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.