hymn writers must not only be masters of poetry and prose but also should be accomplished theologians. Modest musical abilities coupled with ignorance of the English language rivaled only by the author’s ignorance of rudementary Christian doctrine smothered in sentimentality and good intentions seems to be the formula for most of the music that is churned out today with the alacrity of a McDonald’s franchise. Even when the text of scripture is planted word for word into an appropriately angst ridden tune the results are cringe worthy, or as an elderly gentleman once said to me after hearing a teary rendition of ‘On Eagle’s Wings;” “How can a take seriously a song that begins with the words “YOO HOO?”

  • Al Bergstrazer

    I recommend a permanent moratorium of the collective works of Marty Haugen.

  • J_D

    I think everything by the truly awful St. Louis Jesuits should be banned. These morons are probably responsible for thousands leaving the Church, being unwilling to put up with the dreadful words and mournful unmusical dirges of tunes written by these people. I try personally to avoid any church which used their stuff but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

  • Bill M

    Am I the only one who thinks that non stop music with banal words and dirge like tunes is as annoying as supermarket “muzak?”

  • Bill M

    And of everything by the “St. Louis Jesuits” who are responsible for thousands ceasing to attend Mass to avoid being subjected to their awful dirges.