What’s a Hymn For?

What’s a Hymn For? November 1, 2007

I’m having some problems with music in Catholic America. Part of it is my problem. I spent fifteen years in the Anglican Church with the New English Hymnal–which is probably the finest hymnbook ever published in the English language. Musically and liturgically it was the best that traditional Anglicanism had to offer.

Catholic music in England–well we won’t even go there. Apart from a few islands of decent church music the Catholic church in England was a wasteland.

I am discovering that in the USA it is not much better. My problem is that I am actually unfamiliar with most of the music in American Catholic Churches because I have lived abroad for so long.

However, what I do experience is not encouraging. Who on earth is writing these hymns, publishing these hymns and choosing to buy, prepare and perform these hymns? Doesn’t anybody know what a hymn is for?

Surely a hymn is first, and foremost part of our worship. That means the words are words that we use to address our praise, adoration and worship of God. So much of the stuff I come across isn’t that at all. Instead it is sentimental language in which God talks to us to reassure us, make us feel better and comfort or inspire us. So…”Be not afraid…for I am always with you…Come follow me.. etc” This may be a pleasant enough devotional song to remind us of God’s promises, and there may be times when it is appropriate to sing such songs, but Mass is not one of those times. We’re not really at Mass to sing God’s comforting words to ourselves. We’re there to worship Him.

Another problem are hymns that simply put Scripture verses to music. “I am the bread of life…he who comes to me shall not hunger…etc” Again, the music may be pleasant and the words of Scripture are undeniably wonderful and true, but it simply isn’t a hymn. The words are the words of Jesus about himself. They are not words of praise, worship and adoration addressed to God.

The second problem with much of the contemporary music is that it originates from solo artists or has been written for a choir to perform. If the words are praise and worship words, they don’t translate well for congregational singing. An example of this is the well known prayer of St Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace.” It was originally written as a solo performance piece, and as such it is nice enough, but try to get a congregation to sing it and it goes all over the place with its croon like phrasing and difficult wording. A good hymn has music that has a good steady, predictable rhythm so everyone can join in.

The final problem is that too many hymn writers seem to have little understanding of either Scripture, the symbols and types of the faith or the theology of the faith. The great old hymns that have stood the test of time were written from the authors’ deep immersion in the great themes of Scripture, the great stories of the Old Testament and the great theological concepts that inspire and instruct us as we sing. The newer stuff tends to be dumbed down, sentimental and weak.

So what’s a poor old convert priest like me to do? One experiences some pressure to ‘give them what they like.’ My inclination is to ‘give them what they need.’ In other words, to select hymns on the correct criteria and not bother whether they are ‘new’ or ‘old’. I’m sure there are some worthy modern hymns just as there are some awful old hymns. Then we have to educate those in our charge to understand what a hymn is for and what makes a good hymn–and it’s not just the ones we happen to like.

Finally, it seems to me that the underlying problem with the contemporary hymns is an almost universal lack of understanding in the modern American Catholic Church about what Mass is in the first place. If it is a gathering of friendly Christian people around the table of fellowship in order to get strength and encouragement from one another as we all think about Jesus, why then the contemporary hymns fit the bill very nicely, but then, so would quite a few snippets of music I can think of like–“My favorite things” from The Sound of Music.

However, if the Mass is meant to take us to the threshold of heaven; if it is meant to be a glimpse of glory and a participation in the worship of the spheres of heaven itself, why then the sentimental, sweet and comforting songs just won’t do. They wont’ do not because they are bad or untrue, but because they are not good and true enough. Worship that takes us to the threshold of glory needs to be, well…glorious.

But, it can be protested, not all parishes can manage to have a grand organ, a paid organist and a fine choir. True, and that’s why the church recommends Gregorian Chant. With a little effort and just a little expense a small group of singers can learn Gregorian Chant which beatifies the liturgy simply and give is the transcendental glory that our worship deserves, and to tell you the truth, once you develop a taste for Gregorian chant–it’s pretty comforting too.

