The 10 Best Hymns – UPDATED

Okay, we’ve had tons of fun exploring the Joe Carter’s list of the 10 Worst Hymns. And it’s been pretty contentious in that thread–surprisingly so.

Now, let’s be more positive. One of Deacon Greg’s readers wondered why we can’t talk about the “10 Best Hymns”:

Why not highlight the good instead of the bad? With that in mind, below is a random and totally subjective list, in no particular order, of my personal favorites: 10 relatively new hymns (from the post-Vatican II era) that I particularly like. Feel free to add your own.

Laudate Dominum by Christopher Walker – a grand processional hymn that never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

Go Up to the Altar of God by James Chepponis – see above

The Breaking of the Bread by Michael Ward – one of the most beautiful, deeply personal Eucharistic hymns. I even heard this once at a wedding.

Shepherd Me, O God by Marty Haugen – a growing favorite at funerals, this one haunts me long after I’ve heard it.

Christ Be Our Light by Bernadette Farrell – a lilting waltz that could have been written by Richard Rodgers, this may be one of the most purely singable hymns of the post-Vatican II era.

The Summons by John Bell – you hear this a lot during Lent, and it was reprised just last week at our parish, to tie in with the gospel about the sending of the 72.


His list is, as he notes, completely subjective and contains older and newer hymns. It must be noted that Deacon Greg’s church is fortunate enough to have a professional-quality choir and organist, so they’re able to do some of the glorious stuff that many of us haven’t heard in a long time, if at all. But I think it’s might be better to break a list up into “classic” hymns and “modern” otherwise I suspect the lists will quickly become repetitious.

My faves will not surprise anyone, and I’ll begin by agreeing with Deacon Greg that John Bell’s The Summons is a very stirring piece. Prayerfully sung, it challenged me and moved me to tears, and was actually part of the reason I ended up doing In the Arena. How odd to remember that, now. So, you’ll see, I don’t hate all modern hymns!

My Own Totally Subjective Lists, in No Particular Order:

We Will Rise Again: “We will walk and not grow weary, for our God will be our strength, and we will fly, like the Eagle, we will rise again…” played at my mother’s funeral, all of my brother’s funerals; my brother D had been in a wheelchair for over 30 years before his death; it was joyful promise.

Praise to the Lord: Loved it as a kid, and as an adult. Fun to sing, too.

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence: Haunting and lovely

How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace: Humblefests!

The Church’s One Foundation and Sing of Mary (from my childhood, sweet memories)

The King of Love My Shepherd Is: Ah, it’s the Celt in me. Shivers me timbers.

Be Not Afraid: Very moving at my cousin’s ordination, where so few were ordained, it sort of emphasized all of the challenges he and the church faced.

As the Night Begins: by Gregory Norbert (Weston Priory) meant to sing us into Vespers

The Lord Bless You and Keep You; (Sang it once in a Methodist church, and loved it)

Behold, the Lamb of God: “Jesus, Jesus, is the Lamb of God”

In This Place: quiet and pretty

All You Works of God; Relentlessly cheerful and fun to hear kids sing

Life is Christ: Fr. Bob Smith, little known, nice harmonies

Praise the Name of the Lord
; Fr. James Miller, also little known, the whole of psalm 117, sung sweetly

The older hymns, I wish I could say I knew more of them. But I like these:
Were you there?: Old Spirituals give me goosebumps and have such a quietening affect, don’t they?

Immaculate Mary: Ave! Ave! Ave Maria! It’s full of “childlike faith”

O Sacred Head
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
O Most Holy Trinity, Undivided Unity
All Glory, Laud and Honor

Dona Nobis Pacem
Vene Creator Spiritus
Ave Verum Corupus
(both the Mozart and the Byrd)
Panis Anglicus
Attende Domine
Tantum Ergo
Pange Lingua
(Sing, my tongue)
O Salutaris Hostia
Jubilate Deo
Ubi Caritas
(also like the modern-day version, infused with African chant)

And, it’s not a hymn, but the Litany of Saints–the traditional one–in Latin or English, never fails to move.

So, how about it; shall we be upbeat, today? What are your faves?

UPDATE: One hymn I forgot to mention, but which I love–even though it is so peculiar to England–is “Jerusalem”

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • JuliB

    I LOVE Mahalia Jackson and listen to her frequently.

    I’d also like to suggest ‘Somebody’s Knocking’ – old spirituals just rip right through me.

