Survey #2: Because of What Hymn?

As I’ve written previously, Saturday morning men’s group can be a trial, especially when we argue dogma. But this week, Jonathan, the smartest, best-read person in the group, talked about Catholic hymnody, and I got answers to some questions—like why our hymnals are not written in four-part harmony and why Catholics don’t end hymns with “Amen.”

These questions have plagued me since becoming a Catholic because if there’s one thing I remember from Episcopal church-going circa age 13, it’s singing the Protestant hymnal alongside my dad, and if there’s one thing I miss since converting, it’s singing the Protestant hymmal (though singing alongside Dad is no longer an option).

Especially I remember learning to read music and taking a stab at the bass line on Protestant power hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” When I got lost—usually because I could not split my attention between the harmony and the relatively unknown verses 3-4-5-6—I always knew that I could really slam the old Amen at the end.

Now, not only is there no bass line to sing but there’s no Amen to slam. But I sing out anyway, although your average Catholic, to judge by my fellow, otherwise wonderful parishioners, is lily-livered when it comes to hymn singing. Poor Father Barnes comes up the center aisle behind the crucifix and the altar servers, belting “Come Now, Almighty King!” for all he’s worth, and do we back him up? No. Catholics are cowards when it comes to hymnody. Protestants may not be liturgical in the main, but they sing God’s praises loud enough to make the grape juice ripple in the Dixie Cups.

I’m not going to get into detail about Jonathan’s presentation. I don’t remember it in much detail, to be honest. But the main message was, Protestants are the man where hymns are concerned and Catholics are the mouse. Which explains the lack of both harmony in the hymnal and slammable Amens. The one hopeful message I took away from the meeting was that, now that we have a pope who is also a music afficionado, the word out of Rome is, let’s sing, people. I hope we do.

But you, my dear brother, my dear sister—what hymns have inspired you? I’ve mentioned two from my salad days in the Episcopal Church, and I’ll mention a couple of others that have inspired me only since becoming a Catholic: “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

How about you? Let’s hear it in comments below! I’ll wait a week before summarizing your responses.

  • cathyf

    It's hard to pick one… Jesus Christ Is Risen Today and Christ Jesus Lay In Death's Strong Bands for easter. Crown Him With Many Crowns. I Heard the Voice Of Jesus Say (Kingsfold)But one problem is that somehow or another it became characteristically Catholic to stick crappy translations of our hymns in our hymnals. I'm not sure what the reason — maybe we're too cheap to pay royalties or something? Take the second verse of Christ Jesus Lay In Death's Strong Bands:How long and bitter was the strifeWhen life and death contendedThe victory remained in lifeThe reign of death was ended!All those harsh gutteral consonants — it was long, it was bitter, it was strife, bubba! Our hymnals skip it completely…As for modern hymns, Parker-Shaw Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal is a particular favorite. Joncas' On Eagles Wings. John Foley's May We Praise You, O Lord. Taize — Veni Sancte Spiritus, Stay With Me. Hillert's Festival Canticle. Hal Hopson's Gift Of Love — my choir in Pittsburgh used to sneer about it being a cliche for weddings, but when sung at Confirmation it's quite another thing.As for choir songs — the ones that no congregation is going to be singing — the most exquisite piece of music in the whole western canon is surely Ave Verum. I'm not sure about listening to it, but singing it in four parts with the other three parts weaving around and through you is wonderful. JSB's Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring is wonderful, too.The Latin hymns, too… Although again we Catholics seem to have a habit of ugly gawky translations. Take Pange Lingua — John Neale's Of the Glorious Body Telling is a beautiful piece of english poetry: Of the Glorious Body tellingOh my tongue It's Mysteries sing.And the Blood all price excellingWhich the world's Eternal KingIn a Noble Womb once dwellingSpent for this world's ransomingCompare to the James Quinn version:Hail our Savior's glorious Body,Which his Virgin Mother bore;Hail the Blood which shed for sinners,Did a broken world restore;Hail the sacrament most holy,Flesh and Blood of Christ adore!I mean, sure, it's worth an A on an exam testing latin skills, but it sure is crap as poetry!As for me, these songs that continuously run through my brain form a background music of prayer throughout each day.

  • stpetric

    There are many, but a few that come to mind first are: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; Hail Thee Festival Day; and I Bind Unto Myself Today…

  • goodalice19

    Catholic convert here (2009). I agree with Webster that music in the church is not very good. Where I attend and participate, it is usually mediocre, at best. Most of the hymns that the music director selects for us are from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. I don't know which is worse in these hymns, the melodies or the words. Favorite hymns from my Protestant past are, "When Morning Gilds the Skies", "Rock of Ages", and "Heavenly Sunshine". If we could sing songs like these, the congregation would enjoy singing instead of hating it. I know this is true because last month our Priest, Fr. Jon, requested that the choir perform "In the Garden", which was his Protestant grandmother's favorite hymn. After they had finished singing the congregation erupted into applause, which is very unusual.