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  • Ithank you Fr. Longnecker I cannot agree more. I would have to admit regrettebly that mindless sentimentalism within Christianity did much to actually push me further from Christ. So often I think mistakenly we guage our bond with Christ by the weight of our sentiments alone, and when these sentiments fail us we become weakened, most often these are durring times of suffering when we need him most. especially because today is the Feast of all saints one can imagine the trials of the martyrs who stood before us, had no need for sentimental words and songs to bolster their faith, they stood firm because they knew the meaning of all of what they said and what it truly meant to put their trust in God. This is not a rail against hymns but I agee that the hymns of the mass should reflect the sense of glimpsing heaven on earth. Parishoners do yourselves a favor and save the saccharine for your morning coffee, God does not fit on hallmark cards.

  • Thank you!!! I completely agree.At my old (Protestant) church there were a lot of 7/11 songs– repeat the same seven words eleven times. This was done “for the youth”. But why the youth are supposed to prefer lame songs to awesome hymns, I don’t know. When I was in college the Christian club would meet and we’d sit in a circle, flip through the songbooks and call out songs we wanted to sing. We nearly always picked grand old hymns. None of the watered down stuff for us.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed.I just got out of mass, while visiting a different city.Singing the Litany of the Saints was alright, but some of this stuff!”Oh God! We are so great! Won’t Heaven be nice, because we’re all going there.” and on and on.Sorry, venting a bit there.Dean

  • I was reading the first part of your post, Father, and thinking “C’mon, that’s why we need chant!” Yup, there’s a reason why the rubrics say to use chant, and you’ve nailed it.I still do love the grand old hymns from the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the more recent stuff–pah! I suppose, now that you’ve got me thinking, that modernism and anti-modernism are the twin banes of good worship music. The deep stuff grows out of a theology solidly rooted in tradition.

  • fried chicken strips

    And while your taring pages out of the hymnal throw some kerosene on the electronic organ. I went to a mass where the communion hymn was done as a fake string quartet. When I heard that, I wanted to grab a ball gown and wine glass and raise my cloying voice to say Ting Ting Ting–lunch everybody. Deeper bass tones bring much needed awe to the sacred mysteries. I cannot help but wonder if there is a connection between sloppy liturgy and the number of men and women who fail to revere the Host and eat and drink their condemnation. These are just my thoughts, I leave it up to more educated men to decide how I should approach the Holy of Holies.

  • fried chicken strips

    And please don’t try to re-enchant the mass with songs from Third Day. The liturgy becomes a side show next to heavy percussion. The medium is the message.Okay, I’m done with my soap box tirade.

  • Part of the problem is that 80% of everything is junk, and it is (usually) time that tells us what’s junk and what’s not. Most (not all) of the awful old hymns have been forgotten, so what remains from, say, the 17th and 18th centuries is mostly pretty good. Most of the rotten new stuff hasn’t yet had time to be forgotten.But a bigger part of the problem is—as you observe—that folks aren’t understanding Mass for what it is, so the same problems that afflict church architecture and liturgy show up in the music.Peace,–Peter

  • The Birmingham Oratory have their own hymnal..with all the traditional real hymns in..Faber & the like..& of course they have a wonderful choir..Benediction & the plainchant of Vespers are particularly beautiful too. Good luck!

  • I agree with Peter in the idea that time is a sieve which only allows the best in music to pass on while the awful remains forgotten in the past.So of course older hymns are “better” because that have in fact stood the test of time.I also agree with the idea that Mass is very misunderstood in America. It is too often “tweaked” to be more “entertaining”.

  • I would have to admit regrettebly that mindless sentimentalism within Christianity did much to actually push me further from Christ.I agree. Much like “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood pushes me away from patriotism.Sentimentalism and pop pandering do not exalt, they trivialize and I think on a subconcious level, the defenders of this dreck want it that way. I made a similar comment on my blog here.