    I wish we could get good versions of these songs to listen to in an MP3 format.

  • Patrick B.

    I once went through the “Worship” hymnal and rated the ~450 hymns for “singability” (purely subjective!) by a non-professional congregation — about 75 made the top score. Many of these have been mentioned already. A few make me tear up at the end, which is a good thing. Here are some:

    Faith of Our Fathers
    O God, Our Help in Ages Past
    Amazing Grace
    Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
    This Day God Gives Me/Morning Has Broken
    Come, Holy Ghost
    O God, Almighty Father
    When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land
    I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light
    Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
    Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You
    Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

    [Christmas carols merit a separate thread!]

  • Ampontan

    Learn something new every day, this time about Luther and Bach.

    Bach’s been ripped off so many times, it was a surprise to see that he was the ripper in this case rather than the rippee!

  • MasterThief

    @39: That Easter hymn’s called “In the Breaking of the Bread.” It’s a favorite of our choir.

    Some modern additions:

    First, I know the dislike of the St. Louis Jesuits is strong, but Dan Schutte’s “These Alone Are Enough” is a very moving rendition of St. Ignatius’ Suspice prayer, which has been one of my favorites since college. (Yes, the Jesuits have ruined me for life. Sorry.)

    Second, the (University of) Notre Dame’s choir director (Steve Warner) wrote a hymn based around the line from St. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, titled “All Will Be Well.” Our choir sings this one whenever we celebrate the Annointing of the Sick during Mass.

  • Bender

    What did you do, Sarah, read the Dan Brown version of history?

    Sorry, but Luther, in his hubris and narcissism, a priest for all of ten years when he deemed himself to know more than everyone else, is responsible himself for his own schismatic misdeeds. It’s all on him, no one else.

    As for J.S. Bach, in his positions as Kapellmeister (music director), etc., he was an arranger of pre-existing music as much as a composer of original works, so I don’t know that it is fair to say that he “stole” from Luther as much as he adapted it to various settings and perhaps adding in some extra orchestration here and there.

    I know that when I sing A Mighty Fortress is Our God, there are parts where I want to get a little fancier than the strict notation in the hymnal, but that is because Bach’s version is playing in my head. I tend to do the same with Morning Has Broken, trying to sing the Cat Stevens version than what is on the page.

  • Bender

    See Robert McDevitt — yet another comment of mine has been eaten by the spam filter.

  • Bender

    Oh, yeah. Now it shows up just when I’m mocking it.

    I’m telling you, Algore’s Internet is getting to be more and more like Skynet everyday. It most certainly has sentience already and is out to get us.

  • Golden Arrow

    This isn’t just fun it is truely delightful! My favorites anything Celtic or old school(latin). Truely appreciate the forum and all the wonderful contributions. First the Celtic tunes mostly in minor keys: Lord of all Hopefullness also sharing the same tune or maybe I should say recyled Be Thou My Vision. And of course I Heard the Voice of Jesus. Some hymns I haven’t seen are: We walk by Faith.I Recieved the Living God,At the Name of Jesus. Among the latin hymns is Salve Regina.Ubi Caritas and also Taize chants. The collection is exetremely vast and I don’t want to overlook Gospel, so Brother Where Art Thou is wonderful-I Went Down To the River to Prayer is a prefect example.

  • Onesimus

    Some that I remember from early childhood, and left a lasting impression (not sure if i have the titles right):

    Faith of Our Fathers
    King of Glory
    Whatsoever You Do (to the Least of My Brothers)

  • newton
  • Just_Saying

    Here’s a great new hymn you would love,

    “I was there to hear your borning cry,
    I’ll be there when you are old.
    I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
    to see your life unfold.
    I was there when you were but a child,
    with a faith to suit you well;
    In a blaze of light you wandered off
    to find where demons dwell.

    “When you heard the wonder of the Word
    I was there to cheer you on;
    You were raised to praise the living Lord,
    to whom you now belong.
    If you find someone to share your time
    and you join your hearts as one,
    I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme
    from dusk ’till rising sun.

    In the middle ages of your life,
    not too old, no longer young,
    I’ll be there to guide you through the night,
    complete what I’ve begun.
    When the evening gently closes in,
    and you shut your weary eyes,
    I’ll be there as I have always been
    with just one more surprise.

    I was there to hear your borning cry,
    I’ll be there when you are old.
    I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
    to see your life unfold.

    Hymns — old and new ones — are simply wonderful.