  • Ellen

    It's Christmas Eve–Midnight Mass. Communion has just ended; Father Barnes returns to his chair for a few moments so we can contemplate the great mystery and miracle of the Eucharist which has just taken place. Then, someone in the sacristy begins to flick the switches to turn off the lights. Flick. Flick. Flick. The church is in darkness but for the candlelight–just as the barn where Mary gave birth. The organist gently begins to play "Silent Night, Holy Night"; the choir and the congregation join in, singing softly and gently,as though we are there, in the barn, watching Mary hold her newborn Son. It is a moment so breathtakingly beautiful that every year, without fail, I am so moved that I am unable to sing. And it is not simply the setting, but the most beautiful lyrics which so perfectly capture such an amazing event: Silent night, Holy night Son of God, Love's pure light Radiant beams from Thy holy face With the dawn of redeeming grace Jesus, Lord at Thy birth Jesus, Lord at Thy birth

  • Anonymous

    Lift high the cross!For an even better understanding, read Why Catholics Can't Sing. It's a great read.–Dawn

  • Anonymous

    I like "O God, Beyond All Praising" and "Be Thou My Vision"Steve

  • Michael McDonough

    As a cradle Catholic, I must say that I prefer my "hymns" in Latin. At which point there are many, some more suited for processions or Benediction, some written for Mass itself (or the Breviary).One of the reasons Catholics can't sing is that Catholics never did "sing", they chanted. Gregorian chanting of the "propers" (Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion) is all done with a single voice unless there is a schola (choir) which knows how to do polyphony (which causes most of us to "shut up"). Those parts in parentheses are usually pure scripture as to the words. I am aware that some today are attempting to achieve something like this in English, and I wish them well.Augustine (Letter 55, 34) refers to chanting such texts as his favorite, and mentions that the Donatists reproach the Catholics with being too solemn and prefer singing their hymns of "human composition" as though they were about to mount a charge in battle.Rather than get spooled up, here, though, I'd list various Eucharistic hymns, such as the Ave Verum, Pange Lingua, Adoro te devote, and others; the Marian hymns: Salve Regina (both forms), Regina coeli, Ave Maris Stella, etc.; the Hymns (sequences?) to the Holy Spirit: Lauda Sion, Veni Sancte Spiritus, etc.; and the Dies irae (Requiem Mass).What "bugs" me at Mass, though, are English-language hymns, loudly sung (not piano, piano) before and during Holy Communion, since it detracts/distracts from the intimacy and purpose of the moment. I will make an exception for Christmas-time after Communion, as one of the earlier posters mentions.

  • Frank

    Sadly, I don't even know the titles of many of my favorites since converting…that says something right there. I can hear the dittys in my head though:"Taste and see, taste and see, this is My Body, given up for you…"I love the "Gloria"… that can be belted out! "Glory to God in the Highest, sing glory to God…""The Cry of the Poor" haunting and beautiful…"All Creatures of our God and King" -St. Francis of Assisi

  • Elaine R.

    Hi Webster! Thank you for your blog – it's wonderful and inspiring, I really enjoy reading it. And happy anniversary to you and Katie.I love Where Charity and Love Prevail – the melody is gorgeous and all the verses are really powerful. and Oh Sacred Head Surrounded (totally a Lutheran hymn though! Harmonized brilliantly by J.S. Bach himself) and The King of Love My Shepherd Is. Also Veni Creator Spiritus – beautiful chant melody. No one ever seems to sing this one, unfortunately.As a conservatory trained musician and a Catholic, I've always been a little sad (even embarrassed) about the lack of 4 part harmony in our hymnals, especially since western music history basically begins in the Catholic Church in the middle ages… -Elaine (Ferde's daughter)

  • Ferde

    She should have said 'Ferde's treasure.'

  • wendy c

    As a convert I also sometimes really miss the old fashioned hymns I grew up singing in that good old Baptist church. I belt it out at Mass and sometimes get surprised looks, but hey, I think its a good thing. I am always moved by "It is Well with my Soul" and "O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus". Every once in a while we sing a hymn I knew before my conversion and it makes me sentimental. I also love when we sing the Doxology at Mass (it doesn't happen often but we sang it every sunday when I was a kid). Thanks for bringing back good memories today.

  • Ferde

    Wendy, our pastor, Fr. Barnes, *always* sings the Doxology — Sunday Mass, daily Massm every Mass. Fortunately he has a superb voice. He sings in praise of our Savior.

  • John De

    Hi Frank…. Saw your comment about,"Taste and see, taste and see, this is My Body, given up for you…"If I have the correct "version" the Lyric is "Take and Eat, Take and Eat…" This is from Michael Joncas.

  • Ashley

    How about-'You Are Mine''The Summons''Come to the Quiet''In This Place''How Can I keep From Singing'(is this a Catholic Hymn?)I love 'Behold the Wood,' Take and Eat, Recusito(spelling is wrong!), Rock of Ages,On Eagles Wings, You Raise Me Up, Canticle of the Sun'I could go on for ever… :)