  • Thank you, Fr. Longenecker, for your insights. The music situation in most churches ranges from bad to attrocious, and we really need to start digging ourselves out of this hole. The insight of lex orandi, lex credendi has great relevance to the music one hears and sings at Mass.I really believe we must recover the notion of singing the Mass rather than singing during the Mass, and we must find music of suitable form, beauty and holiness to do so. Gregorian chant, being the “supreme model” and “permanent standard” of Catholic sacred music, certainly fits the bill. We also need other music, including new compositions, that fit the bill.The roots of the current “tradition” are deep, but we must nonetheless start chopping them out to plant (or re-plant) a much older and greater tradition.

  • I agree with everything you say – what is worse for an Englishman is that not only have the words been changed for some of the traditional hymns – but so have the tunes! Many is the time during my first few years here in the Colonies that I began a hymn only to discover by the end of the first verse that I was doing a solo – different tune. On a more serious note – the Bishops have handed their authority over to the music publishers – anyone who doubts that should read the comments at the last Bishop’s meeting when they said that they could not produce a list of approved Catholic hymns because it would be too much for the diocese of Chicago and the diocese of Portland – who is based in those two dioceses?

  • Hymn tunes and texts are very promiscuous. Once in a while a text will be irrevocably married to a tune, but that is an exception and an occasional historical accident. Generally speaking, hymn texts can be sung to any metrically matching meter–as long as the tone of each is reasonably matched as well.

  • Palmetto Papist

    A simple solution: Sing the mass in plainchant and forget the hymns. The people will respond and anyone can do it decently with very little training. After all, the mass is meant to be sung!

  • I have often been annoyed by the community-centered lyrics in some the hymns. However, I’ve never really understood why people would be offended by lyrics that come right out of scripture. Your explanation made perfect sense.

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree with your post, Father! In my opinion, the best hymnal for parish use in the US right now is The St. Michael Hymnal. Check it out at http://www.stmichaelhymnal.com.

  • laura

    I’m a recent convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism. If you think the songs at Mass are bad, try going to the average Evangelical church!!! Anyway, I quite agree with you, Fr. Longnecker. My husband and I listen to Gregorian chant at home on CD and it is quickly becoming our favorite type of music. It is appalling to us to realize that the things that drew us to the Catholic church — the Eucharist first and foremost (as a SACRIFICE, not a community “meal”), and the idea of participating in heavenly praise during Mass, are the very things the average Catholic parish is busy throwing out. The bad music is just one symptom of this lack of understanding of what a huge treasure the Mass is.

  • At least we haven’t devolved too badly into praise and worship, or “world music,” which are both fashionable.The Holy Father the other day emphasized “universality” as a key criterion for judging whether music is worthy of inclusion in the Liturgy. It can be old or new, but it must transcend time.

  • When I walk into a church and see a giant projection screen hanging in the sanctuary I know that there will be bad music and bad liturgy as well.The focus of everyone’s attention should be the Altar not some screen off to the side.If the congregation need a projected image of the music and words to be able to sing during the Mass then the music or words are too complicated to understand properly anyway – most probably banal pop trash!We must do away with OHPs, pop instruments and junk music, returning to what the Council and Holy Fathers since have declared to be the proper music for Mass – Gregorian Chant, with occasional Sacred Polyphony. We cannot do it too soon.

  • I have a good friend, who is studying to become a Dominican friar, who would very much like to co-author a book with you on the subject! The discussion you have provided is a good starting point for more research for everyone. From what he argues, this is a manifestation or an effect of modernism, the so-called ‘spirit of Vatican II,’ and the protestant agendas of those who run the major Catholic hymnal publishing houses. It is a blight on reverent celebration of the liturgy. It is a tragic scandal.

  • Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing is a great book on this subject.

  • To be incredibly vulgar (in the modern context), I really don’t care what you goyim think or do or say. However, the closest I ever came to That Which Passes Understanding was during a Bach mass in which, I could swear, the entire roof of the church in which I was hearing it opened and something came through, or I came through, or something happened. I just work here, but I agree that sacred music is sacred.