  • Barbara Bronson

    Christ the Lord is Risen Today
    Blest Be the Tie That Binds
    The Old Rugged Cross
    In the Garden
    What a Friend We Have in Jesus
    Holy Holy Holy
    Faith of our Fathers
    I Would Be True
    Hallelujah Chorus

  • elmo

    Funny, I was singing “I’ll Fly Away” this morning, too. “Down the River to Pray” is also a good song from the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

    I like the older, more traditional hymns the best. Most of my favorites are covered here. “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?” I like. “Jesus Remember Me” makes me cry sometimes. As I mentioned in the original Joe Carter thread, Sufjan Stevens, a Protestant indie singer-songwriter has some beautiful arrangements of traditional hymns on his Christmas CD which he streams from his website for free each Christmas.

    Speaking of Christmas, a beautiful, haunting hymn is “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle.” It’s a traditional Italian hymn that an Italian friend introduced me to and that I now must hear every year.

  • Jaime

    Perhaps I am just dreaming that there are words to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” If there are, I can’t believe that no one has mentioned what is a sure fire “goose bump” experience. If there are no lyrics, there is an incredible opportunity for someone with an orthodox Christian sensibility to give us a “new hymn” that doesn’t sound like a soap opera sound track.

  • Davida

    Carol, my mom used to sing a lot of those songs around the house (we were Southern Baptist, though not weekly church-goers; my immediate family and I came into the Church 5 years ago.) I especially remember Church in the Wildwood, which I haven’t heard in a long, long time.

    I like most of the songs others have listed…mostly more traditional, though I do like Shepherd Me, O God, and a couple more of the modern songs.

  • Bender

    though I do like Shepherd Me, O God

    I like it a lot too. But this is one, I think, and a few of the others, that are best when the congregation sings the refrain and only the cantor (or a single person from the choir) taking the verses.

    For one thing, as a practical matter, you can put the hymnal down and simply sing more prayerfully. But on a more liturgical level, you have the benefit of a “dialogue” or whatever they call it in music. This would be especially appropriate with those hymns/songs where parts of it are sung from the perspective of God/Jesus, so as to avoid the valid point that the people should not be speaking as if they were God.

  • Bender’s Cheerleader


    True. I’ve always avoided hymns that have me speak as though I were Jesus or God, i.e. I Am the Bread of Life, because it makes me uncomfortable. ‘Turn To Me’ is another example, although it’s a beautiful song: “I am God, who comforts you, who are you to be afraid…” – it’s hard to sing stuff like that.

    ‘Shepherd Me O God’ does not pose this problem, though. It’s a one-on-one dialogue based on Ps 23, with God, not as God. Unless of course there is another ‘Shepherd Me O God’ besides Haugen’s.

    In general, I don’t think there should be any hymns that have the people speaking as God. And in fact, if a rule can be made that we aren’t to sing songs that refer to God as ‘Yahweh’, I think they could beef up the other liturgical components in the music we use.

  • Patrick Finley

    I will pick some modern Hymns – Because what matters the most is Christo-Centricity.

    Also there are some old ones in my list

    The Will of your Love (ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS, in the spirit and song)

    Let all Mortal Flesh keep Silent (I know it was mentioned but it embodies the Eucharistic Sacrifice)

    I DO Like Haugen’s Shepherd me Oh God. I am not a fan of all his music, but its particularly beautiful

    Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones (the 6th century tones, typically heard in Alleluia)

    For all the Saints

    Rejoice the Lord is King

    Jesus Christ, Inner Light

    In every Age

    Panis Angelicus

    Pange Lingua (both simple chant and the Aquinian hymn versions)

    Jesus Remember me (sing this at the end of Good Friday…you will cry..I promise)

    And even though its more Talking then listening – “Fly Like a Bird” . My wife has instructions that that is to be sung at my funeral mass (ressurection mass, or whatever we wanna call it).

    Also the Ave Maria I would put if I had one is Either the Biebl Ave maria (see Chanticleer recording) or the Bach Ave Maria (the schubert is over done)

  • Fizz

    Barka: link

    Best hymn ever.

  • Bender

    ‘Shepherd Me O God’ does not pose this problem, though.

    No, but I think it works better with the cantor and congregation alternating back and forth. O Sons and Daughters is another. Usually for any hymn sung during Communion I’ll sing only the refrain.