  • Anonymous

    I am clearly in the minority here, but I think we DO worship God when we sing about God’s greatness, God’s love, God’s mercy, how very essential Christ is in our lives — when we recognize, for instance, that Christ is indeed the Bread of Life, and that we should not be afraid because God is with us. I have been drawn closer to God I don’t know how many times while prayerfully singing modern hymns. Yes, chants can be moving (though most of us do not understand what is being sung — so perhaps even the best chant has something “sentimental” about it that we value). And the “Ave Maria” is a beautiful, lovely song. Yet God can be worshipped and praised in the vernacular; really, I do not believe that God cares what century the work was composed in. What matters is what we bring to our singing of the text. If you don’t sing it with love and in a prayerful spirit, no, it won’t mean much for you — or to God, either, I imagine. But I refuse to jump on the bandwagon and say, Hey everybody, let’s jump back to 1940 (or 1880) because God must have loved that music better. I am very happy to sing scripturally based songs that draw me closer to Christ, and yes, I believe those songs do belong in Mass.Steve

  • Anonymous

    I have some sympathy with what Steve and you are saying. To a large extent I prefer old Christian chants to the modern stuff, but some of what you are disparaging is meaningful to me. Especially when I was a kid the idea of God being someone who loved us was appealing and that has mostly stuck with me. It did not lead me to any kind of heresy or denigrating the grandeur of God. I worry at times some traditional Catholics make Mass almost sound like praising a powerful yet distant king. I believe the Mass is also about Christ’s sacrifice and our connection to him through the Eucharist. I like the idea of having more music that shows the grandeur or beauty of that, but the love and connection of it I think are very important too. Some of the modern hymns I like for that quality. Lastly when translated some of the Gregorian chants talk of how God will bring us life, joy, etc. From what I recall of the Council of Trent it is an error to say that we should not speak of God doing things for us.

  • The point here is not that “it’s bad to feel God’s love” or anything like that. The point is that hymns should be sung to God, at God, and for God. So it’s good to use the vocative case (God, help us! God, You’re wonderful!) or the third person descriptive (God is glorious and faithful!) or the third person storytelling (When we needed God, He saved our butts!) These are suitable forms for public liturgical worship, because they do what they talk about — they worship God.Psalms and scripture readings are something else. They are God talking to us. It’s obviously okay to have sung forms of psalms, but you have to be careful how you use them. Most people today aren’t careful how they use them.Now, you have tons more freedom in the realm of private devotional songs, because that’s not a solemn communal event done only in the forms commanded by God and the Church. That doesn’t make private devotional songs anything bad. It just means they have their place, and their place isn’t Mass. I don’t think doing the happy dance is bad just because you couldn’t make me do it in church if you put a gun to my head. I love doing the happy dance — in its proper place.

  • Fr. Dwight: Amen! And in a related rant, if I didn’t share this with you before, I think you’ll like it.

  • SCcath

    Alas, most priests, and unfortunately Fr. Newman is guilty of this as well, are disobedient to the Second Vatican Council by keeping the abuse of having Hymns at a High Mass. The Second Vatican Council’s call for a pride of place for Chant was made because before the Council chant was horrible and rare and was mainly replaced by Hymns. The Second Vatican Council wanted to rediscover the Church’s patrimony of Chant by Singing the Mass, not Singing AT Mass. It is acceptable to have the congregation sing a hymn before and after a Low Mass because there would be no other music. But, at a High Mass there is no reason to replace the music the Church gives us with our own tastes. I am speaking of course of the Propers: Introit, Graduale, Alleluia, Offertorio, and Communio. This is the TRUE music of the Mass and one replaces them with hymns and this is unfortunate. All of the complaints Father raised against bad hymnody can be solved by using the Propers. Many wise priests have also set the Propers to Chant in English as well so there is absolutely no excuse to not sing the Propers of the Mass.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with your comments. I came to the Catholic Church from the Episcopalian tradition. My Spiscoplian church had a professional choir. The hymns and the reverence with which they were sung transported me to a different place, truly a spiritual experience. Comparing that to syrup-y, overly melodic, hippie music found in most Catholic parishes- not the same. It’s hard to let your soul soar when drums are banging in the background. Don’t throw stones at me. I know that the Catholic Church is the one, true church and that the Mass is the greatest prayer. I just wish we had better music to accompany the Mass.