  • Bruce Kreiner

    1. Here I Am Lord
    2. On Eagles Wings
    3. Panis Angelicus
    4. We Rember, We Celebrate, We Believe
    5. Be Not Afraid
    6. I Am the Bread Of Life (And I Will Raise You Up)
    7. Gather Us In
    8. Ave Maria
    9. Strange Way To Save The World
    10. Tatum Ergo

    Could go on but listed just ten. Not especially in this order.

  • Sally Thomas

    Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies All-time, all-time favorite, from my Methodist childhood. Daystar, in my heart appear — that’s my constant prayer.

    My Song Is Love Unknown (organ is way too fast in this audio clip, but read the words!)

    Hail, O Star That Pointest (and the Cyberhymnal music is dorky, but you can hear the sweet, simple melody, which is made interesting by the harmony — spoken as an alto who loves singing that harmony)

    Of the Father’s Love Begotten (in the New English Hymnal it’s “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten,” and I tend to like the words there the best)

    The King of Love My Shepherd Is

    Be Thou My Vision

    O Sacred Head

    Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending I like this tune, Helmsley, the best, though we sang it last Advent a capella, in unison, to St. Thomas (the same tune as is generally used for the Tantum Ergo)

    Salve Regina

    Ave Verum Corpus (as Gregorian chant it qualifies as a hymn; otherwise I like Mozart and Elgar pretty much equally, for an anthem)

    Glory Be to Jesus

    Anima Christi

    O God Beyond All Praising — I love it, though I think probably the Holst tune is really what raises it above the crowd to the level of the sublime. The words by themselves aren’t that spectacular. Not a complaint, I love the hymn, but it’s one of those cases of the words really needing the music to make them soar. (it’s my 7-year-old’s favorite hymn — he once cracked our priest up right before Mass, because he — my son — was in the bathroom belting it out behind the closed door, blissfully unaware that everyone in the vestibule outside the church could hear him.)

    I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say

    Then there are sacred songs I love, but not necessarily in Mass: I love Mahalia Jackson, love things like “Steal Away,” love bluegrass gospel stuff, which some banjo-and-guitar-picking friends like to play, etc. We’ve been having hymn sings at our house for a while now, with traditional hymns on the piano inside, then bluegrass on the porch when we get tired of being in the house. Great fun!

    Oh, one last one, which I’ve been using with my children as part of our evening prayers, the Canon of Thomas Tallis, set to words by Thomas Ken. We don’t sing it as a round (yet), but it’s beautiful sung that way:

    All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
    For all the blessings of the light.
    Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
    Beneath Thine own Almighty wings!

    OK, losing count and probably totally overloading on the links — no wonder my posts keep ending up in the spam filter. Sorry, Anchoress! I just like sharing maybe a little too much . . .

  • Blake Helgoth

    I do love some hymns and they can stir up great emotion. However, a priest friend of mine once asked if we should even be singing hymns at a Catholic Mass. There is a question that makes one think! Obviously, the rulbrics allow hymns, but how many have been to a Mass where a choir sings hymns all through Mass and does not sing many of the Mass parts, especially the Creed. If there is singing at a Mass it should be the Mass parts that are sung. So, I might pose a new question – What are your top 10 Mass settings?

  • Toby

    Jesu, joy of man’s desiring does have lyrics indeed:

    Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
    Holy wisdom, love most bright;
    Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
    Soar to uncreated light.
    Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
    With the fire of life impassioned,
    Striving still to truth unknown,
    Soaring, dying round Thy throne.
    Through the way where hope is guiding,
    Hark, what peaceful music rings;
    Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
    Drink of joy from deathless springs.
    Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
    Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
    Thou dost ever lead Thine own
    In the love of joys unknown.

  • Brown Line

    Thank you for this thread. I love many of the hymns mentioned here. It’s such a rich tradition, such a wealth to choose from.

    That being said, I’m surprised nobody mentioned Old Hundredth (“Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”).

    The great Sacred Harp tradition has given us so many wonderful hymns. “Wondrous Love” has been mentioned, but also “When Jesus Wept”, “Africa”, “I Am the Rose of Sharon”, and so many others. (Do yourself a favor and listen to “Shall We Gather By the River” performed by the Anonymous 4 on their CD “Gloryland”; you’ll be glad you did.)

    Finally, of the post-Vatican II hymns, my favorite is, “I Want To Walk As a Child of the Light” (aka “Houston”), by Kathleen Thomerson. I am partial to it mainly because Ms Thomerson’s harmonization has one of the finest bass lines I’ve ever sung: it’s pure joy to sing.

  • Sally Thomas

    Blake Helgoth –

    I’ll bite. I love the Missa de Angelis. In my Anglican parish in the UK, before my family and I re-crossed the Atlantic and swam the Tiber, we did a number of fine settings, including one by Harold Darke, whose setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” I really like, too; and Charles Woods’s “Mass in the Phrygian Mode,” which my fellow choristers used to refer to as “Wood in the Fridge.”

  • Jay Everett

    By the looks of the songs listed it would appear that most respondents are either Protestant or converts who are the new Protestant-Catholics. Singing will not get you to heaven. The book of James explains what will and it does not mention songs. God Bless…

  • Jay Everett

    Oh, by the way does anyone know the “Litany of the Saints?” Tune in some time to a mass from Rome and you will hear some beautiful Catholic music (songs). It is so much better than all this polyphony……

  • Father John

    The late Pope (JPII) stated that the musical aspect of Liturgical Celebrations cannot be left up to improvisation or to the free will of the people. It should be confided to a concerted direction and the respect for certain norms.

    EGO Religion—-physical acts such as music, hand clapping, dancing etc….

  • joan

    Just read Fr. Longenecker’s Blog. He has the real truth on Church music according to the Magisterium:
    Great video!

  • joan

    Sorry..can i please correct my link?

  • joan

    My most favorite video has Elvis and Happy Days singing about what Church music and Liturgy is all about.Here is the link: link

    [Joan, please avail yourself of this very-easy tutorial on how to make a link. If I can do it, anyone can, and you won't believe how much time I seem to send embedding naked urls in comments, that is when they do not end up in the spam filter, which is were most unembedded links go! -admin]

  • DaveS

    Good post idea.

    55 y.o. male, 11-year altar server, Tridentine Mass veteran, still knows the Latin:

    “I am the Bread of Life”: why do something in the wrong grammatical person? I’ll tell you: when the songs are about ‘us’ and not about God. Anything after 1960 cannot compete with that prior. The ‘gathering’ songs are the worst. The Real Presence devotionals are the best group because when you sing them you can smell the incense!

    1. Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
    2. Tantum Ergo
    3. Panis Angelicus
    4. O, Sacred Head Surrounded
    5. Come, Holy Ghost
    Thank you, Thomas Aquinas.

  • Sally Thomas

    Jay Everett: It was not a Protestant who said that to sing is to pray twice.

  • James B. Bittner

    It’s difficult to say, but the Lutheran hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” (“Herzliebster Jesu” by Crueger and Heermann), a commentary on the Reproaches, may well be my own favorite.

  • Sally Thomas

    Sorry, didn’t mean to sound abrupt there. But I do think hymnody matters. I was converted, actually, as much by the power of traditional Catholic music which I was singing (in an Anglican church) as by anything else. That’s where I learned texts like “O Salutaris Hostia,” “O Sacrum Convivium,” “Crux Fidelis,” and on and on. It came to me at some point post-conversion that I’d spent years praying the “Choristers’ Prayer,” in which you pray, “. . . that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts; and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives.” I woke up one day and realized that what I had been singing with my lips, I really did believe in my heart. And here we are.

    But I think I was probably carried to that point by the hymns of my Protestant childhood and the sacred-music tradition of the Anglicanism which was ultimately the path to Rome for my family and me. In other words, Wesley and others sowed important theological seeds which continue to be valuable and valid, and which are still the prayers of my heart — I just have to sing them around the house, mostly, these days.

    And the Litany of the Saints is great. I got to cantor it at our Easter Vigil this year. Love it.

  • David J. White

    Not really hymns, since they work better when sung by a soloist, but my mother has always had a fond spot in her heart for some Marian songs that were often sung at Mass in pre-Conciliar days: “On this Day, o Beautiful Mother”; “Mother Dear, oh Pray for Me”; and “Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling”. Many people — including Thomas Day, whose “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” is otherwise one of my favorite books — poke fun at them as sappy drawing-room ballads; but I always enjoy hearing them, and my mother loves them.

    Side note: the organist at my parents’ wedding — who later became my sister’s and my piano teacher — played another wedding the same day. My mother had asked for “Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling”, and the other bride had asked for “On this Day, o Beautiful Mother”. Alas, the organist mixed them up! But when she played for my parents’ 40th anniversary Mass, she played the right one. ;-)