  • Mark R

    Hymns were not normally part of the Catholic liturgy until the Church permitted use of the vernacular… at least that is what I have been told. If such is the case we cannot expect hymns to be a wonderful as in churches with a longer history of vernacular worship. Most of the hymns I like singing and hearing are from those churches. I suppose they are Catholic enough on the surface, but now and then I suspect a strong Protestant subtext.One usually hears of blame being put on some cultural vestige of Irish penal Catholicism for the present state of Catholic hymnody. But if hymns were not normally used prior to Vatican II, perhaps that point is moot. I have lived in one Catholic country with an extremely fertile history of hymns: Poland. (If the hymns were not used liturgically, I suppose they must have been used on pilgrimage walks or during devotions.)

  • So what’s a poor old convert priest like me to do? . . . My inclination is to ‘give them what they need.’ In other words, to select hymns on the correct criteria and not bother whether they are ‘new’ or ‘old’.Exactly right, Father. Take charge. You’re the priest, right? Use your authority to pick appropriate music. It’s called “liturgical planning,” with the emphasis on liturgical, not “feel good, anything goes.”As a former music director, I worked hard to learn to do good liturgical planning. It is possible. And it frustrates me to see priests who want good music – but who won’t take charge, and instead let their music directors do whatever drivel they want.One priest I know took charge, and the music director promptly quit. Good riddance. He hired a new one, and worship is now beginning to improve.

  • SingAmen

    A very interesting read!No dispute on my part! Gregorian Chant brings me to a place no other form of music has.I remember when my sister was pregnant with her second child, she experimented with music during her pregancy. She put a set of headphones on her belly and played recordings of soothing classical music daily.Her son was born premature and was a (not sure of the spelling) collequy baby. The moment she put on the tape of classical music he heard so often in the womb, his eyes rolled back in his head, his eyes closed and he instantly became silent and restful. That is what Gregorian Chant does to me.The problem we are faced with today is the lack of music in general. I visit rural parishes frequently and am amazed with how many of these rural parishes have no music program at all. Nothing! Zilch! It appears that we live in a world where peoples lives are so busy, they don’t find the time to offer their gifts and talents to their church. Rural churches won’t be moving in a traditional direction when it comes to music in Liturgy. That’s pretty clear.Ten years ago, I created a website of Catholic Hymns. I did this because as Choir Director of 2 choirs in Eastern Canada, I couldn’t get people to commit to weekly rehearsals, although there was an interest in people singing on Sunday. So my website was developed so that interested members could log on and rehearse at home during the week, in their leisure time, with the hope that it wasn’t just going to be me leading these congregations in song.It worked! I ended up with 2 well rounded choirs that invoked an incredible response from the congregations. The congregations soon started logging on prior to Mass to review the Hymns of the day.What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that my website was accessible to the world.Over these 10 years, I can’t even begin to count the number of emails I’ve recieved from priests, brothers, sister, choir directors and lay people from around the world, mostly in rural United States and Australia as well as underground Catholics in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan who use my site as their only source of music for Mass.People need to sing in their language of origin. We need to “speak the words” in order that they become our own. I go to Mass to be fed with spiritual food and inspiration. Eucharist and music is the food that drives me in praise and worship.How many Saints have written Hymns? Many have. In reading many of these posts, I would have to say that even traditional Hymns is humanity’s way of honoring God.I do have to agree that “bad music” has no place in Liturgy, but obviously, it seems that even the church agrees that “bad music” is still better than “no music” because there’s lots of it out there. So what’s up with that?